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In praise of the gruppetto

Trevor Ward
20 Nov 2018

For those left behind when the road goes up, life in the gruppetto is tough. But there is inspiration in their suffering

There is a point in every Grand Tour – typically as soon as the road tilts upwards – when at least half the peloton disappears from view. We hear talk of riders mysteriously ‘buying tickets for the autobus’ or ‘joining the gruppetto’.

While the cameras remain fixed on the breakaway and the GC contenders, what happens in the gruppetto stays in the gruppetto. It sounds like some kind of secret society where the pace is easy and beer and hot dogs are passed around.

In a sport that has ‘suffering’ as its default setting, it’s hard not to believe the gruppetto is a day spa for the weary and aching. In reality, says Chris Boardman, the gruppetto is ‘based on the old premise that misery loves company’.

In his book Triumphs And Turbulence, he recalls his eight hours in the gruppetto during a monstrous 260km stage of the 1996 Tour de France in the Pyrenees as ‘the hardest day on a bike I have ever had’.

Domestique Chris Juul-Jensen was even more graphic in a blog he kept during the 2015 Giro, when he was riding for Alberto Contador in Tinkoff Saxo:

‘I ride closer and closer to the spectators, hoping for a gentle push. Reality has hit, and it feels like cement has been poured into both legs.

‘Vanity is out the window. My helmet is crooked and there is snot everywhere.

‘The time limit? Who gives a fuck? The gruppetto is either going to make it or not. There is nothing I can do about it anymore. I can only concentrate on the wheel in front of me.’

Ah yes – it’s all about surviving the time cut. In fact, it’s about calculating exactly what the time cut will be.

As if a rider isn’t suffering enough, he now has to perform some complicated mental arithmetic and keep an eye on the clock.

First he has to calculate the likely finishing time of the stage winner. Then he has to be familiar with the UCI’s table of time coefficients that takes into account the length and difficulty of stages, and the stage winner’s average speed.

From this, he will be able to work out the percentage of the winner’s time that the gruppetto will be allowed. Easy.

Fortunately, the gruppetto usually has an experienced leader who will take it upon himself to do all the sums and make sure everyone is riding at the right pace.

In Boardman’s day, the ‘bus driver’ was Italian giant Eros Poli. ‘His reassurance, delivered in a warm and friendly tone with a lot of arm-waving, pulled me out of my miserable introspection,’ recalls Boardman.

‘Everything about his demeanour suggested that this 260km slog through the mountains was a cross between a day off and a day out.’

More recently, Bernhard Eisel is considered the go-to guy for the gruppetto. A veteran of 19 Grand Tours, the Dimension Data rider has memorably nursed illustrious teammates – including Mark Cavendish – through some of the Tour’s most gruelling days.

Writing in Michael Blann’s sumptuous volume of photographs, Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs, he says, ‘Riders in the gruppetto can have a really hard time – they’re depleted and suffering, and it messes with their heads.

‘Everything is too fast, and they get obsessed by the group’s speed. Even the nicest guys get a bit miserable.’

When it comes to calculating the pace his passengers need to be riding at, Eisel says it is all about preparation.

‘Looking at the road book before a stage means that you can work out where you’re likely to lose or make up the minutes,' Eisel says.

‘In my experience you can work out around 80% of what’s going to happen, but there’s still 20% that’s out of your control: crashes, spontaneous tactical decisions within teams, the weather.’

But he reiterates that the gruppetto is no holiday camp and that there are hard rules: ‘If a rider is looking for someone to pull them around France, they should go and book a cycle touring holiday.’

Nothing is likely to inspire terror within the gruppetto more than the sight of a climber among its ranks – what if he ups the pace?

But while most members of the gruppetto are there because they are poor climbers, they have to be fearless descenders.

Giro and Tour veteran Magnus Backstedt says, ‘I got taught quite quickly when I started my career how to calculate how much time you were going to lose per first category or hors catégorie climb, and then how much time you would make up going down the other side.

‘If you’re not a descender, it’s not a nice place to be. The descents tend to be somewhat hairy and they drive on very, very hard in the valley.

‘Most of the time it consists of leadout men and sprinters, and they’re made to go really hard on the flat bits of road.’

But there is a plus side to life in the gruppetto. Eisel writes, ‘The mountains can make even the most experienced riders vulnerable, but that’s what brings you together: you see a piece of someone’s soul.’

And as Chris Boardman recalls, almost fondly, ‘Because of this shared, often unpleasant experience, there is usually a strong sense of camaraderie amid the suffering.’

We can learn a lot from that, not just on our bikes but also in our daily lives. We can’t all be GC contenders.

For most of us, life is a daily grind. It’s all about getting from A to B with as little fuss and as much mutual support, encouragement and respect as possible.

We can all take inspiration from the gruppetto.