Audio Postcard: A Tour de France Ride Along

Reporter Sadie Babits offers an audio postcard from the Tour de France, where racing team cars vie for position as they follow close behind their riders.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Bike fans jam the public roadways where the Tour de France passes, a different route every year. But the racers sweep by in seconds and then they're gone. Probably the best place to watch the race is from one of the team cars that follow the racers, often very close behind, traveling in order according to how well their riders are doing. From Grenoble, reporter Sadie Babits has this account of how she got to ride along.

SADIE BABITS reporting:

Think of the team car as the top-secret war room for cycling strategy.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

BABITS: Coach Herminio Diaz Zabala sits behind the wheel of a bright blue Audi, the team car for Liberty Seguros-Worth, On most days, he's behind the whole team, but on this day, he follows only one rider for the time trial, the younger member of the team. Zabala pops the glove box open, revealing the controls for radios and a TV. He flips a few switches and the team radio turns on.

Mr. HERMINIO DIAZ ZABALA: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

BABITS: A fuzzy TV monitor mounted in the middle of the dashboard shows a cyclist already on the course. Technology has become prevalent over the years, and it's now crucial to race strategy.

(Soundbite of unidentified voices speaking in foreign language)

BABITS: As the rider sprints from the start, Zabala shoves the car into gear, tucking in right behind him. Zabala himself raced for 13 years. So when he grabs the handheld radio, he becomes a serious cheerleader. For the next 25 minutes, he never lets up.

Mr. ZABALA: (Foreign language spoken)

BABITS: On top of the car are extra bikes in case someone crashes or their bike breaks. Inside, the car is packed with equipment and people. Everyone sitting in this car has to be ready to help. Fabio Selvig, who directs the team sponsorship, sits in the backseat, holding extra wheels. He says it's critical to have a mechanic in the car.

Mr. FABIO SELVIG: There's always a mechanic in the team car following the riders in case the rider flats. The rider pulls off to the right, the car parks as close as it can to him, the mechanic jumps out, and he either has a rear or a front wheel in each hand, ready to replace it, or they just take a bike off the roof and give it to the rider and give him a big push and send him on his way again.

BABITS: The team mechanic can also do major repairs while leaning outside a moving car, speeding alongside the rider, sometimes more than 40 miles an hour. As Coach Zabala whips the car through a roundabout, he spots another rider. He's positive his guy can catch him by dropping a gear. And Selvig says Zabala is coaching the rider to use the crowd to his advantage.

Mr. ZABALA: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. SELVIG: Stay left because the wind is coming from the left and the more close he is to the left, the more the spectators can block the wind.

Mr. ZABALA: (Foreign language spoken)

BABITS: The guidance pays off. The Liberty Seguros rider slides past the other cyclist, and Zabala steps on the gas to keep up. The finish line comes into view and Zabala shouts for a final all-out effort.

Mr. ZABALA: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. SELVIG: Yeah, we're doing a very good job. Trust yourself to go as hard as you can to the finish line. You can do this.

BABITS: Zabala ducks the car down a side road and stops. Using time checks along the route and the team radio, everyone tries to figure out where the team cyclist placed.

Mr. ZABALA: (Foreign language spoken)

Mr. SELVIG: His time was about 22:30 overall. He made up 24 seconds in the last half of the race, in the last four miles or so.

BABITS: The young cyclist did better than expected. But he's still not in contention for the yellow jersey. The Liberty Seguros as a whole ranks somewhere in the middle of the pack as the tour heads into its second week. As the blue Audi drops behind other team cars, they'll remain in the war room, plotting, for the long days ahead. For NPR News, I'm Sadie Babits.

CHADWICK: I'm Alex Chadwick. NPR's DAY TO DAY continues.

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