For fans, the sight of team buses rolling in and out of a race's start area must give the impression of modern day Trojan horses, packed with their favourite heroes, ready for battle on the roads and cobbles of Europe. With their tinted windows, team war paint emblazoned down the sides and their sheer bulk, they do cut an impressive figure. The reality is that from the inside they're totally different. In fact, they're just like any other bus. Okay, so they may be pimped out with televisions, showers and sound systems but they still possess the same wonky arm rests, youngsters down the back and a bus driver constantly subjecting his passengers to his own individual interpretation of "popular" music.
Why am I talking about buses? Well, right now we're driving to the start of stage five at the Tour de Suisse. I'm in my usual spot at the back of the bus, next to Fabien Cancellara, who right now has his earphones plugged in. I'm always at the back, usually lying down and listening to music. It's a regular pattern for me, just as it is for Chris Anker Sorenson to sit at the head of the bus reading. He gets motion sick so he can't sit at the back. ‘It's too much like a roller coaster' he tells us. I've refrained from pointing out to him that reading can't be all that good for preventing his motion sickness. Then there's our bus driver who tapes MTV for us and once we hit the road he'll put it on.
But hands-down my favourite feature on our team bus is the aquarium we have at the back. It's not actually part of the bus's specification but we have a faulty rear window that over time has collected a lot of rain water between the two sheets of glass. Now, don't go calling the World Wide Fund for Nature just yet - Matti Breschel and I've haven't been stuffing any goldfish through the gap. Instead, Matti and the gang have been drawing an aquatic-themed collage on the window. I must say, Matti's portrait of Sponge Bob Square Pants is truly exceptional and once he's hung up his wheels he could easily turn his attention to art.
Speaking of Matti, he took an excellent win here in Suisse in a sprint finish. We turned pro in the same year and we've both been with the team ever since, so it was great to see him take the stage yesterday and even more so as I was in the break with him.
Right now the atmosphere on the bus is pretty relaxed. Fabien won the prologue and grabbed the leader's jersey, adding Matti's win to that has means we're all now on cloud nine. Last night we relaxed by watching Ace Ventura Pet Detective. It's a classic. It has had the team in stitches and we haven't stopped doing impressions of Ace since - on the bus, at the dinner table, wherever we go. Those who've encountered us in the past 24 hours have probably confused us for escaped mental patients.
In terms of pre-race rituals, we all stay relaxed up until an hour before the start. At that point you've got to focus and start preparing yourself. It doesn't matter if it's a four kilometre prologue or a mammoth 260km mountain stage: you've got to be ready. Usually it's a little spark that gets me going and into the zone, be it a flick through the race manual or a song on MTV. Even the look of expectation or apprehension from a teammate or Bjarne Riis can be enough.
Being a Tour Favourite
Frank and I said that if either of us won something during the Classic season, we'd celebrate by buying something big. After my win in Liege-Bastogne-Liege you're probably thinking we went out and spent our money on fast cars and bling but alas, no, instead we bought a small pond near where we live. Not very rock'n'roll I'll admit, but that's fine. We've already spent a lot of time together there and it's a great place to relax, do some fishing and have barbeques with friends.
Unfortunately, there won't be much time for fishing in the next few weeks. The Tour is less than a month away and by the time I've finished here at the Tour de Suisse I'll pretty much be ready for the start in Monaco. A few people have told me that this is my biggest race ever. I don't really sign up to that theory but I can assure you that I'll be giving it my all. My preparation has been better than ever and I'm ready to suffer for three weeks.
Last week the team held a training camp in the Alps. We did all of the stages but also spent a lot of time on our time trial bikes. I know it's not my strength and I don't enjoy doing but I also know that it's vital I improve. Bobby Julich has been fantastic, passing his time trial knowledge on to me.
I think the final week of the race will be the most critical and the last four stages are really hard. The finish on the Galibier is going to be tough and, of course, I'm already thinking about the stage to Ventoux as well - after three weeks of racing it's going to be a real leg breaker. I for one cannot wait!
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