Understanding the Art and Etiquette of Pro Cycling’s Autobus...
On the brutally long climb of Gibraltar Road in Stage 2 of the Amgen Tour of California, Nathan Haas of Team Katusha Alpecin delighted the crowd with an impressive one-handed wheelie. You see, one of the perks of being in the “gruppetto” is a chance to have a little fun with the fans, all while saving your legs for tomorrow.
All photos by Jordan Clark Haggard
The gruppetto, sometimes called the autobus, is an intriguing and beloved tradition of professional stage races, especially the Grand Tours, but also at week-long events like the Amgen Tour of California. Some riders just aren’t climbers… The gruppetto, which forms on the most mountainous stages, is a large group of riders not interested in a specific result on the day. Instead, their goal is to survive the time cut while preserving as much energy as possible. They’re sprinters, lead-out specialists, or domestiques. Their job is to be fresh on flatter stages, or to help pace their team leaders to the foot of the final climb. The concept is simple, why splinter into smaller goups on the climb when you can commiserate and ride together? Make the time cut so you can race another day.
Haas is an accomplished all-around rider, having finished fourth at last year’s Amstel Gold Race. He helps look after Katusha’s star sprinter Marcel Kittel. So, it made sense for him to ride in the gruppetto to save himself for crucial sprint stages later in the race.
“It’s the guys who work the hardest, they just get dropped and they try to regroup,” said Hagens Berman Axeon director Axel Mercxk, who spent his share of time in the gruppetto as a pro rider. “The sprinters try to make it to the finish and try to save their legs for the next day. Or even guys who are trying to do a good result in the time trial the next day, they might sit up a little earlier to come in a little more relaxed and less intense than the front group.
“When you go up the climb the idea is to stick together, and then if you need to do tempo on the flats, everybody’s working together to do good tempo to make the time cut. So, nobody really wants to suffer too much on the climb, so if somebody is driving the gruppetto too much on the climb he gets yelled at. But then sometimes you really have to push a little hard to make it to the finish in time, so sometimes you don’t have the choice and you have to leave some guys behind.”
Jeff Louder, a former pro who now is sports director for Hagens Berman Axeon, remembers audible calls of “gruppetto” when it came time to form the bunch.
“A patron of the race will shout out, “Gruppetto!” Then you’ll actually see guys sort of falling back, ‘OK, now’s the time.’ I remember in my time, in certain races Cancellara doing that.” “As a smaller rider or someone just wanting to survive you look for that call,” Louder said. “Then you typically fall into a comfortable rhythm…. It’s more complicated if it’s a major mountain stage where the gruppetto may form 100k out. Then there’s some math that has to go into it. The idea is to ride in control on the climbs and then as fast as you can on the flats.”
The gruppetto has an etiquette. You’ll get yelled at if you attack on the climb.
It’s a chance to drink a Coke or interact with fans -- or, most importantly, make the time cut. For tomorrow will bring another tough day of racing.