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On board the WorldTour pro team buses

In-depth
7 Feb 2020
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Team buses are a pro racer’s sanctuary. But what goes on behind those pneumatic doors…?

Words James Witts Photography Geoff Waugh

At every race the protocol is the same. Journalists wait at the team buses for post-race comments on how the crosswinds or cobbles dictated a memorable day in the saddle.

As each rider nears we move in, hungry for nuggets of wisdom. And invariably the rider rolls straight past, dismounts, hands the bike to a mechanic and skips onto the bus with the transitional prowess of a Brownlee brother.

In a sport scarred by its reputation for secrecy, you could argue team buses are a symbol of cycling’s nefarious past. The blacked-out windows give the impression of something to hide – Team Sky’s bus was labelled the Death Star, don’t forget. But if you speak to the drivers and riders, this perception is far from the reality.

‘They’re light, airy and can be fun,’ says pro racer Dan Martin, who officially signed for new WorldTour team Israel Start-Up Nation from UAE Team Emirates on 1st January 2020.

‘It’s well documented how raucous the bus was when I raced for QuickStep. Niki Terpstra would crank the Belgian dance music up to maximum volume and the bus would be rocking.’

That might come as a surprise to many, given Terpstra was once asked by L’Equipe, ‘Why are you so unpopular?’ Like buses, a misperception perhaps? Or maybe Flandrien techno is an acquired taste?

Either way, Terpstra has been rocking Direct Energie’s bus since he left QuickStep in the winter of 2018/2019, meaning he won’t have had a chance to enjoy the luxury of the Wolfpack’s new lair…

Grand designs

QuickStep’s lead bus driver, Dirk Clarysse, helped design the interior of the team’s MAN bus, built near QuickStep’s Wevelgem service course. The inside resembles a business-class lounge, with reclining leather chairs easing the woes and stresses of racing.

The floor is, of course, designed by QuickStep Floors, vinyl chosen for easy wiping after the dust and mud of Strade Bianche and Paris-Roubaix.

‘We also have a fantastic stereo courtesy of our sponsors, Bang & Olufsen,’ says Clarysse’s fellow driver, James Vanlandschoot. ‘The riders choose the music and, yes, it’s often our disco bus.’

With 68 wins in 2019 – and 200 in the past three – that’s a helluva lot of cleat-tapping action absorbed by QuickStep’s finest vinyl.

Team Sky are credited with innovations such as reverse periodisation of training, an OCD-level of hygiene and applying clinical sleep solutions. They also raised the bar when it came to mobile pampering.

‘Nowadays, all the new buses are of a similar, high-quality level,’ says Martin. ‘They follow Sky’s template of having nine captain-style individualised seats where each rider has their own area, rather than the old-style, more formal rows of seats. They’re much more spacious, albeit often a right mess with suitcases flung everywhere.

‘They’re appreciated though,’ Martin adds. ‘We spend a lot of time on the bus, often more time than on the bike when you take into account arriving 90 minutes before the depart and the long transfers. It’s why touches like those at QuickStep, where we had a separate toilet and urinal, are appreciated. That’s pure luxury.’

Martin says that five-hour transfers aren’t uncommon, especially before rest days at Grand Tours. But that’s nothing compared to the travelling time of the bus drivers themselves.

‘I drive around 130 days every year, which equates to around 35,000km,’ says Bora-Hansgrohe’s Slovenian driver, Blaz Bogataj. ‘I’d say 190 days and 45,000km,’ says Team Ineos’s Claudio Lucchini, raising the stakes. ‘Our Volvo team bus now has 439,000km on the clock.’

Lucchini’s lead in the bus driver stakes is short-lived, however. Coming up fast on the outside is QuickStep’s Vanlandschoot: ‘I drive up to 215 days every year,’ says the Belgian. ‘That’s around 60-70,000km.’

