What It’s Like To Ride A Race Motorcycle In The Tour De France
Do you consider yourself a multi-tasker? How about this: Could you drive a motorbike calculating time gaps with five stopwatches around your neck while descending a mountain at 70kph? This is the life of Tour de France moto rider Bruno Thibout, who informs Radio Tour – the channel that lets everyone know what’s happening during each stage of the Tour de France – on what’s happening on course real-time.
Thibout was a professional bike racer who himself raced the Tour three times, as well as the Vuelta a España and the Giro d’Italia. After he retired, Thibout felt a sense of yearning for the exhilaration that racing used to provide, and knew that being back in the race convoy was going to be the only way to safeguard his future from boredom.
Here he reveals to us what it’s like to be, at times, nearly elbow-to-elbow with the peloton. (Thibout speaks French, so this interview was translated by Seb Piquet, the speaker of Race Radio – see our Q&A with Seb from last week.)
Are all the motorbike pilots ex-pros? Do you you think it makes a difference?
Not all of them, but quite a few are. Being a former rider it makes things a lot easier because you feel things in a different way as a former cyclist, and you know how to adapt in a better way to the peloton. The thing is when you’ve been a professional bike rider you ride your motorbike like you would ride your bicycle – the positioning, the reflexes.
Sometimes I’m driving along right next to the cyclists as if I were one of them, and I can do that because I’m an ex-pro and it comes naturally to me, it feels comfortable.
Do you think the peloton trusts you a lot more because you’re an ex-pro?
I don’t know, I’m not sure they actually know who I am. Some of them do and at the beginning a lot more knew who I was. Guys like [Tony] Gallopin and Phil Gilbert do because I used to ride with them, so yeah they probably trust me more, but the new guys don’t know who I am.
Do they ever get annoyed by you riding close to them?
[Laughs] I’ve had a few issues with some riders, a few rows, but nothing serious. But I’m a former rider, I’m not a motorbike rider who drives alongside them and admires them. I don’t really care, I feel like I’m just next to my fellow riders. So if I need to yell at them then I will, we’re part of the same family.
Do you have to go through any training or do you help train the other motorcyclists? Especially after the accidents that have happened over the past few years?
Good question. It’s an idea I’m actually having right now, to train more motorbike riders. I trained on my own, I’m sort of a self-made motorbike pilot. [As a racer] I always kept an eye on the police motorbikes, the Gendarmerie. I also did two training camps in Fontainebleau with the Gendarmerie, which is organised by ASO.
But I would actually like to set up a training facility where I can train future motorcyclists for the bike races, where eventually they would get a diploma that allows them to drive in the races. I would love that.
What do you think is the most challenging part of the job?
Driving the bike has to be natural, you shouldn’t have to think about it to be able to carry on and do the rest of your job. You have to be able to concentrate on your radio and your task and not on the riding. And for a guy who is not used to descending down the Alps or the Pyrenees it’s not easy when you’re not a natural driver or rider.
Which is scariest descending down a mountain on a road bike or on a motorbike?
On a motorbike, definitely. When you’re driving you have to focus on not being a nuisance to the riders, not putting them in danger, not putting yourself in danger, and thinking about the spectators. You also have to be careful with the TV motorbikes who have priority to film.
I guess you have to pay attention to a lot more on the motorbike.
I have five stopwatches on me, so I have to focus on them and remember which one is which, and on places where I need to stop the stopwatch. For example, a guy on the front motorbike says, “Stop the watch at Rosso’s Italian restaurant.” Then when I get to Rosso’s Italian restaurant I will stop the watch and give the time gap to Seb [Piquet] in the car. Focusing on all these things is tough. On one stage I will do between 200 and 250 time checks.
Wow! Has it ever gone wrong?
[Laughs] Yes it has, because sometimes the stopwatch will be launched on a guy who has an umbrella, for example, and then if he puts the umbrella down or moves, then you can’t see it anymore.
What’s been the biggest thing that has gone wrong?
In the Tour de France one year on Plateau de Beille in the Pyrenees I got one stopwatch wrong so then all the rest were wrong, a knock-on effect. It made a difference of 1 minute 30 and it was a super important stage. Seb [Piquet] was going mad in the car at me.
From all the years that you have been covering the races which has been your most memorable moment?
It’s a memory from when I was driving the motorbike for press. Everyday it’s always the same rider but each day the journalist changes, from different newspapers or photographers. That day I was with a journalist and I decided to go behind the pack which I normally never do. And I said to the journalist, “You’re going to see something that you’ve never seen before,” and suddenly there were echelons everywhere with Contador at the front, and the race was exploding behind. That’s a moment I’ll remember forever.
When you were riding the press bike, could just any journalist get on the back of your motorbike and ride with you? Do they receive any briefing on how they have to act on the back of the motorbike?
Yeah anyone can be on the bike, they have to get approval through ASO, but I’m the guy who briefs them. They’re given a long-sleeved jacket and a helmet. It’s crazy because they get on the back of a motorbike and are descending at speed down mountains, and they might never have been on the back of a motorbike before, and you’re dealing with their life. You have to be a little bit crazy for this job. But that’s what I love about the it, the exhilaration.
I guess after being a professional cyclist, to go into a job like this is the perfect transition.
It’s exactly that. I like the aspect of danger, functioning on the edge. I need that. If I didn’t have that level of exhilaration in my life I would get bored – and I don’t want to be bored.
So while Seb is in the car and can eat his ham and cornichon sandwiches, what do you do? Do you not eat for the whole stage?
Sometimes we eat but it’ll be when the race is fully established and the break is really far down the road. The problem is I have to eat my sandwich whilst I’m driving. I always have mayonnaise issues because I have to push the mic away from my mouth when I’m eating and then Seb speaks to me and I have to respond instantly. Sometimes there’s food everywhere.
Who is the scariest rider to follow down a descent?
I think Tony Gallopin. He is really good on descents. We were on a descent on the Dauphiné, and I couldn’t get rid of him because he was so fast behind me. The riders who are good on descents, I’ll be pushing everything to the limit just to stay ahead of them.
Besides drafting, is being in front of the rider a benefit to them on a descent because they can see when you’re braking?
Yeah definitely. When I was a rider I would always keep an eye on the Gendarme, because when you see their lights you know when you need to brake. I have so much fun descending with them, it definitely stops life from being boring.
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