DREUX, France – For the Tour de France cyclists, the team bus is a sanctuary. Outside their hotel rooms, it’s the only place the riders can enjoy some semblance of privacy. There are no fans in their faces badgering them for selfies, no journalists peppering them with the same questions day after day.
For an hour or so before and after each stage, the athletes get to relax in the air-conditioned coaches, with their covered windows, reclining seats, Spotify playlists, TVs, showers, espresso machine, and refrigerators packed with fresh food and cold drinks. And no matter how sultry it is outside, inside it’s always cool and dark.
But the bus is also a working office, and as in any job there’s a time to get down to business, to talk strategy and how to get results. The 22 Tour teams show up to win, after all, be it individual stages or the race overall. And they do need results – their jobs and sponsorship depend on it.
Success in the world’s biggest bike race often comes down to executing a winning plan, and it’s on the bus that each day’s plan is reviewed in detail, or redrawn depending on how the race unfolds. The American outfit EF Education First-Drapac p/b Cannondale invited Business Insider inside its team bus for one of its daily meetings.
Here’s what we saw:
As we’ve learned, the job of a professional bike racer is not unlike that of many other jobs. There are responsibilities, goals, challenges, opportunities, and even performance reviews (very public ones). They show up for work every day and are expected to perform their best. It’s just that they get paid to ride bikes.
Each day of the three-week Tour, the riders wake up early and eat breakfast in their team hotel before boarding the bus and driving to the start. Once the bus is parked, the window blinds are pulled down, the music is turned off, the rider chatter stops, and the space becomes quiet, the only sound being that of the big motor humming in the belly of the bus and the AC blowing through the vents. EF-Drapac’s head sports director, Charly Wegelius, stands at the front of the bus to begin the meeting. A former pro rider himself, Wegelius brings decades of experience to the team.
The meetings typically don’t feature many slides, but the ones Wegelius does use help communicate visually what he believes is the important information to know. He lists in bullet points the “keys to the game” and goes over each. It helps the riders get their head in the race and prepared for what’s to come.
The day we visited the bus was not a very complex stage, but on days in the mountains things do get more complicated in terms of planning and strategy.
“Everything about today, on paper, is straightforward,” Wegelius tells the riders. “There’s a headwind the whole day, but it’s not a complex stage. Normally when I do the planning online I have a lot of notes, but today it’s only a few.”
Wegelius was speaking at the start of stage eight, a mostly flat day for the sprinters. (The next day, however, the stage to Roubaix, would prove to be one of the most difficult of the entire Tour, featuring over a dozen miles of hellish cobbled roads.)
“Everybody knows what’s coming tomorrow – we know what’s coming tomorrow,” he goes on. “So what we need to do today is get a balance between saving energy for tomorrow and still keeping our heads in today, because today is still a stage of the Tour de France. However simple it may be, we’ve still got to get from A to B with Rigo without losing any time. So we need to race it smart without thinking too much about tire pressure for tomorrow.”
“Rigo” is the nickname of the team leader Rigoberto Urán, who finished runner-up to Team Sky’s Chris Froome last year. EF-Drapac’s strategy this Tour was for Rigo to win the race, with every rider on the team working for him.
“And there’s one thing that’s different about today in that it’s the 14th of July,” Wegelius adds, “the French national holiday, Bastille Day, which means that the volume on even the simplest stage will be turned up, because for the French a day like today is a big deal.”
In bike racing it’s critical to understand which way the wind is blowing, and its strength. For example, strong crosswinds can wreak havoc, and if you’re suddenly caught out, your race could be over before you know it.
“There’s the wind for today,” Wegelius says, pointing to a slide with the day’s wind forecast. “Somewhere between 7 and 11 kilometers per hour, and therefore not a big deal. And again, there is not much on the stage in the way of technicalities.”
Wegelius uses a mix of screenshots from Google Maps, including Street View, to help riders visualize the most critical parts of the course – for example, where the road narrows or there are tricky turns. Meanwhile, way ahead of the race, the codirector Andreas Klier, also a former pro, drives the course separately all the way to the finish, often sending text updates about changes in wind direction and photos from his phone to Wegelius via the team’s mobile Slack channel. Wegelius can relay any critical information on the road to the riders, who all wear two-way radios.
“This is the final,” Wegelius says, pointing to a detailed map of the last kilometers, which run through a dense city center with lots of sharp turns. “So I suggest bringing Rigo up to the front of the race at between 5 and 7 k to go because moving up after that will be impossible.”
That means when Wegelius gives the order over the race radio toward the finish, all the riders will gather and escort Urán up toward the front of the bunch, where he’s safer from crashes and less likely to lose any time to his rivals. By this point in the race it is, of course, second nature to Urán’s lieutenants, but it’s a point Wegelius believes is worth reiterating so the objective is crystal clear.
“So we still keep our heads with a focus on the race today. Take tomorrow’s stage and put it in your rucksack till you get back on the bus later. OK? Manage the energy.”
The meeting takes less than 10 minutes. At the end of it, Wegelius sums up the main points and asks whether anyone has questions. He finishes up with a smile for the riders.
“Remember that the rest day is coming when you guys will be able to relax, so just keep focused on today,” he concludes. “Enjoy, and have a good day out there.”
And with that the blinds go up, the music is turned back on, and the riders finish getting ready for another day at the office, in the world’s biggest bike race.
Though Uran made it safely through stage eight without losing time to his rivals, the next day turned out to be a disaster – he crashed hard on the cobbles, injuring himself, and lost time.
He tried to recover on Monday’s rest day, and he completed stage 11, wrapped in bandages, but he lost even more time. He pulled out of the Tour de France on the morning of stage 12, leaving Wegelius and Co. to come up with a new plan.
“We tried to get ahead of it, but the crash from this week was very complicated, and today during the race, my back hurt a lot. We are behind quite a bit now, so we’ll regroup as a team and see what we can do. Of course I won’t exit the race, but we have to look at how to make the race now. It’s obvious that when you have a crash like this you have to reconsider your options.” – @RigobertoUran on #TDF2018