Try to imagine this: You’re flying along in a peloton that’s traveling well over 30mph and you hear a distinct hiss coming from your back wheel, followed by that squishy feeling of a tire quickly going flat. Within seconds the peloton is gone, cars and motorbikes are whizzing by, and you’re feet are on the ground for the first time in more than 100 kilometers. You get a quick wheel change and get started again, and now you have to make it back to the peloton, and not just to the back of the pack, but past more than 150 riders to mix it up in the front. Sound like fun? Well, in some ways it is.
In the first week of this year’s Tour de France there have been a few really bad crashes (like this one) and many more small ones. After each fall, and after flat tires, trips to get water bottles, or even bathroom stops, riders have to make it back to the peloton. Riding alone in the wind would make this job very difficult and often unsuccessful, so using the caravan of cars (not the semi in the picture above from Breaking Away“) is an important skill riders learn as the progress through the amateur and pro ranks. Riding the caravan is not a technique very many amateur racers ever get the opportunity to learn or utilize, but if you make it into some pro-am races in the US or you become a pro, it’s an essential skill.
Add a Power Meter to Coaching for as little as $34/month! With our new coaching offer you can pay for a PowerTap alloy or carbon wheelset over the course of your 6- or 12-month term! No-interest financing and unpublishable prices on wheelsets! Check it out and sign up today!
The anatomy of the caravan
Each team has two cars following the race, and there are also a bunch of vehicles carrying officials. For the racers, these 40+ cars form a kind of ladder they can use to climb back into the pack. The position of your first team car depends on the general classification. Having a car near the front of the line is very important because it means quicker service if a rider gets a flat, and shorter trips to and from the car to pick up bottles throughout the stage. Generally speaking, the bigger the race the bigger the caravan, which means riders first learn to come back through the caravan when there aren’t many cars in it. This is good because the risks are lower with fewer cars and motorcycles, and because it’s harder to get back through a small caravan. As a result you become a master of riding the caravan before having to navigate through anything like the Tour de France caravan.
Cars are your friends
Quick service after a flat or crash is important so a rider can get going again before the last car passes. Once you’re in the cars, as long as you’re not hurt or utterly exhausted, your chances of getting back to the pack are very good. The directors driving the cars give the riders the right of way, meaning they’re careful not to impede the progress of a rider. They’ll maneuver, for instance, to the outside of a corner so a rider can take the inside line, especially when there’s traffic that’s slowing the cars down. It takes a lot of experience to drive confidently in the caravan, and almost every caravan driver is a retired pro cyclist so they understand the dynamics from both vantage points.
Playing in traffic
Technically, you’re not allowed to sit in the slipstream of cars in the caravan, but as long as you’re making progress toward rejoining the pack, the officials will let a rider draft behind cars along the way. Moving up through the cars is an art form because the speed of the caravan changes as the road goes up and down hills, around corners, and through towns. When the cars are going fast, you sit inches behind the bumper and look through the car so you can anticipate when it’s going to speed up or slow down. When the caravan slows, you swing out of the draft and maintain your speed so you leapfrog forward and get behind a vehicle farther up in the line. This way, you’re not burning a lot of energy trying to pedal past the cars. The opposite works too. If the cars accelerate hard, it’s better to let a few come by you and then swing in behind one further back in the line when the caravan slows again. Depending on what’s going on in the race, it can sometimes take several cycles of this forward-and-back process to make it back to the pack. When that happens, you have to be patient and realize that you’re still saving energy by riding in the cars. Hitting the throttle and trying to time trial back to the pack by yourself would take a lot more energy, and there’s a good chance you wouldn’t make it back at all.
Directors in the cars also play an active role in this process. Cycling is a game of reciprocity and respect. I scratch your back and you scratch mine. Every director knows there will be a time when one of his riders needs a little help, so he’ll help riders from other teams when they are in the caravan. You’ll see this when a director adjusts the speed of his car to help a rider stay in the draft and keep moving forward, rather than stepping on the gas and leaving the rider to fight in the wind. The unspoken rule is that the other directors will do the same for his riders when they can.
Wait for the right moment
When you finally reach the front of the long line of cars, you’ll find yourself behind the red vehicle carrying the chief officials. These are the people who determine which team cars can pass the peloton to reach breakaway riders, use the race radio to tell team cars when their riders have flat tires or are requesting water, and hand out penalties for illegal drafting or hanging on to cars. Depending on what’s going on in the race, the officials’ car could be 30 meters behind the pack or 200 meters. The larger the gap, the harder it is to cross, so riders try to wait until the officials’ car is relatively close to the back of the pack. They also try to wait until the pack itself is spread across the full width of the road, an indication that the pace is somewhat moderate. If you get to the head of the caravan and see the pack strung out in a long line, you know the race is going full throttle and even if you could cross the open space, it will be hard to get a draft when you get there. Sometimes, riders purposely sit up and let a few cars pass them again so they can stay in the caravan until the pace calms down a bit.
For a lot of riders, getting back to the field is only the first challenge. If you’re a team leader or a domestique or you’re carrying bottles, you have a job to do and that job isn’t at the back of the pack, so you have to maneuver your way through the field to get to the front. Getting through the back half of the field is typically not too difficult, as those riders are just concentrating on staying upright and in contact with the pack. They’ll let you come through without much issue. Further up, riders in the first third of the field are not so generous. They’re fighting for position and riding handlebar-to-handlebar, so it takes a lot of skills and power to get where you want to go.