What’s life really like as a support car driver in an elite cycle race, keeping up with the action as the riders tackle some of the country’s trickiest roads, bends, climbs and descents?
We caught up with Simon Cope, driver of the team’s support vehicle, at this year’s Tour de Yorkshire - and found out just how the fleet of Outbacks are faring through the team’s punishing race schedule.
How are you finding Yorkshire?
We’re really enjoying it. The fans have come out in their hordes, despite the rain, and the routes are pretty spectacular. Not that I’ve got much time to take them in! A couple of our riders are right up there in the mix and we’re hoping that they’ll be there at the business end of the race, too.
What does the role of support driver involve?
Basically, we’re the back-up for all our riders. And by back-up, I mean multi-taskers. Everything from route planning and communication to quick mechanical fixes on the course and even motivational encouragement when legs and minds are screaming. We’re in constant radio contact with all our riders and follow their every move. We’ll only catch up with the peloton when one of our riders needs something or there’s been a crash. The roads have been pretty treacherous, so we’ve been keeping a careful eye on everyone.
So, it can be hairy?
Yes, especially when you think the riders are reaching speeds of 50km/hour. You’ve got to have your wits about you, but there’s an etiquette for support drivers that we all understand. We accelerate on the riders’ right and then get out of the way as fast as we can. As an ex- pro rider myself, I know how the peloton ebbs and flows. You’re guided by instinct a lot of the time.
Tell me about the Outback. How’s it been to drive?
Brilliant. It has to be. This is cycling on the edge, so only a top-class performing car will do. It handles the bends, climbs, descents and all the different terrains as well as, if not better, than the riders do. The suspension is silky smooth and it’s got loads of torque when you really need to put the power on.
What impresses you most about it?
To be honest, everything. Safety-wise, you know you can push it to the absolute limit without taking any risks. Anything challenging, it leaves for dust. And its EyeSight feature really does look out for you, it’s like having a co-driver – it constantly alerts you to any trouble ahead. Fans getting over-excited, sheep straying, riders slowing. ‘Nowt to worry about’, as they say around these parts. It’s been pretty wet and slippery on most stages so far, but it’s the riders I can worry about, not the car. The Outback’s Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive is a real confidence-booster for me and I can just get on with my job. So, yes, it’s safe, skillful, reliable and has got all the bottle you need. A real tour de force.
Is its load-carrying a bonus?
Absolutely. It’s packing space. Seven spare bikes on the roof, one mechanic in the back, chains, crank sets, spare wheels – it becomes a mobile workshop on wheels. Food, drink bottles, gels, wet weather gear – you name it, we’ve got to have it to hand.
What happens at the end of each stage?
For the riders, it’s a cool down, chill out and then tactics talk for the next day. For me, it’s prep, strategy, prep. Someone once called us support drivers ‘the unsung heroes’ – which is cool – but I guess the car should take some of the credit, too!
We left Simon to give his evening team talk for the last stage of the race – 175km from Halifax to Leeds. It turned out to be a real cracker and Team WIGGINS Le Col’s young starlets Mark Christian and Gabriel Cullaigh came in a credible 15th and 16th place in the Overall General Classification respectively. Supported all the way by the ever-reliable Outback.