I started in cycling as a rider. I raced from 1960 to 1975 with New Brighton CC on Merseyside, and held a first cat licence. I left cycling for about four years, while I worked away from home, and when I returned to Merseyside, I just became more and more involved in the sport.
I was a manager for the Great Britain team for eight years, in the period before National Lottery funding for British Cycling. I took a team to the final edition of the Peace Race in 1989, and travelled all over the world, as far as Japan and Malaysia, Venezuela and Mexico. We had some strong riders - Chris Boardman, Marie Purvis, Matt Bottrill, John Tanner, Marie Lawrence, Paul Curran and Tim Hall – and I took a combined team of men and women to the world cup in Japan.
When British Cycling began to receive Lottery funding, Peter Keen, the performance director, asked me to become the Great Britain team manager on a full-time basis, but I’d worked as a health and safety manager for 34 years, and didn’t want to give that up. Later, I became a board member at British Cycling and represented the federation of 12 years, including at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.
I’d been running a neutral service set-up at domestic races almost by myself, with some help from one or two mechanics, and later with support from Madison and Shimano, and from Trek UK and Ribble Cycles. About eight years ago, I met Phil Jones, the Managing Director of Brother UK, at a round of the UCI Track World Cup in Manchester. I sat with Phil and his family in the hospitality area and we talked. I told him that I wanted to run a neutral service set-up with professional standards and he asked me to submit a business case.
You couldn’t hope for a better guy. Phil is no soft touch – far from it – but he’s supported us every step of the way. He’s a really sound guy. British Cycling has also helped. UCI rules stipulate that they must have neutral service crews at all the big races. They wouldn’t be able to run the larger events, if we weren’t there. Races like the Rutland-Melton CiCLE Classic can be extremely busy for us. Last year, my crews changed 30 wheels in a single race.
Brother UK’s support has helped us to improve the standard of neutral service beyond all recognition. In the beginning, we had to put borrowed bikes for the roof and had to rely on our volunteers to use their own cars. One year, the petrol tank punctured on a volunteer’s car at the CiCLE Classic and he left as a result, because he’d had to buy a new one. Now, we have a fleet of new Skoda Superb cars with new bikes from Dolan on the roof. The cars and the bikes carry the Brother logo, and the company’s At Your Side strap line.
This year, for the first time, we’ll carry wheels for bikes equipped with disc brakes, too, which means our crews will carry an 18v impact driver in their tool box, for thru-axle removal. Each car will carry a front wheel equipped with a 140mm rotor with a quick release mechanism, and a front wheel with a 140mm rotor and thru-axle. The thru-axle will meet the 12mm x 100mm standard.
Of course, we’ll carry rear wheels to match. One will have a Shimano 11-speed cassette with 160mm rotor and quick release mechanism, while the other will have a Shimano 11-speed cassette, 160mm rotor and thru-axle that meets the 12mm x 142mm standard.
The introduction of disc brakes represents one of the biggest technical changes we’ve faced, as a neutral service provider. Electronic drivetrains didn’t cause us any issues when they were introduced, or even the shift from 10-speed to 11-speed. Marcin Bialoblocki won the Girvan race in 2009, despite puncturing twice. We gave him spare wheels with 10-speed cassettes, which ruined his 11-speed chain, but that was all we had then.
The biggest challenge with supporting disc brakes is that there are so many variables. Rotors come in four different sizes, from 140mm to 203mm, and then you have the challenge of attachment: the old-style quick release, or thru-axles, where you’ve got to use an Allen key to take it out. Even within the thru-axle mechanism, there are different standards.
We’ve issued a document to all the competing teams, listing the equipment that we’ll carry on board this year, and explaining that the sheer number of permutations means we can only support riders using the equipment standards we support. Because the capacity of the cars is limited, and we’ll only be able to carry a certain number of spare wheels, we’ll have to prioritise. Our efforts will be focussed on riders most likely to affect the outcome of the race. In the men’s peloton, this is likely to mean those on UCI Continental teams, while in the women’s peloton, this will probably mean riders from Elite teams.
The situation will come right, eventually, there’s no doubt about it. It’s just an intervening period that we need to get through. I think less than half the teams in the peloton will use disc brakes this year.
Normally, we have four bikes on the roof, from small to XL. We have eight spare bikes, which we’ll use in a 4x2 configuration, or in a 3, 3, 2 format, if it’s a three-car race. Last year, we used Canyon Bikes, and this year it’s Dolan.
