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 200 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.
During Stage 4 of the 2014 Tour de France many riders had to move through the caravan, but Chris Froome and Peter Sagan were the most noteworthy. Froome crashed in the opening 5km of the race and was paced back to the peloton by teammates following a bike change. He also spent some time getting checked out by the race doctor, another vehicle in the long caravan. Much later in the stage, Cannondale’s Peter Sagan was seen using the caravan to rejoin the peloton. In his case, he was alone and there were only about 15km left to race. To go from the caravan to 4th in the final sprint in the span of 15km takes tremendous skill, not just brute strength. 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.
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.
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.
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.
When Peter Sagan rejoined the field, the sprinters’ teams were driving the pace and the race was navigating narrow streets and plenty of wet corners as it wound through Lille. Regardless, he had a job to do and that job wasn’t at the back, so he wasted no time maneuvering his way through the field to get to the front. Getting through the back half of the field probably wasn’t 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.