Two hundred days away from home, 18-hour shifts and Europe’s worst traffic jams; the life of a team bus driver in professional cycling is not for the work-shy.
“It’s not only the driving you have to do, that’s the real point,” Francis Bur, IAM Cycling’s driver, tells Cycle Sport. “It’s not nine hours driving and then stopping after six days, no way.”
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“People look at this job like I just drive the bus, but no,” adds Garikoitz Atxa, bus driver with Orica-GreenEdge. “I prepare the recovery drinks, after the race, the recovery food. I clean the bus, I clean the clothes in the washing machine, I control and check and charge the radios, and drive.”
The team behind the team is instrumental to any success
Bus drivers are the hidden workhorses in a cycling team, and not just behind the wheel. Some drivers double up as soigneurs and masseurs; when they’re not wrestling with big steering wheels, they’re wrestling with tight thigh muscles. Driving a 14-metre, 26-tonne beast with a 13-litre engine through small mountain roads is almost taken for granted.
“You have to be a perfectionist, and you have to be really independent,” adds Bur. “You can’t phone up and say, ‘Sorry I’m lost — GoogleMaps broke.’”
“Going into the Alps in the Giro d’Italia is complicated, you stay on little roads all the time,” adds Claudio Lucchini, Team Sky’s driver. “But I like driving a lot! I love driving down to the start of a race. You can see all the panoramas. You start with the sunrise and you finish with the sunset.”
Lucchini’s romantic description of his long-haul loneliness is at odds with his bus’s nickname: the Death Star. It suggests a sinister, ultra-modern technological weapon that lies behind a ruthless brand of air-conditioned galactic domination. Perhaps it’s not that bad, but with the huge buses and various trucks, they do take up a lot of car park space.
“The buses are getting bigger, and the mechanics have trucks now too,” explains Dirk Clarysse, Etixx-Quick Step’s driver. “In the Tour it can get too hectic. And when you have Sky, nobody has a space! They have too much.”
Big team buses have even trickled down to the minor ranks; in fact it’s a big story when these omnipresent diesel behemoths are missing, like on stage 15 of this year’s Tour de France. There’s a strong inter-team camaraderie between drivers, many of whom are former riders.
“We help each other if there’s a problem; there’s no UCI rule about that,” says Lucchini. But there was nothing any of them could do about a 350km transfer to the finish line that took longer to drive than the stage itself.
That said, sometimes the team buses themselves are the story. Just ask Atxa, who achieved mainstream notoriety when his bus got wedged under the finish gantry on the opening stage of the 2013 Tour de France.
“Nobody crashed; we were lucky because nothing especially bad happened,” says Atxa. “OK, I broke the air cooler. It’s nothing — €1,000 to repair. If somebody had been killed in a crash, there is no comparison.”
“It has happened with other buses in other races, the Tour of Austria and the women’s Giro, but you know the most important one, the Tour de France,” he adds with a sigh. “At least it’s a small bit of history for my children in the future!”