Why cyclists know to trust the yellow car

The Mavic neutral support team has competitors’ backs

At major cycling events, bikes aren’t the only vehicles you’ll find on the road. Team support cars are an integral part to a competitor’s efforts on the course, helping cyclists overcome mechanical problems, supplying food and water, and serving as home base for team directors who provide strategy cues and race updates to their riders.

Four decades ago, the concept of “neutral support” was born when Mavic president, Bruno Gormand, lent his personal car to a team manager whose own vehicle had broken down. Ever since, Mavic’s fleet of yellow cars has been a staple of some of the world’s biggest cycling events, helping riders regardless of team or manufacturer affiliation, providing much-needed support for elite and amateur competitors alike.

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Mavic—a manufacturer of bike components founded in France in 1889—sported a large team of drivers and mechanics for its Special Service Course (SSC) neutral support at this year’s Volkswagen USA Cycling Professional Road Race National Championships. A crew of a dozen men and women toured the roads of Winston-Salem, N.C. in five Volkswagen Golf SportWagen vehicles provided by VW, one motorcycle, and one van to transport the equipment required for the five days of racing around the city.

Each member of the Mavic SSC neutral assistance program brings a high level of experience to their work in the famous, yellow support cars, says Mike Wilson, Mavic Brand Manager, Americas. Not only are SSC members accredited bicycle mechanics, but they are also “certified race mechanics which is a whole other level of certification,” says Wilson. “Everyone on our crew has been doing neutral support for more than 10 years. Our teams only consist of extremely experienced professionals around the sport.”

Those years of practice can come in handy in the hectic environment of a national championship race. With dozens of riders using different cycling setups, it’s a challenge for riding mechanics in the Mavic cars to determine what equipment they’ll need to complete repairs or replacements on the road.

“Before we’ve even come to a stop, we’ve figured out if it’s a 10-speed or 11-speed wheel and the driver’s reporting on the problem and where the cyclist is to the jumper in the back seat,” says Wilson. “You could see 100 different setups people are riding, so you need to be prepared for anything.”

More than 75 riders started the men’s race at this year’s Pro Road National Championships, so Mavic SSC carries a large supply of equipment. “Every car has three bikes on top, and carries in the neighborhood of 24 race-prepped wheels,” Wilson explains. “At a race like this one, we’ll have about 100 wheels ready for deployment at any given time.”

The three bikes on top of each car can be used as a last resort for riders who experience a problem that can’t quickly be fixed with a replaced wheel or drivetrain repair. “The roof-mounted bikes have a quick release saddle, so we can adjust that very quickly and match whatever pedal setup the rider needs; we carry almost every variation on board. If a team car can’t get back to their rider, we’ll get him or her on one of our bikes, return the broken bike to the team, and then they can undergo repairs themselves. In a race like this, there’s no time to fix—you replace and race on.”

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The three VW cars used are assigned different positions throughout the field. Golf SportWagen 1 travels with the peloton, or main pack of riders; Golf SportWagen 2 travels with any breakaway groups that form, while Golf SportWagen 3 brings up the rear of the field and serves as the main resupply station. Additionally a motorcycle roams throughout the field, usually supporting smaller breakaways and fits into race positions too small for a full sized vehicle. If the motorcycle deploys its full complement of wheels, it can simply return to one of the three Golf SportWagens for replacements.

For Mavic SSC, the Golf SportWagen provides a good mix of size and performance to serve as the textbook tool for their neutral support program. “A wagon is the perfect vehicle for us because we need four seats,” says Wilson. “We need quick acceleration and we need very good handling—that’s critical. If you think about the races we do, we can come across big mountain passes, very steep, very tight corners, and you have to have maximum control of the vehicle.”

Mavic SSC doesn’t limit its work to purely road events either. The team participates in gravel grinders—a relatively new form of bike racing that takes place on dirt and gravel roads instead of pavement. “We’re super excited about the upcoming Golf Alltrack,” declares Wilson. “The extra ride height and all-wheel-drive will be a big benefit at those sorts of events.”

Riding in a car during a race is a thrilling experience, cruising through public roads and past fans cheering for their favorite riders. Professional cyclists move quickly—especially downhill—so support vehicles are put through their paces over the course of an hours-long event. In addition to looking out for riders in trouble and communicating the appropriate information to their race mechanic in the back seat, drivers must have a keen awareness of the race and where cyclists are on the course. “You’re within inches of riders” explains Wilson, “so for us—especially in Sport Mode—the Golf is really what you’re looking for, because you’ve got a ton of acceleration and you can control it very well. The best drivers, in my opinion, were racers or team directors in the past, because they understand the positioning better and how things work on the course.”

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Mavic SSC drivers spend a lot of time in their cars, not just during their race support duties, but also during travel between events. “Mavic is based in Ogden, Utah, and since most of the racing is on either coast, we find ourselves moving vehicles around all the time. One of the new features we’ve enjoyed on the 2016 Golf SportWagen is the Adaptive Cruise Control, so if we’re having a long day behind the wheel, it helps our drivers double check that we’re giving enough room to other vehicles. Transferring our cars across the country has become so much easier with these new models.”

The almost ubiquitous sight of the yellow Mavic cars is a welcome presence for USA Cycling competitors around the country. For professional riders at the sharp end of the field, Mavic SSC represents another layer of support they can rely on should something unexpected happen during a race. For cyclists on smaller teams, and amateur competitors who may not have the resources of the pros, Mavic is available to ensure everyone has an equal opportunity to make it to the finish.

“When a rider looks up and sees yellow, they know that they’re in good hands,” says Wilson. “We really strive to take good care of the cyclists—our answer is almost never ‘no.’ If someone has a mechanical problem, we’re going to find a way to keep them rolling. No matter what.”