How does a three week tour of France sound? By some measures, France is the most visited tourist destination in the world. There's culture and history, gourmet food, pleasant countryside and a long coastline. For cyclists there's a vast road network to explore, with the famous mountain passes and countless scenic routes.
But it's no vacation for riders in the Tour de France. With all the racing there's little time to appreciate the scenery, riders study the wheel in front of them and local cuisine is replaced with pasta and rice. It's three weeks of non-stop work, even the two "rest days" aren't much escape, a recovery ride is obligatory and the favourites have to attend a press conference.
At times the racing can be the most predictable and certain part of the day. Once the finish line is crossed, a new race begins. Only this time there's a variable finish line. The dreaded word is "transfer". Some riders might find their stop for the night is close by but there will be days when some teams face a three or four hour drive to reach the hotel.
As for the hotel itself, it's a lottery. France might be a popular tourist destination but most of its hotel beds are in Paris. When the race visits the smaller towns often there aren't that many big hotels capable of housing a whole team and so the quality varies. Over the opening weekend the teams are spread across the Vendée area. Quick Step, Team Sky and Astana are staying in places whose names begin with "Chateau", "Abbaye" and "Domaine" and if you're getting upmarket images of castles and the kind of place that has suites instead of rooms then you're quite right.
Meanwhile the likes of Katusha, BMC and Rabobank are staying in places called Campanile, Ibis and Kyriad. If you haven't got an image in your mind yet these are chains of hotels dotted all over France and every rider is familiar with them. They're clean but functional, the kind of place where the dining tables are bolted to the floor, perhaps to prevent guests stealing them. As FDJ's Jérémy Roy told L'Equipe recently, once you've got two riders in a room often there's not enough space to open both of suitcases at once.
The Tour organisers try to even things out during the race, so that a team in modest hotel one day gets somewhere more luxurious the next. But this is never precise and some teams just get luckier than others. In response, teams have their own tricks. Quick Step has a mattress sponsor to ensure riders always get familiar bedding, other teams do this too. Some riders travel with their own pillow as well.
Many teams also travel with their own food and hiring a chef to travel with the team during the race is common. Italians in particular complain their pasta is overcooked in France. ASO apparently issues guidelines to the hotels it selects to ensure the cooking is suitable. But for some teams this isn't enough and they don't just bring a chef, they bring the kitchen in the shape of a well-equipped camper van. Leopard-Trek have a whole truck. This way all ingredients are on hand, they can ensure hygiene and everything's where it should be to help ensure the all important food gets served on time.
During a stage race relaxation and recovery are like compound interest, get some in the bank and it soon adds up. Over three weeks these things count and if they don't determine the winner, they certainly affect a rider's mood. It's no vacation, but a good place to spend the night and the right food are always important.