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Side view of Neutral Service race support vehicle showing Brother At Your Side livery

Neutral Service p/b Brother UK: At your side

  • 15 min read

There is no clearer metaphor for Brother UK’s support of elite domestic road racing than its distinctive Neutral Service p/b Brother UK support vehicles. The motto, 'At your side', proudly displayed on the side of each car, has the most obvious resonance.

At the end of an eighth consecutive season of game-changing support for Britain’s biggest bike races (the days of volunteers forced to use private cars have been banished almost entirely by Brother UK’s professional fleet), the sponsor and those who deliver the service can reflect upon another highly successful campaign.

New races and old, men’s and women’s, domestic and international, on the British mainland and overseas, Brother UK’s black and white vehicles have been a constant reassurance to elite riders dependent on mechanical support in the most demanding races.

In the torrential rain of the Women’s Tour of Scotland and the mountain mist of the Manx International, on the ruinous farm tracks of the CiCLE Classic and the vertiginous incline of Lincoln’s cobbled Michaelgate climb, the Neutral Service p/b Brother UK support crews have maintained their pledge to remain at the side of the riders they support.

It is a service that unites the best traditions of British cycle sport with the financial muscle of a blue chip sponsor, for while the gleaming fleet of Skoda vehicles, the brand new bikes and the racks of spare wheels they carry are funded by Brother UK, those who staff the service are volunteers, prepared to sacrifice their free time for the good of the sport.

By meeting the personalities behind the service, as well as those who depend upon it, it’s possible to gain a greater sense of its values and importance. Tony Barry, neutral service manager, mechanics Adam Johnson and Trevor Beauchamp, and rider Ben Healy are our guides.

A view of cyclist Ben Healy through the rear window of a Neutral Service race support vehicle as he's riding behind

A reassuring presence

Lying on the ground in a tight corner at the foot of the Isle of Man’s Snaefel Mountain, Team Wiggins’ Ben Healy was forced rapidly to recalibrate his options on stage four of the 2019 Manx International.

The crash was his second of the race. The first, during the opening stage kermesse, was in some ways the impetus for the second; an incentive to regain lost time and move up the general classification.

“The descent of the mountain included a turn back towards the start-finish line. It was a section of road only used in the mountain TT course, and not open to the public in normal circumstances,” he recalls.

“It was a pretty dire day, weather-wise, and you could tell it would be slippery, but I thought, ‘I’ll be alright.’ The next thing I knew, I was on the floor. I crashed and, to be fair, it was completely my fault!”

A distance of three months has granted Healy time to reflect and to see the funny side. During the crash, he admits to a racing heart and a conscious effort to regain his composure.

“I’d put in a lot of work, and didn’t want to lose it. The adrenaline was flowing, but at the same time, I was trying to remain calm. You can’t just sprint back to the group, because that doesn’t do you any good in the long run. When the Neutral Service p/b Brother UK pulled alongside, I asked for their help in getting back on,” Healy says.

His reflections draw us into the complex area of drafting. The issue gained the greatest prominence during the recent UCI World Championships in Yorkshire, when Nils Eekhoff was disqualified from the U23 men’s race, within an hour of being crowned world champion. Healy disagrees with the decision, but concedes that the issue is far from straight-forward.

Despite enjoying a “pretty lucky” season, in which his need for mechanical support was minimal and met by his team on the rare occasions required, Healy says the presence of Neutral Service p/b Brother UK is reassuring, and especially for riders in the breakaway (as he was again at The Tour of the Reservoir), when the single car permitted to each team is often behind the peloton.

A view from the font passenger seat of a Neutral Service race support vehicle showing mechanic Adam Johnson leaning out of a rear window

An invaluable resource

Adam Johnson has maintained a friendship with Tony Barry begun nine years ago, when he raced in the Isle of Man Youth and Junior Tour. Now retired from competition and working as a plumber, he channels the practical skills of his day job into supporting riders in races on the Isle of Man, where he lives.

Present for all four stages of this year’s Manx International, taking up a position in the pits and at the roadside for the crit and hill climb respectively, and in the car for the circuit race and road stage, he proved himself again to be an invaluable resource to Neutral Service p/b Brother UK on visits to the Rock.

Johnson understands entirely the risk inherent in stepping from a neutral service vehicle into the heart of a bike race. He has direct experience of the rapid shifts in tempo that mean a rider detached from a breakaway by a mechanical issue can suddenly have a fast-moving peloton and race convoy for company.

Race radio provides hard information to complement the sixth sense cultivated by all who inhabit the convoy. Such is the importance of the near-constant flow of updates from the commissaires that conversation within a Neutral Service p/b Brother UK support vehicle is limited. Maintaining focus inside the car is important, and critical when stepping outside of it.

“If I’m called on to leave the car, I have to be extremely vigilant. The peloton and the convoy could soon be approaching. I have to stay calm and do my job, whether that’s changing a wheel or fixing a mechanical. The riders tend to come and thank you after the race. They don’t really have time to chat on the road,” Johnson says.

