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Zone Hoppers: What Goes Into the Hectic World of Roadside Assistance at Cobbled Classics

outsideonline.com 1 day ago

Classics are a full-team affair, with extra staff members along the course ready to intervene with spare wheels and bottle feeds.

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Perhaps you have noticed during the cobbled classics that when a rider experiences a flat tire they pull over, and instead of waiting for a team car, they receive service from a person on the side of the road, appearing almost magically with a fresh set of wheels.

How are teams seemingly at every sector ready to help their riders? Well, because they are. Meet the zone hoppers.

A zone hopper, or team helper, waits with fresh wheels at the 2018 Strade Bianche.
A zone hopper waits roadside with fresh wheels at the 2018 Strade Bianche. (Photo: Gruber Images)

They’re the seasonal workforce of cycling teams, an extended army of team staffers who might not even touch bikes in their normal duties, family members, and even loyal super-fans — basically anyone who can help get wheels to every place where something could possibly go wrong.

At most races, such an undertaking is both impractical and unnecessary. Flats simply do not occur with enough predictability to have roadside assistance stationed at the ready. But the classics are no ordinary races.

The sectors of narrow, cobbled roads mean you almost certainly know where a tire will puncture, or a wheel will fail, so you can place spares precisely where they’re needed.

A zone hopper for Sunweb at the 2018 Omloop Het Nieuwsblad.
A zone hopper for Sunweb at Omloop Het Nieuwsblad 2018. (Photo: Gruber Images)

The other reason for classics roadside support is the inability of team cars to follow the riders as closely. Narrow cobblestone roads force cars to  stretch out single-file far behind the leaders, making passing all but impossible. Rather than let a mechanical ruin the entire race, teams swarm the course with extra support.

As a zone hopper, your tools are few, but important. You’re provided a jersey for quick identification by riders, a few bottles, a set or two of wheels, and a map with your responsible sectors noted on it.

It isn’t as easy a job as it sounds. I should know, having done it before when I worked for Team Sky. It is up to you to navigate the course, set up at the right place at the right time, and, most importantly, be visible to the riders coming through your zone.

Then, before the dust settles back onto the ancient stone roads, you make a mad dash to your next assigned sector to do it all again. With nearly 30 sectors in a race like Paris-Roubaix, it’s a hectic day as you and your team’s fellow zone hoppers work to blanket the entire course.

Elia Viviani awaits a wheel change at the 2015 Strade Bianche.
Elia Viviani awaits a wheel change at the 2015 Strade Bianche. (Photo: Gruber Images)

Unless you are in a team car with an appropriate sticker for that day’s race, you can’t simply drive on the race route. And besides, after the riders pass their first sector, you’re behind the action anyway. You must navigate the back roads looking for the little “schnick schnack” options to get you where you need to be as fast as possible. Local road knowledge is invaluable.

Once the adrenaline of successfully navigating to your selected zone at breakneck speed settles down, it’s time to wait. Everyone nervously checks their phones or asks around for information about the race. It is calm, relaxed, and even social. Part of the beauty of cycling is being able to stand on the side of the road and see your idols whiz by.  There is something even more special roadside during the cobbled classics.

But once you hear the whoosh of helicopter blades in the distance, the mood changes instantly. Everyone scrambles to have a good spot; pleasantries are thrown out the window with your once friendly neighbors on the side of the road.

The race is coming.

As the convoy of police motorbikes clearing the course pass, the excitement and anticipation builds — one last opportunity to check and prepare the material that you are responsible for.

When the lead race car passes, it is game on! The lively atmosphere falls ominously silent for a short period of time, but then the peloton arrives in the distance and the acoustics ramp up. The cheering crowd, riders clambering over the cobbles, and vortex of wind in their wake combine into a sensory experience replicated nowhere else.

My First Time Zone Hopping

My first experience at any cobbled classic was in the 2011 Tour of Flanders as a zone hopper for Team Sky. I had been a pro cyclist for 16 years, but the classics were never my thing. Fixing bikes was never my job. Now, there was a non-zero chance I would be performing a high-stakes wheel swap — all broadcast live across the planet.

Talk about being thrown into the deep end.

Riders head past a zone hopper's spare wheel at the 2018 Strade Bianche.
Riders head past a zone hopper’s spare wheel at the 2018 Strade Bianche. (Photo: Gruber Images)

Since it was my first time and I had no experience whatsoever about the roads, I was teamed up with our team director Kurt Asle Arvesen who only a few years before was racing and winning races on these sorts of roads.

As I stood on the side of the road acting like I knew what I was doing, I was more nervous than I had ever been. What if one of my guys needed a wheel? Would I nail it and get them back on their way quickly, or be a reason why the rider failed to achieve his objective in the race?

And remember, this was back in the rim brake days. I can only imagine what the current zone hoppers and mechanics have to deal with when changing a wheel on a disc brake bike.

Luckily, I never had to do anything but cheer for my team and ex-colleagues as no one had any issues in my zones.

These days, I get to relax and enjoy the race from home on TV with an appreciation for all that goes into supporting the race.

Elia Viviani gets a push start after a wheel change at the 2015 Strade Bianche.
Elia Viviani gets a push start after a wheel change at the 2015 Strade Bianche. (Photo: Gruber Images)
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