Our man in the bunch 3: planes, trains and automobiles

Cycle Sport’s Our Man in the Bunch series ran through the 2012 season, to popular acclaim. An anonymous professional rider sent us a series of dispatches from the peloton, covering all subjects from money, through media to management and more. We reproduce the series here.

Words by Our Man in the Bunch

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Illustration by Simon Scarsbrook

Somebody once said that travel broadens the mind, but whoever it was, it wasn’t a professional cyclist. Countless hours spent in airports, trains, cars and team buses have made us connoisseurs of boredom.

There aren’t many people who travel as much as cyclists. On top of the 30,000 kilometres that we cover each year on our bikes, the constant trips to airports, flying to and from races, transfers from hotels to race starts and from finishes to hotels mean that it feels like we spend our waking lives moving from A to B, then to C.

On his trip back from the Tour Down Under in January, fellow Cycle Sport contributor Geraint Thomas gave an insight into exactly how bored we get. He calculated how many hours he’d spent on a plane the previous season, and proceeded to share the results on Twitter. It was 130 hours. That’s five and a half days fully airborne.

The routine can become monotonous and eventually tiring. The expanding nature of the sport, with Australia, California and Beijing all on the circuit, means that we are travelling more than ever. Overseas racing is a particular pain for the mechanics, who pack up 20-plus bikes, spare wheels, tools and supplies, and just hope that the check-in staff at the airport are in a good mood.

The first thing I would advise any young pro to do in their first year would be to move close to an airport. I was once team-mates with a Spanish rider who lived three and a half hours from any airport. Not only did this mean an extra seven hours for every round trip, but also some very early starts and late arrivals home.

When choosing an airport, I advise trying to find one which flies to numerous destinations (cutting down on indirect flights), and one from which Ryanair doesn’t fly — the 15-kilogram luggage weight limit is impossible to achieve, and remembering to print your boarding pass is simply beyond the average cyclist’s thought process. If you do have to fly with Ryanair, it’s best if you are flying with your bike bag — you can pack it full of your extras, helmet, clothing etc, lightening the load on your check-in case.

Organised lives
Being organised makes life on the road far easier. Mark Cavendish is obsessive about organisation in every part of his life. By contrast, I’ve known air-headed riders who couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery, although on reflection, that might be the only thing they would quite happily organise.

Personally, I’ve always been pretty methodical — my suitcase tends to remain mostly packed throughout the season, even when I’m at home. I’ve got separate toiletries and spare kit to train
in so I don’t have to unpack and repack for every trip. I’ve got an ‘essentials’ bag, so called because it contains mainly useless items that haven’t seen the light of day since I put them in there.

It does, however, contain pins for my race numbers — strangely, one of the few things not provided for us — and a marker pen, which is truly essential if you don’t want team-mates thieving your kit. Finally, it has a couple of copies of my racing licence, although why the DS still needs to produce these plastic ID cards at the race briefing is beyond me. It’s about time the UCI caught up with the electronic age.

My passport always remains in my carry-on bag, which is where every good pro also places their race shoes when flying. If your check-in luggage doesn’t arrive at the other end, the team can generally still provide you with everything you need to race, but your own shoes, with custom insoles and specific cleat position, are impossible to replace.

My organisation failed me on one occasion. Having received a new carry-on bag from my team at the pre-season training camp, I forgot to transfer my passport before my next trip. There’s nothing worse than arriving at an airport and realising your passport is still at home. Luckily I managed to get home and back again in time for the next flight that evening.

Since we are lucky enough to have training bikes at home, we don’t need to transport one each time we race — one of the few real perks of being a pro. Similarly, your race helmet and wet bags (containing essential items of clothing for wet or cold conditions) are normally kept with your race bike by the team at the ‘service course’.

We have two wet bags each, one for every team car. Wondering why we need two? If there is a breakaway or split in the bunch containing a team-mate, the second car moves ahead and behind the breakaway. With a wet bag in each car, it doesn’t matter at which end of the race you are; you’ll always be prepared if the heavens open.

High-flying athletes
When at the airport on the way to a training camp or race, almost every cyclist will have the obligatory coffee and magazine perusal [It had better be Cycle Sport — Ed] before heading to the departure lounge. Once there, my tactic is to be the last person on the plane, the theory being that the less time spent on the plane, the better.

It has been pointed out to me that if everyone did this, the whole boarding process would be a never-ending stand-off, but I still stick to my guns and amuse myself watching the ‘amateurs’ queue up for half an hour to board. I once had a team-mate who wouldn’t board until his name had been called out over the tannoy. He was quite famous too: I think he just liked to be recognised by the people waiting in the adjacent departure lounges.

Airports are good places for star spotting. Before I turned pro, I was once at Brussels Zaventem airport the evening of the Tour of Flanders, and spotted Paolo Bettini eating a huge pepperoni pizza, joined by a couple of Italian team-mates. It ruined my image of the tunnel-visioned, highly dedicated athlete that I thought a rider of Bettini’s calibre must be, especially when I saw him wash it down with a large Leffe.

Once you arrive at your destination airport, there is normally a soigneur there to pick you up. Team logistics personnel have the hard task of trying to arrange riders’ flights so that we arrive at a similar time, in order to cut down on the airport runs. If you are lucky, you’re the last of the group and can get straight into the team car. If not, you’re the first there and it’s straight to the coffee bar for a cappuccino, or several.

Trials and tribulations
On one occasion, I had a very late flight, and was the last pick-up of the day. Once I’d got my baggage I headed out but my soigneur, let’s call him Gianni, was nowhere to be seen. Next port of call for a cyclist is to scan the area outside the airport for any sign of your team car — nothing there either. Multiple calls and one hour later, I decided to get a taxi to the hotel 40 kilometres away. I was tired and I’d had enough.

I saw the team director at the hotel, who said he’d seen Gianni leave with plenty of time to collect me. The following morning, Gianni came to apologise, explaining that the traffic was terrible and he’d arrived very late. Two thoughts came to mind: firstly, Gianni was known for having a girlfriend in almost every town in Europe, and secondly, on my taxi ride I’d barely seen a car, let alone a traffic jam between the airport and the hotel. It was obvious Gianni had completely forgotten that he needed to pick me up with more pressing matters occupying his thoughts.

The rooming arrangements at hotels vary from team to team. Some rotate people to promote team spirit and stop any cliques forming; others let you room with whom you wish. One year, I was team-mates with a guy who snored like an express train. As soon as any of us realised we were competing in the same race as him, it became a competition to ring the soigneur and request to room with someone else. On one occasion I forgot, drew the short straw, and found that my ‘essentials’ bag didn’t contain earplugs (this was rectified pretty sharpish upon my return home).

Once you’ve spent an entire season on the road and living out of a suitcase, often the last thing you want to do is pack up again to go on holiday. Back when I first turned pro and was single, I’d long for a period where I could relax at home, go out with friends and generally kick back for a few weeks. However, since getting married, one more trip has been added to the end of each season.

We don’t really have any spare time during the year to go on holiday and switch off completely, so my family wait for months on end for their trip away to the sun. In October each year, I pack my bag one more time and head away with them, and once I’m there and over the travelling I really enjoy it. Of course, my essentials bag looks somewhat different — nappies, dummies and baby wipes currently replacing the pins, licences and marker pens.

However, one thing remains: I’ve found my earplugs extremely useful when my wife has had one too many proseccos.

This article first appeared in Cycle Sport June 2012

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