PAU, France (VN) — Mavic’s neutral service team enters a race like Paris-Roubaix expecting battle. Flats will happen, the peloton will be splintered, and team cars will be nowhere in sight. Neutral service will be the only thing standing between many riders and a DNF.
At the Tour, though, most days are different. Even on the biggest mountain stages the race splits into only a few groups, easily covered by team cars and mechanics. Neutral service is usually only called on a few times per stage, if at all.
Sunday’s stage from Limaux to Foix seemed to be the same. The first Cat. 1 climb, Port de Lers, saw the main field split — the breakaway was up front, as it had been all day, followed by the GC favorites and then a few smaller grupettos. The situation remained the same most of the way up the Péguère, with none of the favorites able to make a difference. Ordinary proceedings, completely manageable.
Then the tacks hit.
“We had already summited, then there were three calls over our radio,” recalled Petar Tomich, the “jumper,” or back-seat mechanic, in one of Mavic’s yellow-wrapped neutral support cars.
“The calls came in from the car behind us. Flat, then another flat, then another. Three consecutive, which is very irregular. The road seemed fine. I thought it would be odd to send people down a road they knew was going to shred tires.”
Tomich spends July behind and to the right of driver Freddy Bassy, a long-time Mavic employee and a man Tomich describes as “the best driver I’ve ever been with. Period.” Tomich himself is a five-year veteran of Mavic neutral service, and spent years as a professional mechanic.
The two were ahead of the GC favorites, rushing over the top of Péguère in an effort to get a head start on the large group. Even the best drivers will have trouble staying ahead of a field after it points its nose down a Cat. 1 descent.
The Mavic car designated to follow the GC group, the one behind Bassy and Tomich, stopped when it reached the top of the climb, providing a wheel for Cadel Evans’ teammate Steve Cummings and a crop of other stranded riders standing in the small section of road made wider by the KOM banner. It was the only place they could stop, with 20-deep crowds hemming in the slopes as the road approached its summit. Stopping any earlier would mean clogging up the entire roadway.
Tomich and Bassy were still in the dark, unaware of the extent of the problem, or the presence of tacks at all, as they rolled up on the first rider with a flat tubular, FDJ-BigMat’s Arthur Vichot. Before Tomich could finish sending him off, Ag2r La Mondiale’s Nicolas Roche rolled down the grade and skidded to a stop, whipping his wheel out. Another quick swap as more riders rolled past on flat tubulars. Tomich and Bassy hopped back in the car.
They came across a few Lampre-ISD riders swapping rear wheels — likely a domestique getting Michele Scarponi back on the road. “And Cadel as well, but his car had arrived before I even jumped out. Jim Ochowicz and the mechanic jumped out on that change.”
That would be the change that saw Ochowicz fall into the roadside ditch not once, but twice. “I stopped by BMC the next morning to give Och props for his hustle,” joked Tomich.
It was quickly apparent that the two men in yellow couldn’t help everyone that needed it. “We rolled past more than we could help. Our mission quickly changed to primarily focus on the GC contenders.”
“We fixed four, then passed twice as many. We had guys ride past us waving, but we were on a mission at that point. We had to get back up to the position behind the Wiggins group. With that serpentine descent, it was everything we could do just to get back to them,” Tomich recalled.
The final flat tally stands near 40 tires, equivalent to nearly 25 percent of the field. Most deflated just as riders crested the climb, but a few made it down the backside before disaster struck, their tires staying inflated until the tacks fell out, finally unplugging the hole. There were others who flatted near the top and simply rode the flats as far as possible — through the Péguère’s serpentine corners and steep straights. When there’s no help to be found, what else is there to do?
Mavic swapped 14 wheels by the finish, giving Sunday the dubious honor of having the highest single-day flat count in recent memory.
Eight French police motorcycles needed new tires — luckily, the Gendarmes have a mobile mechanic traveling with them at the Tour.
BMC flatted an incredible 10 times. Yes, that is one more flat than the team has riders. Cadel Evans alone flatted three times. Tomich found three tacks in just one of Evans’ wheels.
Interestingly, Bassy’s and Tomich’s Mavic car, which was driving just ahead of the GC group, came away without any tacks in its tires. Mavic cars and motos that were further back ended up looking like pincushions at the finish.
With 14 wheel changes, the mechanics’ bodies probably felt about the same.