Watching a bike race from the roadside is like watching one point in a tennis match - you get a little bit of atmosphere and understand who might be doing well but you don’t get the full story; the full narrative, the ebbs and flows, are missing. That’s why TV is so suited to watching bike racing and why informed commentary is so important.

a view from the convoy

I’ve watched a lot of bike racing in person in the last ten years and usually missed out on those full stories. Don’t get me wrong - I love the anticipation: seeing the commissaire’s cars, police cars and motorbikes foretelling the arrival of the peloton, I love the sounds - the clicking of gears, whining of disc brakes (in the last couple of years), the quick words exchanged between teammates and harsh orders barked at the miscreants in the bunch. It’s a visceral, energising and colourful glimpse of the suffering and euphoria that bike races produce. But at the end of the race I’m still at a loss to explain why that sure-fire breakaway didn’t stick or how that rider who looked dead on his wheels when he passed me still got on the podium. I can’t explain because I didn’t see it.

This year I’ve stumbled on the solution to this racing mystery - driving the Bäckstedt Bike Performance JRT team car, complete with Pearson logos and roof rack loaded with spare wheels and spare bikes, in numerous races in Europe and the UK. It’s not quite Bradley Wiggins on his Tour de France motorbike but, at last, I’m just beginning to get into the heart of bike racing. 

pearson minegoestoeleven

This is how it works:

In the one day races, car order is drawn from a hat at the DS meeting in the morning. In stage races, the order is dictated by the ranking of your best riders on GC. National teams usually get given the top/low numbers; if your DS fails to show at the briefing, you’re at the back. You want a low number, to be close to the bunch and your riders. In junior races we have radio communication with the chief commissaire but not with the riders. In the car, there are two of us – a mechanic (usually a spare dad or – if we are lucky, Wilf, Pearson’s chief mechanic) and me driving. We have the race route on a phone and iPad, the radio, tools, water bottles, race food, spare wheels and loads of notes taped to the dashboard: our rider numbers, the start list, a roof plan showing whose spare bike is where.

The convoy lines up 20 minutes before the off. First motorbike outriders, then a couple of commissaire cars, then 150 nervous and excited riders, another comm car, then 25 team cars, then more motorbikes, a couple of ambulances and a broom wagon at the back (I like it when they attach an actual broom). The distance from front to back is around 600 meters – getting longer as the race goes on.

backstedt junior team

The start is comparatively relaxed, usually, 2-3km neutralised with the riders held back by the lead cars. Then the count-down comes from the chief comm, the flag drops, we accelerate to 50km/h and pretty quickly mayhem ensues. “Backstedt your rider 56 has a problem”, this, over the radio in a Dutch accent, entitles us to swerve out of the convoy and race manically up the road beeping the horn and frantically searching for our rider. We find him, pull over, work out his problem, give him a new wheel, or a new bike, or fix his brakes, whatever. You can imagine how cool & collected an 18 year old rider isn’t as the mechanic attempts to solve the problem. All being well, we’re back on the way in less than a minute – but now we’re a minute off the bunch.

Cue another acceleration up the outside of a narrow, single track, sometimes cobbled road this time with a desperate rider drafting 20cm from our rear bumper. The mechanic calls “faster” or “slower” and I try and keep my eyes on the road. General rule is that you are allowed to draft our riders up to our place in the convoy. Sometimes we’re too far back to make it and just abandon the poor lad to chase as best he can.

backstedt team race

The worst radio call is “Big crash in the bunch, x number of riders down”; the convoy screeches to a halt, mechanics jump out and run to the crash site, checking for our riders. Callously we ignore rival riders if none of our boys are involved and weave through the broken bikes and bodies and are on our way again.

As the race progresses, mayhem turns to chaos. Riders get dropped or are chasing to get back on – an apparently fatal combination of cars and exhausted or chasing riders. Team cars are constantly stopping or slowing to feed riders before moving up or down the convoy to their rightful position. Add in pedestrians, pets, farm animals and drunk spectators and the list of potential calamities is endless. Touch wood, we have so far avoided calamity.

backstedt race team minegoestoeleven race bike

But it’s exciting and, as I said, is as close as it gets to being in the race itself. We came back from the Junior Tour of Ireland last week – 6 stages in County Clare, beautiful hills and sea, meticulously organised. The boys did well – winning four stages, holding yellow for two days and winning the green jersey. Because we were high on GC, we were never less than car three in the cavalcade – perfect for race viewing.

The last two stages were riveting: a strong American rider held yellow and we had the next two GC riders at about 35 seconds and 45 seconds. We still wanted to win the race. The team set out to crack the American – our four riders attacking in rotation, one effort every ten minutes for each rider, forcing him and his team to chase every move down. From the car we could see every pedal stroke: Backstedt attack, yellow chase, repeat, repeat, repeat. The American had other US riders helping him, our boys had no one much. We didn’t win back the overall lead but we did win each stage, the American eventually running out of team mates and energy. In stage 5 our rider got away with 5k to go, Stage 6 and our rider won the uphill sprint. It was great to watch and we saw every minute of it.

I finish every race exhausted from sensory overload but each time knowing a little bit more about life in the peloton. It’s a privilege.

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