Feature: Brother UK sponsored Neutral Service

A look at the essential service that the Brother UK sponsored Neutral Service cars provide in major road races in Britain

RST Cycle Clothing & Trigon Bikes

Feature: Brother UK sponsored Neutral Service

Here’s the scene – we’re 30 kilometres from the finish of a major British road race, a break of seven has established a small lead and we are in front of them on the road. Tony Barry is in the seat beside me driving and in the back seat among all the wheels and bottles is mechanic Andrew Bramhall.

Race radios (2) are spouting out news of the race, the race numbers of the riders and at very regular intervals, time gaps. As soon as Tony hears the gap is right (30 seconds) for him to go in behind, he pulls over and waits for the riders. They go past and it’s just them, radio tour, moto commissaire and us.

These riders are making the race, they are the key players and they need someone at their side at a very crucial time of the race. The team cars cannot move into the gap until it gets to at least a minute, and they are trapped behind the chase group which is sitting at around 45 seconds. So it’s the Brother UK backed neutral service looking after the needs of the riders. The Brother UK company motto “At Your Side” is so appropriate at this point.

Video of Neutral Service at Work

Neutral Service powered by Brother UK from Brother Cycling on Vimeo.

The time in the race is quickly approaching when the riders cannot be given food/drinks and for one rider, his tank is empty after a lot of work on the front chasing breaks and so on. It turned out too late but that rider still comes back for some gels and a bottle of water. Other riders, one by one, come back for a ‘bidon’ or two and pretty soon we’ve reached the point they can’t be given drinks (10KM).

We now sit behind them and wait and hope that none of them have a mechanical. For me, whilst it would be interesting to see that and document it with the camera, at the same time, none of them deserve a mechanical as they fight for the win in the race. I now have a ring side seat of the attacks by the eventual winner, and tactics like one rider attacking before he sits up realising it’s too soon to go solo.

The group of seven is soon down to three and two groups of two before the eventual winner clips off solo and the chasing duo also splits and are soon solo too after one breaks clear of the other. And all the time the bike rider in me is thinking we need to be behind the leader. What if he punctures I’m thinking but the gap to the chasers directly behind him is only a handful of seconds and so we sit behind the second of the two chasers as the gaps ahead of us between each of the three riders are too small for a car to be in.

The ‘do we, don’t we’ move into a gap is controlled by the comms of course but Tony, who has been doing this longer than I’ve done my job (21 years) is listening to the race radio and will ask the question can he go into a gap if not given the invitation.

Soon we’re heading down the deviation and back to the race headquarters where I’ll wait for the riders to return to hear their stories of the race. It has been fascinating to see the Neutral Service cars sponsored by Brother UK and that is just one small part of the race.

In all, the race had three neutral service cars, two from the Brother UK sponsored fleet and one from Colin Mann who has also been doing this for a long time and is seen regularly on the southern races. In the race, I take to the Tony Barry driven Brother UK sponsored Neutral Service car, Colin is at the back of the peloton whilst Tony’s son Stuart and wife are in the second of the Brother sponsored cars. Tony and Stuart take turns in getting behind the breakaways so everyone gets the chance to look after the riders and get into the ‘zone’.

On the roof of the car are bikes supplied by Dolan bikes and as Tony explained, they are high spec, carbon framed, 11 speed Shimano equipped bikes for racing on should they been needed. This season, a bike has only been needed once when a rider’s bike was not serviceable and the rider had to change bikes. Another of the sponsors is Fenwick bike maintenance products.

At the start of the season, the big discussion point was disc brake wheels and could Neutral Service carry the right wheels as there was and still is, various options on the wheels with the type of axel (thru axel etc and rotor size). Talking about this in the car, Tony explained the season had not been as bad he thought it might be with disc brake wheels adding it may different next year when he expects a lot more riders to be on them.

Tony explained they had one change (disc brake wheel) and that went well so all in all, the season had been okay when it came to servicing riders with disc brake wheels. I asked if he needed a drill for the thru axel to speed up that change of wheel and Tony replied that whilst they had a drill for that job, they also had an allen key which was just as quick.

“Getting the wheel back in to the bike is the difficult part” adds Tony “and we’d ask the rider to not touch the brake before the change, because if they do, it causes the brake pads to close up and you have a hell of a job to open them back up with all sorts of tools needed”.

So I guess the tip there is to use the brake for the wheel you are NOT going to change or just roll to a stop.

Changing the wheel is only half the job – getting the rider back to the peloton is another and that’s the tricky one. Does the rider have the skills to be paced back? Do they have the strength to be paced back? Not everyone has either of those assets so Tony has to be careful who he paces back after a puncture and that is where 30 years or more of experience in this sport (and as a former rider himself) come in handy to make those judgments.

Tony then recalled a moment in a race down south where a rider in a breakaway punctured and was back in the group within half a lap of a circuit they were racing on which kept his hopes alive of doing a ride that day even though a few ‘matches’ had been burnt getting back on after the puncture. Another reason why Neutral Service is so valuable in races.

Curious as to how busy the neutral service cars are in a race, Tony says it can depend a lot on the weather. In Scotland for a women’s stage race, they had four wheels to change compared to one year at Ryedale when he had eight wheels to change during a wet race.

During the race I was in the car, both vehicles saw no punctures and that was on narrow gravel strewn roads. That surprised me but does highlight other challenges that neutral service faces. For us, to get in behind the break was simple as we were ahead of the race for a long period and simply stopped, waited and pulled in behind.

In other races when things are more frantic, life becomes much more challenging and hence why they have two cars which in some circumstances is not enough. For a lot of the race I was in the neutral service car, all we heard on race radio was how active the race was. Breaks going, getting a small gap, peloton splitting, chases forming but less than a minute covering many groups and riders.

In that situation, the only vehicles in the gaps are the motorbike comms getting rider numbers and the all important time gaps. If anyone at the front of that action punctures, they’ll be seeing a lot of riders racing past them before service is there for them in the form of either a team car or neutral service car. Other challenges for the neutral service cars are narrow single lane roads. If they’ve serviced a rider and are at the back of the convoy, getting back to position can be time consuming and in the meantime, riders may puncture and for some, that puncture can be costly.

IE, a rider is in a position to get a result in a race where qualifying points for the Tour of Britain are needed and they puncture and because a race is split all over a circuit with narrow roads, and cars can only follow so many riders, some riders (and their team’s) luck can run out. Which highlights just how important the Brother UK backed neutral service is in races where teams only have one team car and they may have riders in multiple groups.

The service they provide is a very valuable one and one riders and teams value because they have helped out a lot of riders during the years they have been at the side of the riders. With the season over, the Brother UK sponsored Neutral Service cars (Skoda Superb estates) get a rest … my thanks to them for the in race experience. Memorable!




Cycle Division’s Shop

Send your results as well as club, team & event news here

Other Results on VeloUK (including reports containing results)

Other News on VeloUK