We carry six sets of wheels on the roof, too - 12 wheels in total - and we keep another two sets (four wheels) in the car: two front wheels, and a rear wheel each with a Campagnolo cassette and a Shimano cassette. The wheels come from a number of places, including Wiggle-CRC in Northern Ireland and Higham Bikes in Liverpool, and we’ve bought quite a few ourselves. Brother UK has helped us a lot in this regard too, and Phil has also supplied us with 500 Brother-branded bottles.
The wheels take a lot of wear and tear in their lifetime with us, but the longest they’re ridden in a race is about 100 miles, and they’re serviced regularly. If you looked at the tyres on our spare wheels, you’d notice that most of them still have the mould marks, and the centerline has rarely worn down. The wheels are rotated from the roof to the car, so when we’ve used a Campagnolo wheel from the car, for example, we replenish it with a wheel from the roof. This makes the wheel changes faster: the mechanic leaves the car with wheel in hand.
We put numbered stickers on the punctured wheels we take from the riders, which helps us swap back after the race. If rider number 44 has taken a spare wheel, for example, we sticker his punctured wheel with the number 44. We won’t give a wheel back to a rider, until they’ve returned ours. It works well. Riders don’t intentionally leave their wheels with us, but sometimes it can’t be helped. For instance, after last year’s CiCLE Classic, I had to take a wheel back to a rider from Team Wiggins. Nine times out of ten, the sticker system works.
There are several different pedal standards on the market, and we use a toe-clip adaptor from Mavic. Our roof bikes are fitted with Shimano pedals, so if a rider is using a shoe cleat from a different manufacturer, we put Mavic’s toe-clip adaptor into the Shimano pedal, which the rider can use until his team can replace our bike with a spare of their own. As with the wheels, the rider’s broken bike goes on the roof of our vehicle, and we swap back after the race.
We still rely heavily on the support of our volunteer crews. They’re enthusiasts who enjoy being part of the race, but they travel all over the UK to support events, which says a lot for their commitment. In race conditions, the most important word is safety. I tell them: ‘I’m not worried how long it takes you get back, and I don’t want a rider on the ground.’ When they first join the crew, they spend most of their time with me, and I’m a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists.
Additionally, nearly all of them are ex-riders or people who’ve spent a lifetime in the sport, and understand how the race convoy interacts with the peloton. While driving in a race isn’t for everyone – I asked my wife to do it once, and afterwards she said ‘never again’ – it can be like anything else: the more you do it, the more you learn. You’re not just watching what’s in front of you; what’s behind counts too, such as riders coming back to the bunch. In a closed-road event, they’re all over the road, so you have to choose a safe place to overtake. We have an airhorn installed in the cars with a separate switch, so we can give plenty of warning.
Each car has two radios, which I’ve bought or acquired, in case one breaks. We have one radio tuned to Radio Tour and the other to the commissaire’s channel, because he controls the race, and we must maintain communication with him. There at times in a race when there can be all sorts going on, and the commissaire asks: ‘Neutral service, will you do this…’ I’m an international commissaire, so that helps me a lot.
You have to be a certain type of person to work as part of a neutral service crew. Not everyone can do we what we do. Athletes must be selfish to get to the top, but with neutral service, you have to help everyone. Recruitment isn’t a huge challenge, because of my contacts in the sport. We have a roster of about ten mechanics and drivers, which allows us to cover three cars, when required. You have to balance a commitment to neutral service with your home life. You can’t be away racing all the time.
Brian and Jon Rigby rode the track at Manchester and knew me from when I was a commissaire. Jeff Lloyd is on the organising committee of the Stockton and Klondike GPs. Phil Lee was a mechanic with a team that has now stopped racing and has joined British Cycling on a full-time basis. My daughter Nicola is involved, and so is Wendy Cull, who grew up with the sport and is now on the board at British Cycling. Both of them were part of the neutral support set-up at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014.
We have a good relationship with most of the team managers. In the heat of battle, words are sometimes exchanged, but it’s all forgotten afterwards. I’ve known some of the managers since they were riders with the Great Britain team; guys like Chris Lilliwhite and Colin Sturgess. I took Colin to the Tour of Sweden twice, and Chris rode for us in the Milk Race. Sometimes the managers can’t hack the job and move on after six months, but it’s amazing how many of them stay in the sport for years; guys like Keith Lambert and Sid Barras. Cycling is a small world.