These half-a-million-dollar vehicles cost nearly €1,000 to fill up, making this environmentally friendly sport extremely unfriendly. Extra energy is required for the air-con systems, refrigerators, USB connectors and – the rider’s fuel – coffee machines. Bora use a Delonghi, while many teams go for a Nespresso. Not Trek-Segafredo, of course.

Hot and steamy

The buses also need energy to clean the riders. While Roubaix’s parochial concrete showers are a rite of passage, the buses’ showers are purely practical. Most buses feature two with the water supply around 150 litres, enough for all riders.

Men who’ve essentially not grown up, turning a hobby into a career, without the domestic drudgery of cooking, washing up, cooking, washing up… means this environment is rich pickings for juvenile high jinks.

‘I have many shower-related stories,’ says Bora-Hansgrohe’s Bogataj, choosing one suitable for before the 9pm watershed: ‘A few years ago the water pump wasn’t working properly, so when you turned the tap on you didn’t know whether you’d be covered in hot or cold water.

‘These “brave” riders were afraid to shower and, when they did, they screamed. It was either freezing or they nearly scolded themselves. We changed the pump that night.’

Oh, how Adam Hansen, a professional since 2007, would have appreciated such decadence in times gone by. ‘On the HTC-Highroad bus we didn’t have showers,’ he says. ‘I remember the first year at the Giro d’Italia when they introduced the white roads stage, it absolutely poured down and we were all saturated and filthy.

‘In fact we were so dirty our bus driver refused to let us on until we were clean. So we had to shower outside with buckets of water, naked in front of the spectators. We weren’t overly happy. All our famous boss [presumably Bob Stapleton] said was, “Did a bus with showers ever win a bike race?!” OK, we’d won over 80 races that season. But still!’

Everything a rider needs

Hansen, whose recent off-season has seen him ‘relax’ by racing Ironman Florida in under nine hours, now travels in style in the Lotto-Soudal team’s Van Hool bus. His sojourns, the 38-year-old says, are a mix of sleep, work, surfing the internet and chatting among teammates.

Cyclist nosed around the bus at this spring’s Dwars door Vlaanderen, enjoying a whistle-stop tour before the team set off, delivering Tiesj Benoot to fifth behind winner Mathieu van der Poel. Here’s some of the stuff we spotted…

Starting from the front, there is a projector screen, which is controlled by the DSes. The riders’ race radios are tucked away near the ceiling; earpieces are clamped to the back of each rider’s chair.

A sports nutrition cupboard packed with energy products nestles next to a cupboard full of sports drinks. A drawer beneath the recovery shakes is rammed with race-radio spares, more energy bars, race-number safety pins, wipes to keep lenses clean plus hand warmers, presumably for the cold spring Belgian Classics.

The top drawer is filled with plastic plates and cutlery, while another reveals cut-up nougat, Haribo, seeds, nuts and – unusually – large slices of dehydrated veg. There are also practical sheets explaining calorie intake and suggested timings for one-day and multi-stage events.

And then, of course, there is the coffee machine. Past the showers, toilets and to the back of the bus, which comprises two beds where most teams just have extra seating, there’s a medical cabinet bursting with chamois cream. It’s all finished off with scales for the pre and post-stage weigh-in.

It’s a similar scenario throughout the WorldTour. At lower levels you’re more likely to see old-school minibuses and caravans, and even that puts a major strain on financial resources.

Many women’s teams are equally as stretched, with reports circulating in July that the Drops team needed to sell their bus to survive. Happily the team were saved without having to offload their ‘converted horsebox’.

In the past, Team Sky offloaded their former motorhome – one of the smaller units used to ferry riders around during time-trial stages and mountain-top finishes. After being sold to a private buyer, it sold again for £31,000 on eBay in 2015.

Those smaller motorhomes lack the opulence of full-scale team buses, but are more practical for negotiating switchbacks on Alpine climbs. For the most part, Ineos’s Lucchini tells us, the buses follow an alternative parcours to the riders, thus avoiding the truly precarious sections.

