Ask Nick: Caravan ordering, water bottle practice and Roubaix flats

Caravan order, water bottle practices and Roubaix flats. All your questions, answered.

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Editor’s Note: VeloNews tech editor Nick Legan is a former ProTour mechanic who most recently wrenched for Team RadioShack at the 2010 Tour de France and elsewhere. His column appears here every Thursday. You can submit questions to Nick at, and be sure to check out Nick’s previous columns.

Q. Nick,
I wanted to know what determines the order the team cars are in when following the peloton. Surely all teams would want their cars at the front or as close to the front of the line as possible. Do teams with riders high up in GC get preferential treatment ahead of non-contending teams?
— Karun Matharu

A. Karun,

The caravan in a feeding zone at last year's Cascade Classic. Photo: Pat Malach.

You’ve nailed it. There most definitely is an order to the cars in the caravan. Otherwise it would be chaotic and dangerous. How that order is determined changes depending on the type and caliber of the event.

For more details you check out the UCI website. Article 2.3.018 spells it out (though like most UCI rules is virtually impossible to decipher), but here’s the CliffsNotes version:

For WorldTour one-day races the WorldTour points of the riders starting the event for a particular team determine the order. The more points a squad has, the better they are placed in the caravan.

For most other one-day races, the order is determined by lottery at the manager’s meeting prior to the race.

In a stage race, once a general classification is established, the caravan order is based on those standings.

But that order is very fluid throughout a race. It is constantly changing as cars go forward to the peloton to take clothes, give drinks or help with mechanicals. Once the service is performed, the car pulls to the right (in countries where you normally drive on the right and pass on the left) and the other team cars with a higher caravan order pass them on the left.

So the order of the caravan lends a sort of organized chaos to a bike race. It can quickly become very hectic, but eventually it settles down and order is restored.

While watching cycling races on TV, I always notice the riders tossing their water bottles into bushes, the crowds, to the curb, etc. whenever they’re done with them or need to lighten up or are about to receive new ones from the team car or teammates. How many water bottles can a team expect to go through during a one-day race?

2005 Tour de France, Jan Ullrich
The bottle must match the team kit, as Jan Ullrich demonstrates at the 2005 Tour

Is it safe to assume for a stage race that you would just multiply the days by the number of bottles used in a single-day race? Are all the bottles branded with team logos or are they just blank? I’m guessing all the riders have the same mixture of “fuel” inside the bottles otherwise it would be a logistical nightmare whenever fresh bottles are passed up from the team car.
— Anthony Eng

That’s a whole mess of questions, but I’m happy to help out.
Riders go through a lot of bottles during a race, especially in the heat. On average a soigneur will budget for two bottles per rider per hour of racing, sometimes more.

So for eight riders racing for four hours, that’s 64 bottles. That said, many races are longer so soigneurs are always busy making bottles when they aren’t making food or giving massages.

Thankfully there are a couple ways to get those bottles to the riders, from the team car and in feed zones. Typically one or two riders will come back to the car and grab bottles for the rest of the team and distribute them.

At the feed zone riders will grab a musette (small cloth bag) with two bottles, gels, bars and small sandwiches in it. If someone misses his musette, the team car will stop for it and give it to him later.

2010 Tour de France, Astana bottles
A shirtless Astana staffer fills bottles at the 2010 Tour

Most team bottles are branded with team sponsors. That’s a bit of tradition and has led many fans in Europe to collect team bottles.

And yes, all the riders use the same level of concentration of drink mix in their bottles. It simply isn’t manageable to do custom drinks during a race. That said, many riders will use different concentrations of recovery mix after the race.

As a side note, most bottles thrown during a race are either grabbed by fans or cleaned up later by the race organization. Professional cycling is not very environmentally friendly, but most races make an effort to keep roads clean.

Nick, why so many flats at Paris-Roubaix? I realize these are the worst roads the pros race but the tires are specially wide and heavy duty. Are most of them pinch flats?
I ride a mountain bike here in South Texas and we have lots of mesquite thorns and rocky technical terrain, but we don’t experience nearly as many flats as the pros do each year at Roubaix. Granted, different tires completely, but the technology should be the same. What gives?
— Peter McMahon

A. Peter,
I don’t think there were more flats at this year’s Roubaix than at other editions of the race. There are a few things to consider when watching a race like Roubaix and comparing it to your experiences on the road and trail.

2011 Paris-Roubaix, Garmin-Cervélo, Van Summeren's tire
Van Summeren's tire at the finish Sunday. Photo: Nick Legan

The first is visibility. When you ride with your crew, you have either a full view of the road ahead or a friend pointing out holes, etc. In Roubaix, there are 200 starters and no one is taking their hands off the bars to point out three kilometers of holes per sector. On top of that is the dust that makes seeing tough, or mud that covers up obstacles. Many times it’s a case of the blind leading the blind over the stones.

Second is the severity of the pavé. The cobbles at Roubaix are much rougher and less consistent that at Flanders for example. Going over them at speed makes punctures inevitable. Only a mountain bike with suspension would effectively eliminate punctures.

You also need to consider the intensity of the effort the riders are under. They are literally cross-eyed in some instances. None of us are at our sharpest when we’re on the rivet. The fact that the winner, Johan Van Summeran, finished on a rear flat shows that even the best on the day was hitting things.

Lastly, consider the sheer numbers of the race. Watching any race with 200 riders on road bicycles tackling what is basically a 51.5-kilometer mountain bike race with bits of tarmac thrown in means that many of them will have punctures. Also consider that the race is 258 kilometers and six hours long. That’s a lot of opportunity for problems during a race that long.

So yes, the tires, wheels and bicycles are special for the event. But to be honest, the conditions of the event are beyond the bikes. That’s exactly why it’s so compelling for us as passionate cycling fans.

— Nick

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