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Tour de France: Hail to the bus driver

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The Tour de France – one part sporting spectacle, one part logistical nightmare. Andy McGrath meets the men who keep the wheels turning

Photographs: Marshall Kappel

What averages 45 kilometres an hour, weighs 18 tonnes and covers 6,000 kilometres around France? No, not Jan Ullrich on one of his radical winter weight-loss regimes: it’s a WorldTour team bus.

 

It serves as the professional cyclist’s second home and a hulking hideaway from the clamour of the race. And the drivers are as much a part of the team as mechanics and soigneurs.

 

First and foremost, they are tasked with punctually transporting cycling’s finest from hotel to start line, then from the finish line to the evening accommodation. Easier said than done, with a lot of implicit caveats in between. Don’t take the wrong road. Don’t unnerve or injure the precious specimens on board. Don’t be late for sign-on. Don’t break down. And whatever you do, don’t get stuck under the finish line gantry of the Tour de France. More on that later…

 

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How do you become a WorldTour team bus driver? Cycling is a common denominator. Both Ag2r-La Mondiale’s Cyrille Bertino and Trek-Segafredo’s Danny In’t Ven were professional riders for lower-tier teams before becoming busmen.

 

A Milk Race stage winner in 1992, In’t Ven was driving buses round Belgian towns in 2004 when he got a call from the team manager of Bodysol, a small Belgian team, asking if he could drive their vehicle at a race because the mechanic who normally did it was sick. He’s since driven for Davitamon, CSC, Saxo Bank and RadioShack.

21 stages / 21 stories bus drivers

Bertino was a mechanic before switching roles in 2008. “I wanted to see another side of cycling. You have a different rapport with the riders when you’re the bus driver. You’re closer, more of a confidant,” he says.

 

They are among the few who understand the demands of racing for 200 kilometres and manoeuvring a 14-metre behemoth around a labyrinthine medieval French city. The latter takes careful route planning, a special GPS and, most of all, experience.

 

“You don’t drive a bus like you drive a car. A lot of the new guys who drive them are soigneurs too,” In’t Ven says. “They are no bus drivers and they don’t have the feeling for it. They are cruising around like crazy. Also, even when you’re running low on time and people get nervous, stay calm and don’t do stupid things.

 

“Driving with the riders is different to driving alone. You have pressure. You cannot make mistakes.”

 

Mistakes occur, of course, memorably when Orica-GreenEdge’s bus got wedged under the finish line on day one of the 2013 Tour de France in Corsica. The vehicle was dislodged in the nick of time, much to the wretched driver’s relief.

 

“I can understand it. He came late from the hotel because the sponsor said ‘where is our team bus?’ The race organisation called him through when the gantry had dropped for the photo finish… afterwards, you know how upset he was,” In’t Ven says.

 

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If team bus drivers are making headlines, they’re doing something wrong. But what nobody sees or hears about are the many behind-the-scenes snafus they fix in the nick of time so the show can go on. Bertino remembers his worst day on the job, when the Ag2r bus had a major electrical problem, while Etixx-Quick Step’s driver Dirk Clarysse recounts getting his hands dirty fixing the on-board septic tank…

 

The team bus has been a fixture in professional cycling since the mid-‘90s. Some might see it as a cold, amorphous object, another mod con that distances spectators from the sport’s stars. What are they doing on there behind that frosted glass window? The truth is often totally mundane: knackered professionals showering or getting some shuteye after a gruelling stage.

21 stages / 21 stories bus drivers

They are designed with cyclist comfort in mind. Generally, every bus has seats for riders at the front, a fridge, storage spaces, shower/toilet areas and a coffee machine. Yet each one has its own subtle quirks too: BMC have a well-stocked wine fridge; Team Sky have reclining seats and mood lighting; Katusha opted for a fully-tiled bathroom. WorldTour bus jealousy – it’s a thing.

 

Less enviable is the drivers’ working day. While Alberto Contador spent 88 hours in the saddle winning last year’s Giro d’Italia, In‘t Ven reckons he notched up 130 hours and 6,000 kilometres behind the wheel. The job doesn’t end when the riders are safely at their post-race accommodation either.

 

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“Afterwards, I will be in the bus for another two hours: cleaning, filling it up, everything,” he says. The average diesel bill is a mind-boggling €500 for the 450-litre tank. “I spend more hours in the bus than at home. It’s like my house. In the evening after dinner, the staff might go there and have a glass of wine or listen to music.”

 

One imagines that the WorldTour bus drivers have a special connection. “It’s not like we go to bars together, but you know that when there is a problem, you can go to these guys. Or if there’s roadworks somewhere, you tell them,” he says.

 

All in all, the Tour de France team bus drivers are far more than mere chauffeurs. They serve as shoulders to cry on, race food preparers and motivators too. “When a rider wins, you have the impression that all the work that us staff do is paid back,” Bertino says.

 

Their well-earned break comes when the Tour is over. Unlike the proverbial busman’s holiday, we assume it doesn’t involve much driving.

 

A version of this article was first published in Rouleur #63.