When the Grand Tours reach the mountains, for a significant portion of the peloton success is simply finishing inside the time limit and thereby surviving to race again the next day. This limit varies but usually means that to continue a rider has to cross the line in the winner’s time plus a percentage that is decided according to the length of the stage, the difficulty of the climbs, and the average speed. That figure normally falls somewhere between 10 and 15 percent. In other words, when the first rider finishes in 4 hours and the cutoff is 15 percent, every other one behind has to complete the stage within the subsequent 36 minutes.
Riders who can’t stay with the best at the front of the race gang together to ensure they don’t fall right off the pace at the back. They share not only the pacemaking, but water, food, and encouragement. Their group gained a name long ago, l’autobus in French and il gruppetto in Italian, and is also known as “the laughing group” due to the fact that the atmosphere is more relaxed and the sense of camaraderie generally all-pervading—crowd-pleasing wheelies included. Prior to the advent of race radios, the bus would have a driver, one who was always an experienced pro who not only knew the pace that needed to be set on climbs, descents, and in the valleys, but also had the respect of his peers for being able to ensure they would get home in time.
Italian sprinter Mario Cipollini was one of the most renowned in this role, as Australian directeur sportif Matt White recalls. “I remember seeing him going to the front of the bunch on one of the opening mountain stages of the Giro and saying, ‘We’re only going to race the last two climbs.’ He let riders from certain teams go in the break of the day and that was it. I was blown away by it,” says White.
“Guys like him controlled Italian racing and basically looked after each other. I saw Cipollini ‘helmet pop’ people who tried to attack at the start, when he’d decided they weren’t allowed to. He’d chase them himself. He’d bop them on the top of the head, grab them by the shirt, and tell them, ‘You’re not going anywhere.’ I was scared shitless of him in my first year. Cipollini ran Italian cycling in that era. There were guys like Richard Virenque and Laurent Brochard in France who did the same thing. Back then riders were racing too much. When you’re racing 120 or 130 days a year, you can’t race hard every day. It was self-preservation.” When the racing did get going, Cipollini’s grip transferred to the riders at the rear of the field. “Mario would call ‘gruppetto!’ and 70 blokes would sit up and we’d ride in together,” White explains.
More recently, Bernie Eisel, a stalwart of Mark Cavendish’s lead-out train and one of the best road captains around, often takes the driver’s role in the mountains. Blessed with a reputation as something of a human calculator, Eisel bases his sums on a well-practiced survival technique of riding “steady on the climbs, hard on the descents.” The Austrian reckons on the gruppetto losing approximately a minute every kilometer on the GC riders when climbing, then recouping a minute or even two on long descents and perhaps twice that in the wet.
According to Koen de Kort, who used to spend most mountain stages in the gruppetto when he was working for and looking after German sprinter Marcel Kittel, the days when someone like Cipollini would shout “gruppetto” and attract a large band of eager adherents have gone. “You get shelled out [of the main group] and as you’re climbing you’ll see a group forming ahead of you, so you’ll sprint for 200 meters to join them. Then more guys will come from behind and others will get dropped from the main group and they’ll slowly drop back until the gruppetto rides up to them.”
Mountain valleys favor the gruppetto by force of numbers. With perhaps 60 riders or more all sharing the workload, rotating at the front in between climbs, the group’s speed can approach that set by the bunch heading into a sprint finish while, up ahead, the lead group of perhaps half that size tends to get pulled along 10 kph slower by a handful of riders as the rest sit in to save themselves for the next climb.
Thanks to its size, the laughing group can achieve incredible speeds, well in excess of 100 kph. At the 2017 Tour of Switzerland, Frenchman Kévin Réza admitted to being frightened when his bike computer clocked him at 135.44 kph coming off the Simplon Pass within a gruppetto in which many riders reported that they had reached 125 kph and more.
Marco Pinotti stresses that riders need to understand that they will expend considerably less energy if they join the sizeable pack that usually gathers in the gruppetto than if they stay ahead of it in a group of 10 or even 20 riders. “You’re simply going to do less work and that will benefit you and the team over the days ahead,” Pinotti explains.
Adapted from How the Race Was Won: Cycling’s Top Minds Reveal the Road to Victory by Peter Cossins with permission of VeloPress.