Tour de France stars ride hard during the day, then ride in luxury on the team bus
MORZINE, FRANCE -- In the not so distant past, the Tour de France starting line was a simple affair. Riders arrived each day in the backs of cars and changed into spandex suits at local high schools, behind trees or even in plain view of spectators.
Today's scene is more like a rock concert than a bike race. Teams drive to the start in huge buses adorned with colorful designs and sponsor logos. Fans hover around, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite cyclists. Outside some buses, such as Lance Armstrong's RadioShack vehicle, bodyguards in dark sunglasses scan the crowd.
Inside, cyclists take advantage of the privacy before each day's stage. Some send e-mails or Tweet; others enjoy the air conditioning. During last week's heat wave in France, simply sitting in the bus was a welcome treat before a long day in the saddle.
"It's our sanctuary," said Garmin-Transitions' Ryder Hesjedal. "I don't think we could function without them now."
At this year's Tour de France, a three-week race that ends July 25 in Paris, all 22 teams are ferrying riders to and from each stage in diesel-powered coaches that are customized inside and out. Much like decorating a house, there are critical design decisions to be made.
"You can go for high style or functionality," Team HTC-Columbia owner Bob Stapleton said, showing a Post correspondent around his bus in Gueugnon last Friday. "We've chosen functionality."
HTC-Columbia's bright yellow and white vehicle has all the baseline trappings of a typical Tour team bus: television screens, a bathroom, a washer and dryer and a small kitchen with a coffee machine, which is perhaps the most essential accessory. Staff and cyclists brew an estimated 100 cups of coffee each day.
One conspicuously absent detail is a shower, something most teams install. There wasn't room for one, according to Stapleton, because the bus is more than seven feet shorter than most on the pro cycling circuit.
With the athletes' comfort the primary consideration, HTC-Columbia installed deluxe leather seats in the front of the bus. They face each other to encourage conversation and host pre- and post-race meetings.
"We see this as a mobile locker room for the athletes," Stapleton said.
Garmin's rig is not fancy; if HTC-Columbia's bus is functional, it must be considered utilitarian. Highlights include a pull-down projector screen and two refrigerators full of cold drinks. "If the toilet doesn't flush, that's a problem," said team director Jonathan Vaughters. "But the fact that we don't have mood lighting I'm less worried about."
Yes, mood lighting -- five different colors that evoke five different feelings, in fact. That's how far Team Sky, a new squad owned by Rupert Murdoch's Sky Broadcasting, pushed the envelope when assembling its bus from scratch last year.
Team leaders also added reclining seats, computer docking stations for each rider and a Blu-Ray DVD player. It is hands-down the most elaborately outfitted bus in pro cycling. "We're more comfortable on the bus than in hotel rooms sometimes," said Team Sky rider Michael Barry.
On the Garmin-Transitions bus, which is wrapped in the team's official orange and blue argyle logo, an iPod connection allows hip-hop, upbeat rock and even house music, a type of techno, to blare through the vehicle. Selecting tunes can sometimes become a source of tension.
"Because there are different styles, it's a war over music," says Andrea Bisogno, a Garmin-Transitions mechanic who drives the bus.
Team buses made their first appearance during the early 1990s. Some insist that the Dutch team PDM, which folded in 1992, pioneered the practice. Others say the initial bus was owned by the now-defunct Spanish squad ONCE.
"I remember that the ONCE guys used to be able to shower after the race; that changed things," said Erik Zabel, a former racer and adviser to Team HTC-Columbia.
Cycling is no different from other professional sports; everything is an arms race. Once one team has something new, others rush to replicate or surpass it. By the late '90s, buses had become de rigueur.
While it's certain that bus interiors have evolved in the last two decades, the vehicles themselves are rarely new. With diesel engines that can be refurbished every few years, many buses outlast their original owners. When a team folds or buys a new bus, they put the old one on the market.
"These buses have a long service life," says HTC-Columbia's Stapleton. "Especially because there's not many ways to make it more fuel efficient."
However, the use of alternative fuel technologies such as bio-diesel might not be far off: throughout this year's 2,263-mile race, Garmin will use almost 800 gallons of gasoline at a cost of about $3,500 for the three-week tour.
Because many teams still use RVs and station wagons to transport their minor league teams during races, the bus has become a symbol of success, something young riders, who rarely travel in high style, aspire to.
"You know when you've gotten on a big bus, you've gotten to where you want to be," says Garmin-Transitions' Hesjedal. "It's part of the deal."