Want to know how non-climbers survive when the race hits the mountains? With 17 Grand Tours to his name, and as one of the most respected road captains in the peloton, Team Sky’s Bernie Eisel takes us behind the wheel of the ‘autobus’.
When the skinny little climbers are off up the road attacking each other, us bigger riders – the sprinters and the domestiques – join forces to make sure we make it to the finish line within the time limit. There are usually between 30 and 50 of us in the autobus, and some people consider me the ‘driver’.
I won’t be driving the bus this year, but let me explain how it works. The cut-off time each day is worked out as a percentage of the winner’s time. It’s usually around 15%, meaning we can arrive about 45 minutes after him on a five-hour long stage. It’s all about calculating your effort to perfection.
This gruppetto is formed of riders who are injured, tired, or just really bad climbers. We’re all brought together by our shared need to arrive in time. Nobody wants to abandon the Tour, so it’s very nerve-wracking. I am always doing my own calculations, working out the speed we need to go at, and I try to make sure I have a few brain cells left to do it, even when we’re riding.
Because I’ve never missed the time-cut, people tend to trust me. Most of the directeurs sportifs tell their young riders who are doing a Grand Tour for the first time: “Whatever you do, just stick with Bernie and he’ll bring you home!”
This is our tactic to survive – we go up the mountains really slowly so everybody stays together. We lose around a minute per kilometre on the climbs and that means we have to go really, really hard downhill and on the flat, with everyone taking turns on the front. It’s the only way because if we lost people on the climbs it would be chaos.
Some people call us ‘the laughing group’ because there is more camaraderie, but it isn’t always like that. Many guys are riding at their absolute limit and so, naturally, they get pissed off and shout at each other, “Too fast”, or “Too slow”.
One of the worst days I can remember in the gruppetto was up La Toussuire, on Stage 16 in 2006. There were about 100 guys in total, including at least 20 or 30 climbers. When a climber has a bad day and ends up with us, he never wants to come back. I don’t think they like the style of racing.
So, why do I drive the bus? Because once we have made it through another day, we are all friends again and the other riders are always appreciative. They come up and thank me, which is nice.
Being at the back of the race is different in every country. When you’re in Spain, the fans are already drunk when the first riders pass them, so imagine the state they are in when we get to them. And at the Giro they all start descending the mountain before we have even passed them – how rude. In France they wait for us at least.
The final week of the Tour is always a hard time. I feel for the guys who are riding it now. When you get the race book you try not to look ahead that far, but then you can’t help yourself and check out the stage profiles. Oh God! When the big mountain days come, you’re in a bad mood on the bus beforehand, it’s like a survival camp.
This year, with the featuring Alps in the third week, it’s definitely harder than if it was the Pyrenees. The climbs are steeper. The Alpe d’Huez stage this year is just brutal. There won’t even be a gruppetto – everyone will just be time trialling as fast as they can to save their arses. No thinking, no calculation, they’ll simply go as hard as possible. If they have a good day they’ll make it, and if they have a bad day they’ll be going home.
Why, and how, do we keep on suffering? Because it’s our job. The most important thing to do is just keep pedalling. Don’t think too much, just keep pedalling – and follow me – you might survive to ride another day.
by Bernie Eisel
Making it through the mountains is about more than banding together when the road goes up. As former Team Sky rider turned Eurosport presenter Juan Antonio Flecha can attest, boarding ‘Bernie’s bus’ also provides a high-speed survival guide for when the road goes south.
Back in 2012 I was riding my first Giro d’Italia for Team Sky. I discovered the Dolomites for the first time that year and will never forget my team-mate Bernie Eisel’s words at the bottom of the Valparola Pass. “Guys, look at the Dolomites,” our road captain yelled with enthusiasm when those mountains appeared around a corner. The Italians immediately started attacking and the bunch split into pieces. By the end of the long, fast descent down the other side, however, the big autobus had closed the gap and we were all together again. One rider came to me and said: “That Bernie, he’s a mule but he also drove us all the way down. Fast, really fast.”
I knew exactly what he meant. I’d experienced Bernie’s crazy downhills at the Tour de France and my thoughts went back to 2009, on a stage where we had to go up the Col d’Aspin and Tourmalet before a long descent, then 50km of flat until the finish. That day Bernie was commanding the autobus up the last climb and we were about three minutes behind the next group on the road. The beginning of the Tourmalet’s descent into Luz-Saint-Sauveur is quite dangerous: a narrow road, tight corners and scary cliffs; let’s just say it’s the last place you want to be taking any risks.
Bernie started the descent with Mark Cavendish on his wheel, and after a couple of corners they were already a few hundred metres away from us. A few more corners and they were gone – we didn’t see them again until the next morning, when they explained they’d gone so fast they had caught up with the next group, meaning they could have a comfortable ride into town during those flat 50 kilometres.
A consequence of that day was that I decided to change my strategy for the Alps. On the stage from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Le Grand Bornand I stayed with the front group to try and avoid another terrifying autobus downhill, and in the rain. Of course, Bernie’s group came back to us, with Cav driving it this time. The speed they go at is just crazy but, on that day, Thor Hushovd was even faster. He overtook the front group and simply disappeared. We learnt on the radio that he had even caught up with the breakaway.
Bernie and Cav are truly formidable; while the climbers set up their bikes to be as light as possible for going uphill, these guys are thinking about grip and tyre pressure, setting up their wheels for precision steering around corners on the downhills.
by Juan Antonio Flecha