The world’s biggest road cycling races are a colourful blur of speed and action, with up to 200 of the fittest athletes on the planet duelling it out over a race that could last for three hours or three weeks.
The international pro cycling tour recently opened its 2017 season with the Tour Down Under, a six-day race that takes place in and around the South Australian capital of Adelaide.
Coming up to its twentieth anniversary, the TDU (as it’s known) has grown from virtually a novelty event attended by a handful of overseas riders, to be one of the premier races on the global calendar, where world champion riders and teams turn up to kick off their new seasons with solid racing kays.
The action isn’t just limited to the ultra light, uber expensive machines of the two-wheeled variety, though. Unlike almost any other sport, cycling’s support network travels in convoy with the actual racers, becoming part of the action in more ways than one.
Cars have been used in professional cycling since the early 1970s, serving a number of functions including team support, medical intervention, race referee transport and media transfer. The 2017 TDU hosted more than 200 vehicles of all types, including police bikes and sedans, team buses and station wagons, and more.
The most visible vehicle to a fan, though, is the team support car, festooned with a plethora of racing bikes and spare wheels, honking and barging its way along behind the charging peloton of riders.
The smallest team in the race, Team University South Australia, which is headed by former Tour de France stage winner Bradley McGee, uses one of the Outbacks.
"It’s our mobile office," he explained, pointing out the numerous small modifications made to the otherwise stock cars. A custom-made roof rack can hold up to ten bikes and the same amount of spare wheels, which can all be whipped off the top of the car at a moment’s notice.
A two-way radio, meanwhile, connects McGee to his team of seven riders, who can drop back to the car at any stage to grab food and drink, or affect a repair or an adjustment to themselves or the bike.
A team mechanic sets up camp in the back seat, carrying a mobile workshop of tools and spares to keep the riders in the hunt.
McGee says that the roads of the TDU are actually pretty good for the support vehicles, with a lot more room to pass than on other events around the world. Even so, he says bumps and scrapes to the cars – which will be reassigned to demonstrator stock at the end of the event – are inevitable.
"Sometimes you’ll knock a mirror off on another car, but that’s a small price to pay if you’re trying to help a stricken rider," he said.
No such issues befell the small team in 2017, which is designed to help young Aussie riders gain exposure in front of world cycling’s bigwigs; in fact, it actually won the team point score category, beating out some of the biggest outfits in the world in the process.
So, if you’re looking at a Subaru Outback demo in white this month, with a few bucks knocked off, make sure you check between the seats for an energy bar wrapper or spare tube – you may be looking at a tiny piece of Aussie cycling history.
By the numbers
879 – number of kilometres raced in the 2017 TDU
106 – number of cars Subaru supplied for the event
160 – the pressure in PSI of a racing rider’s tyre. A typical car tyre is 35PSI.
741,000 – the number of people who attended the 2017 race
140 – number of riders in the 2017 race