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Brother Neutral Service

  • 15 min read

Brother UK’s neutral service support crews serve many of Britain’s biggest races. We took the best seat in the house at the CiCLE Classic to enjoy an exhilarating view from inside Brother’s lead car.

Thousand-yard Stare

Beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep-beep.

Brian Rigby sounds the horn of the Brother Cycling neutral service support car in short, staccato bursts. At the side of the road stands a lonely figure, a front wheel raised above his head by one weary arm, while with the other he drags his bike behind him in a reflex of forward motion. He is dirty and exhausted, a sentinel from another world.

Small, shuffling steps are all that his cleated shoes and the uneven ground will permit, a slow-motion parody of Chris Froome’s impromptu jog up the Ventoux. He seems to look beyond us, despite the horn and the speed of our approach; we are lost, seemingly, in the vanishing point of his thousand-yard stare.

He is fixated by a single impulse: to re-join the riders who until a moment earlier were his colleagues and rivals. If the rider has a faintly apocalyptic look, wreathed in the huge clouds of dust thrown up by the peloton and convoy from the farm roads that are the signature of the Rutland-Melton CiCLE Classic, then all inside the Brother Cycling car is calm.

“Looks like you’ve got another customer, John,” Brian says to his brother, who is sat on the back seat with a spare wheel already in his hand, ready to exit the Brother-liveried Skoda in the moment that the car is slowed.

Almost before we have stopped, John is at the rider’s side, slotting a new front wheel between the fork blades, helping his “customer” to remount, and pushing him back into the fray. A moment later, he hurls himself through the rear passenger door, while Brian guns the throttle, signalling our return to the melee.

“I don’t do stress,” Brian says later, in a laconic, Lancastrian drawl, one eyebrow raised and a small smile threatening to engulf his face at any moment. “It’s only a bike race at the end of the day, isn't it?”.

Brother neutral support car carrying bikes

Stress, No Stress

We have driven at speed in conditions where visibility has been reduced almost to zero, racing blindly through the huge clouds of dust thrown up by the riders and their support vehicles.

We have fought our way back through the fast-moving convoy of team cars, time after time, to resume our designated position at the front of the race, just two vehicles from the lead commissaire.

We have handed out bottles and even bikes, and replaced so many wheels that our supply is exhausted.

We have shadowed the strongest riders in the race to its climax, instructed by the lead commissaire to follow the small group that makes the decisive move in the final kilometres.

All of this might be considered stressful.  

At every turn, we have been at the riders’ side. Those stranded far from their team vehicles have always been able to call on the Brother Cycling’s neutral service cars. Our support has been prompt and professional. The race has been long, but it has passed in a blur. 

Dean Hardy driving a van

National Service

Tony Barry has lived through the Lottery-funded revolution at British Cycling and watched from the inside the transformation of Team GB from makeweights to world-beaters.

Long before Manchester’s National Cycling Centre was dubbed ‘the medal factory’, and indeed even before it was built, he was travelling to locations as far flung as Japan, Mexico and Venezuela, ensuring talented young riders like Charlie Wegelius, Matt Bottrill and John Tanner received the broadest education in their chosen profession.

Britain’s current pool of female road talent is no new development, either. Olympians Marie Purvis and Maria Lawrence were among the women Tony helped to reach the top. Both Purvis and Lawrence became multiple British road race champions.

Tony took teams to the Peace Race, a Cold War attempt to harness cycling as a symbol of freedom. Riders from Western Europe were invited to compete against those from Communist states, in a race with stages in Czechoslovakia, East Germany and Poland.

“I was manager for Team GB in the last year of the Iron Curtain,” Tony recalls. “The organisation was unbelievable. It was all done by the Army. You had to have bags outside your room at 6am, and soldiers would be outside your door in the evening with a postcard and stamp for you send home. We raced in May, and in November they pulled down the [Berlin] Wall.”

Peter Keen, the architect of British Cycling’s Lottery-funded revolution, and Sir Dave Brailsford’s predecessor, offered our man a key role in the federation’s new dawn, but Tony declined the role of Team GB road manager on a full-time basis; a post later accepted by John Herety, who has since become the long-term manager of JLT-Condor. 

For twelve years, Tony served on the board of British Cycling, even representing the federation at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio. He has no regrets and remains a supporter of Brailsford and the federation’s former technical director, Shane Sutton.

Bikes on top of a vehicle
Bikes on top of a Brother neutral support vehicle
Bikes in the back of a Brother neutral support vehicle

The Brother Revolution

The transformative effect of Lottery funding on the fortunes of British Cycling and its athletes represents only one revolution in Tony’s career. The second involves Brother UK’s backing for the neutral service crews he had hitherto run with a combination of borrowed or donated equipment, private cars and a healthy dose of goodwill.

Now, observing Brother Cycling’s modern and immaculate fleet of branded Skoda vehicles, each with a rack of Canyon bikes on the roof, it's hard to imagine that races as important as UCI events held in the UK were serviced by volunteers in private cars laden with borrowed bikes.

Just three neutral service crews covered the entire domestic race scene, Tony recalls - his own volunteers, based in the North West of England, Liphook Cycles in Hampshire, and the Mann brothers of Bath.

