By Lennard Zinn
Race vehicles are critical for team success at a grand tour.
Astana, for example, has in its stable 15 cars, two fully-rigged race-service trucks, one big bus, one medium bus, one small bus, one camionette, and one camper. Not all of them are used in a single race, but the garage the team uses is huge, in order to accommodate the entire fleet.
For the mechanics, the one vehicle that they see more than any other is the service truck. It is rigged to serve as a mobile garage and workshop. There are plugs and light switches on the walls of the box, just like in your garage. It has workbenches, toolboxes and a vise. And then, of course, it has racks for bikes and wheels.
The Astana truck incorporates two racks on either side, each holding 15 pairs of wheels, and a row of hooks down the center of the ceiling sufficient to hold 12 more pairs, making for a total capacity of 62 wheels, which appears to be the number with which the team started the race. The newer, longer trucks have similar wheel rack space but also hang some of the bikes with rear wheels installed.
The Liquigas truck holds about 65 pair of wheels and 38 bikes. Twenty of the bikes are clamped without wheels in the standard method used in most trucks, holding the front dropouts fixed and attaching the rear dropouts to a swinging arm that pivots at the wall. The other 18 bikes hang by their rear wheels.
The Astana truck holds the same number of bikes, all without wheels — held with the front dropouts fixed and the rear dropouts attached to a swinging arm pivoting at the wall. All bikes in all of the trucks are mounted firmly at two points so that they don’t sway and bang each other as the truck rolls around curves and hits bumps.
Astana mechanic Alan Buttler also came up with a way to use the ceiling space to store spare Trek Madone frames by screwing a Velcro strap into the ceiling to surround the down tube, while the (padded) head tube is wedged in over the top of a bar on the passenger side of the truck box.
Given the history of late-night raids on team trucks by thieves in recent years, security is a huge issue. It is common knowledge that those rigs are chock full of expensive bikes and an attractive target. The new trucks, like Liquigas’ bright green unit, have a fully hydraulic rear gate that is impossible to open without using the truck’s hydraulic pump to do it. So the only way for a thief to get in is to cut through the roof or sides.
Weight can be also an issue as the trucks are big and carry so much liquid. Obviously, they have huge fuel tanks, and they also carry lots of water to run the washing machines for clothes, the power washers for bikes, and to hydrate the riders and staff. They have huge water tanks underneath as well as cases and cases of bottled water.
“The stores are closed Sunday (in most of Europe), and if it is a holiday Monday and it’s hot, each rider goes through dozens of liters a day,” said Buttler. “So we have to have a lot of (bottled) water on the truck at all times.”
The weight limit for this type of truck in Italy is 12 tons, and Buttler says that Astana’s can sometimes weigh in at 13 tons. That means the team will have to pay a weight surcharge on a few occasions.
Most team trucks also come equipped with a freezer and refrigerator in addition to a full shop and laundry room. They stock food for the riders’ on-bike lunches, as well as special dinner and breakfast requirements. Right after each stage, the washing machines and dryers are running for a couple of hours.
The trucks all have giant storage batteries and a generator for when they can’t get power from a hotel or when they blow the circuit at the hotel. That’s more common than you think, since those big, fat extension cords they bring to run out to the trucks can draw some serious current. That’s especially common when several team service trucks run washers, freezers, lights and other electronic equipment off of the same over-taxed circuits of a small hotel.
Not all of the trucks have a sleeping area, given that some teams opt to use up their space for other things when designing the interior. Buttler, however, sleeps in the Astana truck quite often. Having someone there overnight adds a security benefit other teams often forgo in favor of making room for equipment.
Generally, new service trucks cost on the order of 90,000 Euros complete, and all are custom made. A team orders a chassis, which is usually an Italian-made Iveco, but Scania, Mercedes and MAN also produce them. That basic chassis comes with a cab, drive train and wheels attached to a frame. The team then works with a second manufacturer to customize the box that is eventually attached to that chassis.
Two main companies, with their roots in vehicles for transporting horses, seem to build most of those boxes used by the teams: Desmet in Deerlijk, in the bicycle-mad Flanders region of Belgium, and Alessi in Mussolente, in northeastern Italy within a handful of kilometers from Sidi, Gaerne, Selle San Marco, Selle Italia, Gipiemme, Iscaselle, Selle Bassano, Selle Royal and Northwave.
These trucks see an enormous amount of mileage and durability is the most important feature, a characteristic also demanded of mechanics that drive them. For example, the Astana truck now at the Giro was just recently at the Giro del Trentino, only a few kilometers from the site of Saturday’s opening stage. But instead of simply staying in the area between the two races, the mechanics first had to return to the team’s Service Course headquarters, in Belgium, to load it up with bikes and equipment for the three-week stage race. Then, with very little down time, they turned around and drove it all of the way back to Venice.
Bike racing is an endurance sport … it’s just that riders aren’t the only ones who need that endurance.