Indeed, during the final road stage of this year’s Manx International, the combination of sunshine in the towns and fog on the mountain so thick “you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face” meant Johnson and his colleagues staged a constant relay with team cars to ferry food, drink and rain capes to riders in the breakaway.

Bicycle technology is an area of continual evolution. Disc brakes, replete with endless permutations in rotor and axle standards, means the neutral service mechanic's tool kit now includes an adapted power drill for high-speed removal of thru axles. Passion for the sport and first-hand experience of its demands makes maintaining a watching brief on all of its many aspects a pleasure for Johnson, not a chore.

A member of the Neutral Service support crew holding a bike disc wheel in the back of a race support vehicle

De-risking the disc risk

Preparation to support teams using hydraulic disc brakes began at the end of the previous season. The scale of the technical challenge demanded a considered approach. Barry was again able to call upon Brother UK.

Managing Director Phil Jones MBE applied the same rationale to the risk presented by a myriad of technical standards as he would to any presented to Brother UK in a commercial context. By creating a risk matrix and plotting the various permutations, he helped Barry to plan a strategy that would ‘de-risk’ the challenge.

The result has been a season in which the Neutral Service p/b Brother UK support crews were able to support all of the various standards employed by the most competitive teams, using a combination of their own expanded wheel supply and by carrying a limited number of wheels nominated by the teams.

“It wasn’t as bad as we’d feared. This year, we were carrying eight disc brake wheels in the car. We had to get some new wheels, but it worked out well, so we’re more or less set up for next year, if more teams start to use disc brakes next season,” Barry confirms.

“This year, maybe 40 per cent of the teams we support were on disc brakes. Next year, I think it will be over 50 per cent. If you look at the pelotons in this year’s Grand Tours, you can see a lot more of the riders were using disc brakes. Brands like Trek only sell bikes with disc brakes. If you want calliper brakes on a Trek, you have to order it especially.”

The introduction of 12-speed cassettes represented another area of increased risk to Barry’s crews. In 2019, Vitus Pro Cycling Team, p/b Brother UK opted for SRAM's broader transmission; a choice the Neutral Service p/b Brother UK crews managed by carrying a set of wheels from the team, and by carrying a set of their own wheels with a 12-speed cassette.

“I don’t think we’ll have a problem supporting 12-speed. It’s just like when the teams moved from 10-speed to 11, there was no issue. Now, there are no teams using 10-speed set-ups,” Barry says.

A crowd gathered around a podium built into an open sided truck where a cyclist receives an award at the HSBC National Road Series

National Service

This year, the HSBC National Road Series brought a new professionalism to what had previously been called the Premier Calendar. Ten races for elite men and eight for elite women, starting in April and ending in August, provided Barry and his crews with a busy five months.

A mixture of new events, such as the Bourne Classic and Lancaster Grand Prix, and cherished races including the Lincoln Grand Prix and the hugely demanding Rutland-Melton CiCLE Classic created a varied calendar, as much for the Neutral Service p/b Brother UK support crews as for the riders.

“The Klondike Grand Prix in East Cleveland made a super start to the season, and the new South Coast Classic in Eastbourne was a very good event too,” Barry confirms.

“I was impressed as well by the Bourne Classic, a new race in Lincolnshire from the organisers of the CiCLE Classic. I’m sure there are a few little things that the organisers will do differently next year, when they have their post-mortem, but it was a good event.”

The aforementioned CiCLE Classic, a race with off-road sections billed as “Britain’s Paris-Roubaix”, did not yield as many mechanicals as the previous year, when Barry and his crews changed around 30 wheels, but kept them on their toes nevertheless, and placed the usual demands on the convoy in its high-speed pursuit of the peloton along narrow country lanes.

The revived Manx International provided Barry’s season highlight. A varied programme of kermesse, hill climb and road race, held over three days at the beginning of August, saw Barry pack his entire supply of bikes, wheels, tools and work stands and head to ‘the Rock’ to join up with two local mechanics.

While the senior event has lain dormant in recent years, the junior race has flourished, and become a fixture on the Neutral Service p/b Brother UK calendar. Contacts established over the years allows Barry now to rely on local support, in the form of mechanics who live and work on the island.

Side view of a motorcyclist wearing a high visibility jacket as he's riding past

Something new

The 2019 campaign also saw the Neutral Service p/b Brother UK crews extend their support to races beyond the HSBC National Road Series.

Torrential rain on the opening stage of the Women’s Tour of Scotland created the most demanding conditions imaginable for the 101km leg from Dundee to Dunfermline. After 68km, race organisers called a halt.

While racing resumed as scheduled for stages two and three, it is the rain-soaked opening engagement and the tenacity of the competitors that Barry recalls.

“It was the worst weather you could imagine. The standing water was up over the bottom brackets of the riders’ bikes and to the centre of the wheels on our support vehicles. After nearly 70km, they cancelled the stage because the roads were completely flooded,” he recalls.

“It was touch and go, but we made it back to our base in Dunblane. Despite the weather, it was a cracking event. The girls rode really well. You don’t usually see such aggressive racing so early in a race.”

