On a multi-day, mountainous, and 200+ kilometer-per-day race such as Tour de France, riders push their bodies to the absolute limit.
Even years of experience and a lifetime of training may not be enough to stop riders from falling behind.
You’d imagine that being in the group of riders right at the back of such an incredibly difficult race would be demoralizing and hard work, which it certainly is.
Yet, these riders share a special bond. A bond that – despite being on opposing teams – glues the group together and often carries them across the finish line as one.
The name of this group? The “Autobus” (or the “grupetto” if you prefer your cycling terms served Italian!)
In this article, we’ll be covering:
- How Does A Grupetto Form?
- The Camaraderie Of The Grupetto
- The Harsh Realities Of The Autobus – What Does It Take To Keep Up?
- Famous “Shepherds” Of The Grupetto
Ready for the lowdown on the autobus?
Let’s jump in!
How Does A Gruppetto Form?
In professional road cycling, the main group of riders is called the peloton.
However, some riders fall behind the peloton, especially on tough mountainous stages on which the best climbers leave the rest of the pack scrambling.
The riders who fall to the back are often sprinters or domestiques who aren’t concerned about finishing as fast as possible. They’re at the Tour either to target wins at specific stages or to serve their team leader. For these riders, a mountainous stage is about survival, not racing.
Once a large number of cyclists fall to the back of the race and out of contention, they become known as the autobus (or grupetto).
At this point, their sole aim is to reach the finish line within the time cut-off to avoid elimination from the Tour.
The cut-off time is determined as a percentage of the stage winner’s time. The percentage itself is decided via a complex calculation including the perceived difficulty of the stage and the average speed of the stage winner, but on a tough mountain stage normally works out at an additional 10-20% of the winner’s time.
So in practice, if the race organizers set the time cut-off at 15%, and the stage winner finished in five hours exactly, the grupetto would have an extra 45 minutes to finish. Any stragglers left OTL (Outside Time Limit) would be disqualified from the rest of the Tour.
The time cut exists to maintain fairness. If there was no cut-off, riders would tactically take it super-easy on certain stages to keep themselves fresh for others, disadvantaging those that fought to be competitive throughout the race.
The organizers have some discretion to reinstate riders who miss the cut in exceptional circumstances, such as mechanical failures or injuries, or if a vast number of riders fail to finish in time (as at Stage 18 of the 2011 Tour de France when a colossal grupetto of 88 riders dragged themselves over the line late at what was the Tour’s highest-ever summit finish).
The Camaraderie Of The Grupetto
Riders in the grupetto are not fighting against each other, but rather fighting for survival against elimination.
As a result, there is often a much greater sense of camaraderie and friendliness in the autobus than in the competitive leading pack. It’s a place of shared suffering, with an incentive for riders to hep each other out to get the whole of the grupetto over the line in time.
Riders sometimes share food and water and help motivate each other to cross the line together. In this way, for many, the grupetto is an island of respite amongst an ocean of pain.
This is partly due to the fact that once the grupetto falls far enough behind, the support cars are often long gone, their efforts focused on the leading riders up the road. Riders in the grupetto only have themselves – and each other – to rely on to get over the line.
This friendly spirit between these riders sharing a precarious situation has earned the grupetto the nickname “the laughing group”.
Loren Rowney recalls her experience of falling back into the grupetto in the 2015 Giro Rosa. Despite the dire straits she and her fellow riders found themselves in and the pain awaiting them, the grupetto provides respite:
“It’s all good, because now we’re surrounded by friends who are cracking jokes, taking the piss, complaining, distracting and lending a helping hand.”Loren Rowney
The Harsh Realities of The Autobus – What Does It Take to Keep Up?
Despite the bonding within the group, this doesn’t always mean that the grupetto is a fun place to be, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee an easy ride to escape elimination.
Usually being non-climbers means that the group is forced to make up time on the descents, so the riders are often among the best descenders at the Tour and sprint as fast as they can on the downhills and flats. This means bad news for any who aren’t willing to fearlessly give it their all and say adios to their brakes.
The senior figures of the grupetto are also unforgiving towards slackers. Any rider failing to pull their weight for the group will likely find themselves getting some fairly robust feedback from the group’s leaders.
One experienced rider will often take charge of the weary group, shepherding them along and trying to calculate and maintain just the right speed to avoid the elimination time.
Because the size of the gap between the stage leader and the elimination time depends on the difficulty and length of the stage, one rider has to do some serious calculations and memory games in order to successfully herd them and their companions to safety.
As mentioned, the elimination time-cut is determined by the average speed of the winning rider, as well as the difficulty of the stage.
Stages will have a different coefficient depending on how difficult they are. There are six coefficients in total, with higher coefficients given to more difficult stages. The coefficient given to a stage partially determines the elimination time cut.
The elimination time cut is also based on a percentage of the finishing time of the stage winner. The faster the average speed of the stage winner, the greater the percentage time cut.
Therefore, the grupetto leader has to remember the coefficient of the stage, estimate the finishing time of the race winner, and calculate what the elimination cutoff is likely to be in order to successfully shepherd the group.
Famous Shepards Of The Grupetto
It takes a charismatic, respected, and calculated rider to guide the autobus to the finish line.
Eros Poli was one such elder statesman of the grupetto. As a heavy, 6’4″ sprinter, and the lead-out man for Mario Cipollini, his sole objective in the mountains was to finish in time. He became a popular and respected figurehead amongst the backmarkers as he shepherded them to the line, earning himself the nickname “The Bus Driver” from riders such as Chris Boardman in the process.
When asked what epithet he would choose to have on his headstone, Poli replied:
“Here lies Eros Poli, famous for being tall and coming last in the Giro d’Italia.”Eros Poli
In more recent years, the Austrian veteran Bernhard Eisel, who retired in 2019, has often been the guiding face and father figure of the autobus.