There's one thing that practically everyone wants and almost no one gets here at the Tour de France: Lance Armstrong's autograph. It's not that the 6-time champ doesn't sign things, it's just that there's only so much time and space before racing and only a lucky few score the Big Deal.
Here's how the morning plays out:
After breakfast and stage preparation at the team hotel the guys load up onto the bus and are lead in by Serge and Erwin in "Air Force One", the name they have given their team car. Behind the bus come the team cars with the bikes atop. There's a parade of all the team vehicles rolling in line to the start, but somehow Discovery Channel always finds a way to be one of the last folks to show up.
The guessing game for the fans then is to 1] calculate what side of the street the bus will be on and 2] what section of street to be waiting at, because if you're not at the rail in advance you're pretty much out of luck for an autograph, it's that simple.
As soon as we see the bus come into sight, any of the staff on the ground grab barrier railings to set up at the front and rear of the bus to control things. The bus pulls parallel to the main railing and then the cars will add some additional protection. Much to the crowd's consternation, a final team meeting is held and the riders don't come out till it's almost time to go and sign in. That's not to be mean or anything, things are just down to the wire and no one's just hanging about drinking pre-race coffee in Le Village. All the guys are usually very happy to sign things for the fans, especially if you speak their language.
Lance is always the last man out to minimize the pandemonium. He'll come out of the bus, everyone screams and cheers, and there's usually someone the Tour's arranged for him to meet, sometimes a celebrity but it's always more-gooder if it's a local cancer survivor. With the greeting and photo done Lance will usually work the rail by the bus for a few minutes, signing lots of stuff but amazingly always making sure the person gets their pen or marker back as well.
From there it's time to plow the field as Serge and Erwin run with Lance on his bike through the main parking area to get him to the line. After signing in on-stage he heads to the front of the pack to be introduced once again as the photogs basically try to kill each other in the main scrum, everyone screaming "Lance, look this way!" at the same time. That in itself is pretty fun to watch but no fun to be in. From there, race time...
So there you have it - life with Lance at the start - thanks for checking in!
July 9, 2005: Entering the Holy of Holies
There's one very visible place that basically no one goes unless you ride or work for the Discovery Channel Pro Cycling team: the team bus.
Viewed as a sanctuary from the fans, the bus is part fortress, part strategy room, and a place to prepare for and relax/recover after each stage in the Tour.
In recent years the teams have been basically one-upping each other, seeing who can go bigger and better according to their budgets. A quick look around the parking lot has most teams on an even keel, with possibly Liberty Seguros in the lead - they have two buses for some reason. Gerolsteiner is definitely off the back in a much smaller and less exquisite ride.
The honour of driving Big Blue goes to long-time Team ONCE soigneur Valentin Dorronsoro, also a soigneur for the DC team at other races. Assistant Director Sportif Dirk Demol is usually seated right next to him in the "suicide seat" by the front door with the team casually lined up in the seats behind.
Right above the seats are three plasma TVs, and then behind the main seats are two curved couches where the team's strategy meetings are held before each stage. There's another plasma screen to the rear of this area.
In the rear section of the bus is a small kitchen that houses the hallowed coffee maker, then two restrooms and a small private area in the very rear with a small couch. There's a large door leading out from the kitchen so the boys can come and go from the front or the back, much to the frustration of the crowd if they have guessed wrong!
Hope you enjoyed your little tour of the team bus, the inside is definitely not something you get to see every day - ciao for now.