‘Wheel chasers’: How roving volunteers help save the day at Paris-Roubaix

'It's like being on the pitch during a Champions League game': We speak to the staffers that can make-or-break a team's ride through 'Hell.'

Photo: Keir Plaice/Special to VeloNews

The scene is one of the most emblematic of the northern classics.

A rider screams in desperation as a back tire goes flat just as the race is riding away from them on the Carrefour de l’Arbre.

And then a staffer in a team jersey is on the spot, wielding a wheel, and saving the day.

Vincent Desmeyter, a Belgian contractor who helps pass up bidons and wheels during the busy spring calendar, lived that moment in first-person a few years ago.

As one of the dozen or so volunteers who will help EF Education-EasyPost in Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix, Desmeyter had a front-row seat to some of Roubaix’s palpable drama.

“I remember one year Tom Scully punctured on the Carrefour and I was positioned there be ready with a wheel,” Desmeyter recounted to VeloNews. “That was the most stressful moments of my life. I will never forget it.”

Desmeyter did his job. The wheel swap was as seamless as it could be in those circumstances, and Scully was able to remount and chase to the Roubaix velodrome.

A puncture, a panic, and then forward movement again. The goal is to make that as transition smooth as possible in the absolute chaos that is the “Hell of the North.”

Wheel chasers

Vincent Desmeyter is one of a dozen volunteers who help EF Education-EasyPost each spring. (Photo: Keir Plaice/Special to VeloNews)

Desmeyter’s help on the Carrefour is a scene that will repeat itself dozens of times across Paris-Roubaix Femmes and Paris-Roubaix this weekend.

Volunteers and staffers will splay out across the otherwise anonymous farm fields of northern France that once a weekend every April become the center of world cycling.

Their task is to post up at the most important sectors of pavé and be on the ready with bidons, food bags, and extra wheels.

EF’s so-called “service team” is an integral part of the larger organization during the spring classics period.

“They are super important,” said EF Education-EasyPost mechanic Jacobus Johannes Steyn. “Sometimes they are even more important just so that the riders know will have someone waiting on the sector.”

Paris-Roubaix is one of the most specialized races of the year, and teams want to get it just right.

Due to the unique nature of racing on the pavé, it’s no mistake that wheels and tires take the brunt of the abuse. A puncture or a mechanical can mean the difference between winning and losing.

And making matters worse at Roubaix, and on the cobbles and bergs of racing in Flanders, is the narrow nature of the roads of the northern classics.

One pileup, and none of the mechanics following in the team cars can come through to swap a bike.

That’s why teams started positioning people on key sectors along the race to make sure that one of their top riders won’t be caught out without mechanical support if comes down to crunch time.

“Sometimes the car is blocked with a crash or a ‘barrage,’ and the riders call up and we cannot get there,” said Steyn, who helps coordinate the equipment that goes out across race day. “We can just tell them to ride up to the sector because someone is waiting is there.”

A spare wheel, or even just knowing someone will be there if disaster strikes, can make a hellish day just a little more tolerable.

Saving the day

Desmeyter joined the volunteer crew eight years ago. (Photo: Keir Plaice/Special to VeloNews)

Nearly every team in the peloton will have its own band of volunteers helping out this weekend.

They’ll be shuttling between sectors in a frenetic chase to stay one step ahead of the peloton.

EF’s crew is on for the entire block of racing, from De Panne through Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

The big days are Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. That’s crunch time for the entire organization.

“We know what we have to do,” Desmeyter said. “Everyone knows their jobs. It’s most important for us to be there when the riders need us. We hope they will not, but if there is a problem, we want to help when we can.”

Sport directors and mechanics will meet with the crew either the night before the race, or in the morning of race day.

Key points along the route are marked out on a map, and the prime spots are split up between the volunteers. They head out in three or four cars with race stickers, and will try to bounce between sectors, always one step ahead of the peloton.

“We take with us bidons, food bags, and three or four wheel sets,” Desmeyter said. “We go to the positions on the course, and help pass up bottles. If a rider needs assistance and the team car cannot get there, we can help with wheels.”

For the love of the game

Chasing the pack. Staffers leap-frog across the course to serve up feed bags and have spare wheels at the ready. (Photo: Keir Plaice/Special to VeloNews)

It will be a long day for the crew on Sunday.

Because the start of Paris-Roubaix is quite far away from the Belgium-based crew, they will overnight with the team at the hotel near the start in Compiègne in France. For the other Belgian classics, they drive in on the morning.

“We get up quite early, have breakfast with the team, and then we gather our bidons and wheels from the mechanics,” he said. “We have a schedule of points that we need to be at. We then help the team put everything, the bikes and the equipment, into the bus. It’s late when I get home, but it’s one of the best days of the year.”

Desmeyter is chasing the spring classics for the eighth spring in a row.

“I’m a friend of sport director Ken Vanmarcke and he asked me if I could do the job with the service team, and here I am eight years later,” he said in a telephone call. “It’s fun for me. I live close to the Kwaremont, and I know all the roads. It’s special to be such a part of the cycling team.”

Desmeyter is a huge cycling fan, but he was never a pro racer. There’s a mix of professions on the volunteer crew. Desmeyter is a contractor who helps remodel kitchens, bathrooms, and interiors, and others come from different walks of life.

Yet every weekend from late March into late April, they become key members of the team.

“They are super fans who all have different jobs. It’s a whole group of friends in Belgium, and since I arrived on the team they are already here,” Steyn said. “They’re a super nice group of guys. It’s fun to learn about what they do, and they’re very interested in helping the team.

“They’re locals, so they know all the backroads,” Steyn said. “We know they will be on their spot, and we will let them know if something happens with one of the riders.”

On a perfect day, Desmeyter might not have too much drama.

But he and his fellow volunteers will be on the ready if something goes amiss. It’s all part of helping the team reach its goals.

“We have the privilege of being close to the riders,” Desmeyter said. “We all have big respect for what they do and how hard they work and race. Of course, it’s even better if the team can win. For us, we only want to be ready to help them if they need it.”

For Desmeyter and the other dozen of team helpers this weekend, having the front-row seat at the “Hell of the North” is hard to beat.

“It’s like being on the pitch during a Champions League game,” he said. “You cannot get any closer to the race than that.”

Technical support is a key part of the northern classics. (Photo: Gruber Images/VeloNews)

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