Pro Challenge: Inside the Jelly Belly support vehicle
August 17, 2015
Steamboat Springs — The Jelly Belly-Maxxis cycling team's support vehicle was easily the most popular during Stage 1 of Monday's 2015 U.S.A Pro Challenge, hosted by Steamboat Springs.
Sure, the small Mazda was colorful, as a Jelly Belly car should be, but the popularity had more to do with the team’s willingness to hand out its Sports Beans — basically jelly beans for athletes — to anyone who wanted to drive close enough to get some.
"They know we have them, so they ask," Danny Van Haute said of the other team’s support vehicles.
Van Haute is the longtime general manager for Jelly Belly cycling, a California-based U.S. domestic team, and he was kind enough to let me tag along inside their main support vehicle for Monday's first stage. With Van Haute behind the wheel and me in the passenger seat, we were joined by the team's lead bike mechanic, Ralf Medloff of Germany, who graciously squeezed his tall frame into the backseat.
"As you can see, it's for mechanicals. If someone gets a flat, we have plenty of wheels here for them," Van Haute said about the need for support vehicles. "Or if he breaks a chain or breaks a bike, we got bikes for them. We have refreshments for them. We have food for them. Jelly Belly Sports Beans we have for them."
While the peloton steals the spotlight on television, what viewers often don't see is the long caravan of support vehicles always in hot pursuit of the cyclists. Each of the 16 teams in the Pro Challenge had at least one support vehicle on course riding behind the cyclists, with even more communication and medical vehicles, plus a few motorcycles, adding to the mayhem.
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Sometimes, it felt like we were simply following a bicycle race. Other times, it felt like the Daytona 500 or a game of "dodge the cyclist." Simply put, it was organized chaos.
Van Haute is undeniably a good driver, as is everyone else on the course. And that's a good thing, as there were times we were easily going 60 miles per hour, with other vehicles and cyclists all around us. I'm pretty sure I felt a couple of tires get a little air under them as we raced around a few of the corners.
But as chaotic as it felt, there was a rhyme and reason to the madness.
"For the first stage of every stage race, it's a lottery. So you put all the names into a hat and you draw," Van Haute said. “We drew seventh last night. Then after today, it goes on general classification. The guy that wins the race will be the No. 1 car tomorrow."
The support vehicles are supposed to stay in their designated order, unless they are called to the front. With a communication vehicle driving right behind the main group of cyclists, whenever a cyclist needs something from his support vehicle, he simply signals with a wave of the hand, and the team's manager is notified via radio.
Most of the time it's nothing more than needing a new water bottle — one cyclist will often get enough from the support vehicle for his entire team — while other times it could be a bike issue that requires fast thinking and tinkering from the mechanic.
Jelly Belly was lucky Monday, getting through the entire stage without having any mechanical issues. The only reason we were ever called to the front, outside of basic food and beverage replenishing, was when Australian cyclist Lachlan Morton wanted his rain vest or Moldova's Alexandr Braico wanted a Coke.
Yes, they had a can of Coke for him, which he drank on his bike during the race.
"You can't ride 100 miles day after day without a support car," Van Haute said. "When they go training, of course, they take food with them and maybe after 60 miles they will stop at a 7-Eleven and get a candy bar or something like that. But in a race, they got us. They got to keep replenishing what they're losing."
During competition, a cyclist can easily expend as much as 5,000 calories a day. Van Haute said that, outside of airline tickets, food is the greatest expense a cycling team has.
The athletes typically fill up for breakfast, eating "anything that's on the kitchen table," and will find no qualms with going for seconds or thirds for dinner.
Between then, they depend largely on the support vehicles to keep them energized during the race.
"If you don't keep eating on your bike, you aren't going to make it," Van Haute said.
So how did Jelly Belly do in Stage 1? They had three cyclists finish in the top 12 overall, led by a fifth-place finish by Gavin Mannion. Braico finished 11th and Taylor Shelden 12th.