A package arrived on my desk this morning from the organisers of the Etape Pennines sportive, in it some socks and a cap from events sponsor Endura, along with a Scott water bottle – and this superb replica of a Mavic neutral service car.
Not just any Mavic car, mind. In resplendent yellow, the vehicle in question is a replica of the original car used when Mavic first provided mechanical support to the professional peloton.
The relationship between the French manufacturer and race organisers has existed since the 1973 Paris-Nice, while the idea of neutral support was born at the previous year’s Critérium du Dauphiné Libéré when Bruno Gormand leant his car to a directeur sportif whose own vehicle had broken down during the race.
It got me thinking about the vital service Mavic provide for professional riders. While team cars carry spare bikes and wheels, Mavic are often at hand for those at the crux of the race – at the front for a rider in a breakaway, when the peloton is strung out on a mountain pass, or if the convey of team cars is held up along a narrow, twisting road.
It’s a thankless task; punctured wheels are ripped out by a faceless mechanic and replaced with a fresh hoop before the rider is pushed on their way. Mechanics have seconds to complete the job, while drivers of Mavic’s cars and motorbikes require razor-sharp concentration, weaving through a battlefield of fans at the roadside, motorbikes carrying photographers and television cameras, team cars and, of course, riders, as shown in this superb video from last year’s Paris-Roubaix.
And while Mavic may not be called upon for many races, it is at the Hell of the North where neutral service is most vital, when team cars are diverted around some cobbled sections, the convey can become spread out over a great distance and the pavé of northern France leaves riders even more susceptible to punctures.
A spare wheel can be the difference between a career-defining triumph and defeat. In 2007, Stuart O’Grady punctured in the Arenberg trench and took a wheel from Mavic before riding it to victory.
However, Mavic don’t only supply wheels – although that is what they’re most often called upon for – but also complete bikes. Back in 2010, a Mavic bike kept Jens Voigt in the Tour de France. One year after a crash ended his race, Voigt went down again while descending on stage 16 and, with the first team car behind SaxoBank leader Andy Schleck, and the second handing out water bottles to the rest of the team at the foot of the next climb, a blood-splattered Voigt, confronted by the sight of the broom wagon and the prospect of abandoning the race for a second successive year, grabbed a Mavic bike.
The image of Voigt descending solo for 20km, riding a bike several sizes too small for him and complete with toe clips, to meet the team car, before sprinting off on his own spare bike to catch the grupetto, sums up what it means to stay in the Tour de France and, nearly 40 years after first gracing the roads, Mavic’s yellow support cars and motorbikes are almost as iconic as the races themselves.