While Tony enjoyed the support of industry heavyweights like Trek, Madison (the UK importer of Shimano products) and Ribble Cycles, for many years, the neutral service support at Britain's biggest races was a largely amateur affair.

“I remember doing the CiCLE Classic with a lad who ended up with a puncture in his petrol tank, and later said that he wouldn't do any more races because he'd have to pay to replace it,” Tony recalls.

While the voluntary aspect remains - none of Tony’s drivers or mechanics receives a fee for their services – the majority of the equipment is provided by Brother or its partners, Canyon Bikes, Fenwicks and KitBrix; only the wheels and tyres are sourced separately.

The turning point came at a round of the UCI Track World Cup, held at Manchester’s National Cycling Centre in February 2011. Tony, in his capacity as a British Cycling board member, shared a dining table with Phil Jones, the MD of Brother UK. Jones’ enthusiasm for the sport was obvious, Tony recalls. A seed was planted.

“For about 12 months, I’d thought that I’d love to put together a proper neutral service set-up, and eventually I just phoned Phil, who asked me to put together a business case. You couldn’t hope for a better guy. He's not a soft touch - far from it - but every time I've asked for help, he’s come through for us. He's a really sound guy.” 

Brother neutral support car

Safety First

The most important aspect of neutral service support is not the vehicles or the quality of the equipment. Nor is it the speed with which the riders are serviced; instead, it is their safety which is the primary concern.

If this seems like an obvious statement to the layman, those who have been inside the race convoy, even as a passenger, are likely to share the opinion of former British champion Roger Hammond: for the riders, it is among the world’s most dangerous working environments. 

The vehicles that follow the race are required not only to keep pace with the riders, but to pass them when necessary. This is no small undertaking. A peloton moving at top speed is a significant obstacle. A hundred or more riders travelling at 45mph and above, spread across the road, with attacks flying off the front, is not easy to pass safely, yet this is the fundamental requirement of the neutral service driver.

“In race conditions, our most important word is safety,” says Tony, a member of the Institute of Advanced Motorists. “I always say to my crews, ‘I’m not worried about how long it takes you to get back, and I don’t want a rider on the floor.’”

At a race like the CiCLE Classic, the skill of the driver is tested further. Much of the racing takes place on narrow farm tracks, barely wide enough for a vehicle. The requirement to service riders and then to overtake every vehicle that has passed, in order to regain the designated place in the convoy, requires the driver to combine speed with supreme accuracy and awareness, if the competitors and even the crowds are to remain safe.

There are well-observed protocols, such as sounding the horn in a series of short, sharp bursts when approaching riders from behind, and also, when a rider is overtaking the next vehicle in the convoy, to warn the driver ahead. The most significant aspect, however, is the driver's experience of bike racing and the sixth sense developed for a rider’s presence and likely behaviour.

“The more you do it, the more you learn,” Tony says. “All the guys with me are ex-bike riders, and Wendy [Cull] grew up with the sport, so they have a strong feeling for what goes on in a race.” 

Close up of Brother branded water bottles in a support car
Close up of Canyon bikes
Alex Duffill with a bike tyre in his hand

Tools for the Job

Two immaculate Skoda Superb estate cars, roofs laden with wheels and Canyon Bikes, offer a reassuring presence behind the massed ranks of riders lined up behind the start line in the centre of Oakham.

The smart black noses with white graphics, and the contrasting white panels with black graphics, lend them a distinguished appearance: ready to race, but without the sometimes garish appearance of the team vehicles. It’s a finish entirely suited to the role of neutral service provider.

The Brother Cycling fleet contains more exotic vehicles - a BMW i8, for example, wrapped in gold to celebrate the company's fiftieth anniversary - but the Skodas are, according to Tony, “the ideal car” for the purpose of supporting a professional bike race.

More than a mode of transport or advertising hoarding, they are mobile office, workshop, and hospitality suite (strictly for one guest only). Staffed by a pairing of mechanic and driver, these vehicles embody Brother's #AtYourSide motto.

Each car has four Canyon Ultimate CF bikes on the roof, in a range of sizes from small to XL, and six sets of wheels. In the rear of the car, with the split seat folded to create room alongside the seated mechanic, you will find another four sets of wheels, as well as tools, food, gels, and bottles.

The cargo caters for almost all of a rider’s requirements, barring mechanical catastrophe or a serious injury; other vehicles in the race convoy - notably, the rider's team car or the race doctor - can be called upon in either eventuality.

“The Superb is the ideal car,” Tony says. “If you push the front passenger seat forward as far as possible, the mechanic could almost build a wheel in the back. The rear seats are split, and split the right way. We carry two front wheels and two rear wheels in the car, and the rear wheels have a Shimano and a Campagnolo cassette.”

A simple, but effective sticker system ensures that the punctured wheels swapped with the riders are returned to their rightful owners, post-race. More importantly, from Tony’s perspective, it allows him to keep track of those who have received a wheel from Brother Cycling. 