The 2019 UCI World Championships in Yorkshire were the first to include a para-cycling event. A qualifying race for the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo opened a week of elite racing from Harrogate.

The call from race organisers to Barry and his Neutral Service p/b Brother UK support crews came late for such a large event, and with a request for nine vehicles; more than three-times the number in the Brother-liveried fleet.

With the support of local bike shops, however, the requested number was assembled and the complex task of supporting a diverse programme of para events - including hand-cycles and modified road bikes - was completed successfully.

“We did what was required, when required. Phil Leigh, one of our mechanics, works regularly with British Cycling’s para squad, which was an advantage. We carried a spare bike for Dame Sarah Storey. I’d warned her husband Barney that we would have to follow the commissaire’s instructions and wouldn’t be able to follow Sarah exclusively, but he was grateful for our support.”

Barry praises the scale of crowd support and the job done by police motorcyclists in closing roads with such efficiency. He was impressed too by the spirit among the competitors; a willingness to help each other he had first witnessed supporting races at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

A view from the front passenger seat of a Neutral Service race support vehicle as it drives past spectators at the Lincoln Grand Prix

A little help from friends

Trevor Beauchamp’s Liphook Cycles shop represents a dovetailing of two worlds: neutral service support before Brother UK entered the scene eight years ago, and its integration with volunteers whose goodwill remains the foundation of British cycle sport.

Beauchamp is a stalwart; the type of character on whom road racing depends. His business has served cyclists in Hampshire for 27 years, and he has provided neutral service support to Britain’s road racers for 17 of them.

The Liphook Cycles car is still a common sight in the domestic peloton; a remaining example of the world of neutral service before Brother UK’s quiet revolution, when those providing mechanical support were forced to use their own vehicles.

At certain races however, Beauchamp joins Barry in a Neutral Service p/b Brother UK vehicle, such as at this year’s Lincoln Grand Prix. Ascending the cobbled Michaelgate climb, lined either side by thousands of cheering fans, is not an experience swiftly forgotten.

“Lincoln is one of my favourite races, to be honest,” Beauchamp reveals. “Because it’s only a seven or eight-mile circuit, there are lots of laps, and the crowds on Michaelgate are amazing.”

Unsurprisingly, the Rutland-Melton CiCLE Classic is another of his favourites. The farm tracks that support its billing as “Britain’s Paris-Roubaix” keep the mechanics busy.

“It’s a hard race. I normally carry about 30 wheels, which is many more than I would normally. One year, we were left with just a single front wheel, which was a bit scary, running on empty! We made 29 wheel changes. I spent more time out of the car than in it that day!”

Beauchamp’s technical expertise allows him to advise Barry on the latest industry developments, and this year he provided a special Allen key for removal of thru axles. The bicycle industry’s replacement for the traditional quick release is one of many developments that have added to the complexity of neutral service support, he confirms.

Beauchamp identifies the CiCLE Classic as the highlight of his 2019 season, with the national road race championships on the Sandringham Estate in close contention. A colleague rather than a competitor, Beauchamp’s work with and alongside Barry’s Neutral Service p/b Brother UK fleet is further evidence of a scene built on goodwill.

Tony Barry seen through the rear view mirror of a Neutral Service race support vehicle

An appropriate metaphor

Next year, the Neutral Service p/b Brother UK support crews will begin their ninth consecutive season of support for the biggest races on the British domestic calendar; no small feat for the sponsor, Barry and his crews.

It’s not overstating the case to describe the rise in standards achieved by Brother UK’s investment as a revolution. Barry, a stalwart of British cycle sport, whose lifetime inside it has encompassed every role from rider to British Cycling board member, does not attempt to hide his gratitude for his backer and the man at its helm.

“Without the help from Brother UK, I don’t think we could have done anything like what we’ve done. It would certainly have been far less successful. Phil Jones is a really good guy. He leaves us to run the service, but is always there to help. As he puts it, ‘If I can help, tell me.’”

Renegotiating the lease on the vehicles so smartly liveried in Brother’s distinctive black and white design, emblazoned with the ‘At your side’ strapline, is only one example of the value of a blue chip backer led by a skilled negotiator.

Barry’s crews will use Skoda vehicles again next year, having found that a raised floorpan in hybrid models from competitors reduced the load space. Whether or not Brother UK extends the lease beyond 2020, Barry can be certain that the vehicles placed at his disposal will be fit for purpose and secured on the most competitive terms.

There are so many aspects of Brother UK’s support for British cycle sport encapsulated by the Neutral Service p/b Brother UK support crews that it’s hard to imagine a more appropriate metaphor for the 'At your side' strap line.

By providing timely, professional, unbiased support to any who need it, the crews replicate in a racing environment the work done by Brother UK’s technology professionals in environments as diverse as NHS hospitals and businesses of every conceivable scale.

A place at the riders’ side in the heat of battle seems entirely fitting for British cycle sport’s most trusted partner. Tony Barry, vastly experienced, and his dedicated support crews are perfectly placed to deliver the support to riders on which the reputation of the wider business has been built.

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