Here’s what it’s like being in a pro cycling convoy

June 29, 2018 - by Blog, Cycling

It’s 10am on a grey Wednesday morning in Framlingham, Suffolk, where some of the world’s best cyclists gather for the start of the fifth edition of The Women’s Tour. Framlingham is a sleepy market town, recently made world-famous as the subject of Ed Sheeran’s song “Castle on the Hill”. A firm favourite in the Women’s World Tour Calendar and with the pro peloton, no one is paying attention to Sheeran today, with the world’s media descending on the main square.

I arrive as the teams are ‘signing on’, essentially waving to the crowd and greeting local school children as the compere introduces them on stage before scribbling their signature in a box on a large green board.

8 OVO Energy Women's TourThe crowds are gathering around the start line as a palpable buzz starts to build. The organisers and volunteers are at full pace with their final preparations for Stage One.

As the the British riders and the race favourites pose for photographers on the start line, race controller Guy Elliott oversees the rest of the peloton assembling ahead of rolling out, looking relaxed and chatting to the teams. As the clock counts down to 10:30am the numerous police motorbikes looking after the rolling road closures head out to their positions, along with the police liason car, who stays at the very head of the race.

A couple of minutes before the start Elliott has a final check with Bob Heath, the Race Controller Driver and jumps in the car ready to go. Race Controller Car No. 2 heads out onto the course, followed by the last couple of police motorbikes and Andy Hawes, SweetSpot’s Route Director, the photographer bike and then finally Race Controller Car No. 1. The startline flag drops and the riders roll out through Framlingham. The first five or so kilometres of stage races are neutralised which allows the riders to ceremonially proceed through the often technical exit out of town; it’s unwise to race from the off as you have all the riders trying to attack straight away amongst city streets that are littered with road furniture. Unofficially it also gives spectators a chance to see all the riders properly whilst they’re warming up.

Throughout the neutralised zone, Elliott is stood up, with his top half out of the sunroof of the Skoda with the red flag that signifies the race is neutralised. The distance of the neutral zone varies but today it’s 6.3km; Heath keeps Elliott updated on the distance covered. Once the kilometre zero sign is upon us, the flag is withdrawn and he retreats back into the passenger seat with the peloton picking up the pace behind us. With the racing underway, he checks his notes on the stage profile and settles in to ensure the smooth running of the first stage of the 2018 OVO Energy Women’s Tour.

The 2018 OVO Energy Women's Tour

After a couple of minutes, the radio crackles with the Police Liason car giving a warning of an oncoming hazard on the course. These hazards can range from parked cars narrowing the road or being on the racing line, dogs off the lead in public areas, loose gravel or oil on the road. During the race one potential hazard that gets radioed through is described as “possibly chip fat”, a term that could get lost in translation between the Race Controller and the non-English speaking teams on the race, this gets a laugh from the whole car. Once assessed, it turns out not to be a serious hazard and Elliott decides not to relay this to the team cars. Parked cars and large potholes, however, do get radioed by the Race Controller to all the team cars on the comms channel, the Director Sportifs and Team Managers then decide whether they want to relay this information to their riders via Race Radio.

Anything that could pose a possible danger to rider safety on the road has to be relayed to the teams in this way to ensure the organisers are showing due diligence for the safety of all in the peloton and convoy.

As the stage progresses, we pass through Ipswich and the Suffolk County Council offices, a bureaucratic note in the route planning. Winding through the offices and industrial estate we descend fast through a residential area, turning sharply into today’s QOM section. I get thrown around a bit in the back as we navigate this section but it’s vital that the front convoy push on ahead of the peloton during these sections as to remain at the head of the race at all times and a safe distance in front of the riders.

Climbing up into the Park, the climb is lined with spectators awaiting a glimpse of the peloton as they tackle the only true climb of the day. Heath tells me that the team had been briefed the night before at Race HQ not to have their foot down through the whole race and Race Controller Car 1 likes to be in sight of the head the race at all times. If there were to be a breakaway the first car would remain at the head of the race, with Race Controller 2 dropping in-between the break and the peloton.

Unfortunately today there are only a few attacks, with nothing sticking. A lone leader gets a gap of 11” but that also doesn’t last, with the peloton soon getting themselves organised and swallowing her up again. We’re informed of any action and attacks on race radio with time checks and distance covered being relayed back, invaluable information that allows the Tour’s Social Media Manager, Jacob Kennison, to post live updates throughout the race.

Passing through villages and towns it’s amazing to see people of all ages who have turned out to see the race, especially the gaggles of school children with homemade banners and flags to snatch a few seconds of a UCI Women’s World Tour Race. With the race skirting back around Framlingham, we find ourselves on a long straight road with a gentle incline, it’s only then I really get a true sense of just how big an operation this race is. The rolling road closures are handled smoothly by the police, with most of the public handling them with good grace and getting out of their cars to watch. We only see one disgruntled motorist in nearly 150 km of racing.

Chatting to Elliot and Heath, talk soon turns to the topic of the race being televised live. I learn that for it be broadcast live a 4G signal box needs to be situated on a camera motorbike, along with footage from the helicopter. It’s a huge operation that costs around £30,000, which live viewing figures don’t warrant currently; as women’s racing stages get longer and move towards parity with the men’s racing this is something they hope will change. When it comes to the ITV4 highlights, however, it’s a different story. For the 2017 edition overnight viewing figures were around 500,000.

As we head into the final 25km, there’s been a crash in the peloton, all riders are back up but we hear calls for team cars and the doctor to attend to riders. The peloton is soon back together once again with the race rapidly speeding towards the finish line at Southwold. As we get into the town, we head up through the finish and along the barrier sections where people line the last 500 metres. We speed over the line, only the race controller cars are allowed over the line with the team and support cars being routed off. It’s a sprint finish so by the time we jump out the majority of the bunch have already finished and suddenly I’m in the thick of it again.

Once the presentations are over the crowd steadily disperses, the finish line staff begin to dismantle the route to head to the Stage 2 finish. I head back to London but the race carries on, making its way around the country in its mission to bring top level women’s cycling to the masses.

Emily Sherwin is the Senior Social Media Executive at Fusion Media. With thanks to Sweetspot and our clients OVO Energy for the ride.

Photos: SWPix.com.

About author
Adam Tranter

Adam founded Fusion Media in 2007 from a passion for cycling and the media. Over the last ten years, he has successfully grown the company to lead the way in communicating cycling and endurance sport to the mainstream. Adam was a former racing cyclist and has also worked as a freelance journalist, contributing to cycling and national publications, including BBC News during London 2012. He is passionate about getting more people on bikes.

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