View of the route from the passenger seat of the neutral support car

World Within a World

The race convoy is a world within a world, a close knit community in which relationships are built, bonds are formed and trust is earned; a family affair. While the team cars represent competing interests, the Brother Cycling vehicles are a neutral power; allies to all.

Tony and his crew are respected, and no soft touch. His helpers are not obliged to tolerate rudeness or aggression from those they are trying to assist. This is a rare occurrence, however, even if in such circumstances - watching the peloton disappear up the road - it might be possible to understand a little impatience from a stricken rider.

Many of those Tony first knew as the young riders of his Great Britain squads are now in management positions, and some are at the wheel of the team cars with whom Brother Cycling shares the road.

“Cycling is a small world,” Tony says. “When I was team manager, I took Chris Lillywhite to quite a few races, and Colin Sturgess, too. Both are now team managers: one for Wiggins and the other for Madison-Genesis. I took Sturgess to the Tour of Sweden, twice; Lillywhite came with us to Sweden and to the Milk Race, too.”

There are others managing in the British peloton of an older generation, who were Tony's rivals during his time as a rider, when he competed as a 'first cat' in the colours of New Brighton CC, between 1965 and 1970: John Herety (JLT-Condor), Sid Barras (Wheelbase) and Keith Lambert, the manager of British Cycling's under-23 squad.

Disagreements under such demanding circumstances are inevitable, but Tony insists that grudges are not held in such a close knit group. The finish line represents not only the end of the race, but the cessation of hostilities.

“The race is the heat of battle, but if you have rows, afterwards it's all forgotten. It's the same with the riders, if you're not coming through as you should and helping the break, but they're all friends again when the race has finished.” 

Side panel of a Brother neutral support vehicle
Cyclist repairing bike tyre at the side of the road
Tony Barry with his arms crossed

Volunteer Spirit

Recruiting for such a specialist role as neutral service driver or mechanic might be difficult without a lifetime's experience in the sport. Fortunately for Tony, cycling has been his passion for more than fifty years, and he is not short of contacts.

Those who steer the Brother Cycling support vehicles carefully around the speeding mass of riders, or who leap without hesitation to the aid of those who have punctured, crashed or suffered some other mechanical misfortune, have often suggested themselves for the role.

Tony has a mixed crew of about ten volunteers to call upon, including British Cycling board member Wendy Cull, a stalwart of the domestic scene, whom Tony first met when she was just three years old and he raced against her father. The other female member of his crew is daughter-in-law Nicola Barry, who, like Cull, provided neutral service support at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.

Brian and John Rigby are brothers from Wigan. Brian drives lorries and John is a mechanical engineer. More pertinently, both are former riders. Tony met them on track at the Manchester velodrome, while he was working as a commissaire; a role he still holds. The brothers knew him as "the neutral service guy", he says, and volunteered their services.

“There are only certain people who can do what we do,” Tony insists. “To be a top rider, you need to be selfish, but with neutral service you help everybody.”

The volunteers also help Tony to maintain the bikes, even if he is the mainstay in this department, as with so many others. He estimates that maintaining the fleet of spare bikes and ensuring that the wheels are ready to roll only takes up about three or four hours a week of his time; no great inconvenience for one now retired. He does not mind. “I’ve got a good radio in my garage.” 

His dedication extends to sourcing equipment his crews might need, including radios that he has "bought or acquired". Each Brother Cycling car is equipped with two radios, "in case one breaks down." The crews have one radio tuned to Radio Tour and the other to the commissaire's channel, giving them access to instructions from the officials controlling the race and to breaking news. 

Black and white image of the back of a Brother support vehicle

A Quiet Revolution

There is no one better qualified than Tony Barry to manage Brother Cycling's quiet revolution in the standards of neutral service support for Britain's biggest bike races. Having witnessed the sport from the keenest vantage points - as rider, manager and commissaire, as well as convenor of the pre-Brother neutral service provision - there is no aspect of the subject that he hasn't experienced first-hand.

Riders, directors and team staff all depend on Tony's efforts and those of his volunteers, not to mention the race promoters who would struggle to host an event without the vital contribution of Brother Cycling's neutral service support crews. Tony is of course aware of this, having served for so long on the board of British Cycling.

There are others who deserve recognition too, not least Canyon Bikes, whose machines have proven fit for this most demanding purpose in race after race, and Fenwicks, the cleaning and lubricant specialists whose products allow Tony and his crews to keep their machinery in such pristine condition. KitBrix, the innovative luggage brand, is another vital partner; a neat, efficient and robust storage solution for the myriad small parts on which a neutral service crew depends is a must.

It is Brother Cycling, however, who have played the leading role in ensuring Britain's most prestigious races have a neutral service outfit to be proud of. Managing Director Phil Jones had noted the professionalism of Mavic in France and Vittoria in Italy, and one suspects that Tony was pushing on an open door when he floated the idea of crews equipped to the same high standard.

For a brand that operates with the motto #AtYourSide, it's hard to think of a better 'fit' than neutral service support. The standard riders we encountered at the CiCLE Classic were certainly grateful for the support of Brother Cycling, Tony and his volunteers. Tired, dirty, but determined to continue, the young men at the centre of the action in Rutland could have wished for no finer support.

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