‘There are still tricky moments, the scariest being at the 2016 Tour,’ he says. ‘It was the short Mont Ventoux stage, where Chris Froome ran up the mountain. Because of the strong winds, the stage finished 6km before the top, but the evacuation road for the bus was over the top. The wind was blowing us all over the place and it was very scary. I drove at less than 20kmh. Thankfully we didn’t get stuck up the mountain.’

Star of the 2013 Tour

No team bus recollections are complete without turning our minds back to the opening stage of the 2013 Tour de France. This, the 100th edition, saw the race head to Corsica for the first time.

After years of planning, negotiating with mayors and persuading sponsors, this was Corsica’s moment. The opening stage began in Porto-Vecchio, finishing 213km later in Bastia, and was one for the sprinters to grab the headlines and secure coverage for their sponsors.

It didn’t happen. Instead, the newspaper pages were filled with the sight of Orica-GreenEdge’s coach stuck at the finish line.

‘I can laugh about it now but it was stressful at the time,’ says the driver that day, Basque Garikoitz ‘Gary’ Atxa, who still drives for the Australian team (now Mitchelton-Scott).

Atxa recalls being behind the other team buses after having to drop VIPs off at their hotel. And with no alternative bus route, race vehicles were forced to drive the course.

All the other buses were parked past the finish line when Orica directeur sportif Neil Stephens called Atxa. ‘He said Gerry [Ryan, team owner] is at the finish line and he needs the bus. I said I’m already late but I’ll head to the barriers and ask if it’s possible. So I asked one of the marshals, who spoke to his boss.

‘After a brief discussion, two motorcyclists told me to follow them to the finish. Two of my colleagues were in the bus with me and as we drove along they started joking that we were going to get stuck at the finish line. I was telling them to “shut up, shut up, shut up!”’

It’s standard protocol when team buses drive the route that the finish gantry is raised to let them pass. It’s then lowered one metre for the riders once the convoy has passed through.

‘I thought it looked low but someone from the organisation was saying I could go, so I edged closer, closer, closer. Then I finally decided to commit… and got stuck!’

Cue workers frantically deflating the tyres in an effort to dislodge the gantry. A forklift truck was even deployed to help with the effort. In the meantime, president of the race jury, Vicente Tortajada Villaroya, decided that the 3km-to-go mark would become the finish line.

But then, with 10km to go on the stage, Atxa’s bus finally moved, so a new announcement was made to inform DSes and riders that the original finish had been reinstated. But the drama was far from over – minutes later and 4km from home, a huge crash left 15 riders injured and Tony Martin losing consciousness twice en route to hospital.

Understandably, it left teams angry, although their vitriol was directed at Villaroya. ‘It’s complete nonsense,’ fumed FDJ manager Marc Madiot. ‘The president of the jury should receive a big fine.’ Instead, the UCI issued Orica a 2,000 Swiss Franc penalty for not respecting the time schedule and Atxa became an unwanted media star.

‘It was in all the newspapers, on the TV, it was a massive shit storm,’ he recalls. ‘Thankfully, there was only light material damage [the bus’s air-con played up the following day] and no human damage. But I tell you, I lost six years of my life that day!’

Atxa is preparing for 2020, albeit with a reduced calendar due to becoming a father. But he can’t cut the link because, as he says, ‘cycling is in my blood’. Atxa raced at under-23 level but stopped to work for the family business.

Bora’s Bogataj is a former pro who was forced to cut short has career after back surgery. It’s a similar story with QuickStep’s Vanlandschoot. The smell of competition and eucalyptus brings them back.

Why else would you, as Atxa did in 2017, drive for three days from the World Championships in Bergen, Norway, to the team’s service course near Milan over 2,000km away?

‘Sometimes it’s hard to enjoy this job but I always try, as it’s a privilege,’ says Atxa. ‘And when you win a stage or race, well, nothing beats it.’