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Riding with Vittoria Neutral Service at the Tour of Britain

2 Jan 2019

This article was originally published in issue 80 of Cyclist magazine

Words and photography Benedict Tufnell

As the crowds build near the start area of Stage 4 of the Tour of Britain, an all-Italian team of drivers and mechanics goes over its final checks ahead of the depart.

This is the Vittoria Neutral Service, whose job it is to patrol the race and provide mechanical assistance to any rider who can’t get quick help from their own team.

These days, however, their job is made all the more challenging by the ever-increasing diversity of wheels used by the riders.

Where once the wheels would be similar from bike to bike, now Vittoria has to carry rim and disc brake wheels, with both 140mm and 160mm rotors, which are compatible with all the major groupsets.

‘We now have to keep a detailed log of the equipment used by every rider for every day of the race,’ says Edoardo Fedre, who has been a professional mechanic with Vittoria since 2011.

‘We also carry notes for every team in each car so that we are prepared with the right equipment as soon as we know which rider we need to help. We have to anticipate everything.’

Fedre and his colleagues are acutely aware that one sloppy wheel change could cost a rider the race, even make a career-changing difference.

As such they take enormous pride in the speed and dexterity with which they can change a wheel.

Any bike swaps need to be equally speedy, which is why the neutral bikes that adorn the roofs of the Vittoria cars (white Pinarello Dogma F8s) all have quick-release seat clamps, while the three front bikes on the lead vehicle are set up each morning to suit the top three riders in the general classification for that day.

Dream team

With 15 minutes until the start, Cyclist is ushered to our allotted vehicle. There we find our driver, Danilo Napolitano, leaning on the bonnet along with his mechanic Maurizio Bergamaschi.

Typically for the Vittoria Neutral Service team, they have decades of pro cycling experience between them. As we wait, several riders stop to embrace each of them, swapping a few jokes in Italian – likely at the expense of the British climate – before rolling on to the start.

Comprising three mechanics, three drivers and a driver for their 50-foot team bus, the seven-man team is employed under fixed-term contracts with Vittoria that last the length of the racing season.

Between seasons they return to a variety of other jobs, all within cycling. One of the drivers today is Marco Villa, whose other job is being team manager for the Italian national road cycling team.

Napolitano retired in 2017 after a 13-year pro career that included stints riding for Lampre and Katusha. His palmarès includes more than 100 victories and most notably a stage win at the 2007 Giro.

Neither he nor Bergamaschi speak a word of English. It’s going to be an interesting drive.

The plan is simple. There are three cars. Each carries one mechanic, at least five neutral bikes on the roof and a further 14-15 wheels of various types, all Vittoria-branded and shod in the company’s distinctive tan wall tubulars.

Our car will start ahead of the race, poised to follow the day’s breakaway. The second car will follow behind the peloton, ready to bridge the gap if the bunch is split. The third will remain at the back of the bunch.

Without any narrow mountain passes to navigate here in Britain, the motorbike has been left at home in Italy. The cars are stocked with gels, bidons and bars to hand out to flagging riders as and when required.

‘We have to look after the riders as well as the bikes,’ explains Vittoria CEO René Timmermans when we catch up with him later in the day.

‘That’s why we hire ex-riders to drive our cars. They understand the riders and they know how to read a race.’

Even bus driver Daniele Callegarin raced for 20 years in Italy. On top of this he’s a pretty handy mechanic.

Inside the car the race radio crackles into life to signal that we should depart. On a separate channel, exclusive to Vittoria, one of the other Italian drivers quickly translates for Napolitano’s benefit, and so we set off.

Burning rubber

Almost immediately I’m left wondering if something has been lost in translation, as Napolitano puts his foot down and provides a hair-raising demonstration of his advanced driving skills, learned on a mandatory course provided for all Vittoria Neutral Service drivers.

As I hold on tightly to whatever I can, Napolitano keeps up a spirited conversation with Bergamaschi, who occupies the back seat in a nest of spare wheels. As far as I can make out, they are debating whether a break is going to stick.

As it turns out, despite the gradients of Cheddar Gorge, no break does get away and we’re left to enjoy Napolitano’s driving uninterrupted through the West Country’s open roads.

As it becomes clear that we are unlikely to be fixing any punctures, our role switches to that of forward observers. Napolitano is constantly relaying information on road conditions and hazards to those behind.

Updates on the race radio – with subsequent translations – inform us our counterparts to the rear are being kept busy.

Bergamaschi silently passes forward the occasional sandwich or tube of Oreos to sustain us over the four hours.

It’s much the same a few days later when we rejoin the team for the final stage in London.

A short, pan-flat circuit in the centre of the capital leaves little opportunity for a breakaway or much incident for our lead car, but lots of scope for Napolitano to show off his flair behind the wheel – this time with tightly packed crowds lining the narrowly barricaded road adding to the excitement.

In the mechanic’s seat we are joined by Fedre, who recalls some of the busier days they have seen this summer.

‘You should have been in Glasgow [for the European Championships]. There were so many punctures we were running out of wheels,’ he says with a smile.

The Tour of Dubai this year was another noteworthy race for Vittoria: ‘We had six flats before the riders got out of the neutral zone. That was fun!’

When the bell signals the last lap, we speed to the exit point and screech to a halt as both driver and mechanic disembark, running to the finish line in time to watch Caleb Ewan win the stage.

Once the wheels and neutral bikes are washed, inspected and packed away, all that remains is to return the four or five wheels that they will have swapped on average to their respective teams, along with any armwarmers, gloves or gilets that may have also been collected.

‘We wash them, then take them all the way to the riders hotel rooms if necessary,’ Timmermans says with pride. ‘It’s all part of the service.’