Chris Juul-Jensen: Gruppetto Life

A column from Chris Juul-Jensen at the 2015 Giro, when he was riding for Tinkoff-Saxo in support of Alberto Contador


I was never good with numbers when it came to school. I was terrible at maths and even worse when it came to getting them off the girls I fancied.


But if only I’d known back then that simple maths such as calculating percentages, multiplication and division are three essential tools when it comes to riding in the gruppetto at a Grand Tour, maybe I’d have sharpened my pencil and got down to some hard sums. Instead, I was busy trying to impress my mates with the words I could spell on my calculator. (‘Hello’ is 01134 and then turn it upside-down…)


My inability to do basic sums struck me one day at the Giro d’Italia. In a state of panic and exhaustion, I asked the rider beside me if he had any clue what the time limit was.


“Sure,” he went. “It’s 18 per cent and the stage will take around four hours, twenty-five minutes.”


“Oh right, cool. Thanks man.”


What? Obviously I had no idea what he was talking about. Who can figure out 18% of anything, let alone four hours 25 minutes. In my confused, tired head I had a sum that looked like this:


40 x 60 x 25 divided by 0.18 x 100 + 240km = 230947239857234123047 minutes

gruppetto, 2011 giro d'italia

Frankly, I think that any rider who can do that off the top of their head should do something else other than just ride a bike. It turned out there there was no need for panic. The gruppetto survived another day.


Before I hopped into the bus I usually gave a short interview to Danish television. Actually, I would start by asking the journalist questions about everything I had missed.


How did it go? Who won? And what about Alberto? He would then give me a quick summary of what had happened and thirty seconds later I would explain it back to him on live television.


It’s not that I didn’t pay attention to what was going on in the race. I was just never really in a position to see what happened in the finales. It doesn’t sound glamorous, but that’s the way it is. Do your work, do it well and after that, survive.


It may be difficult for people to understand when I come home.
“So how did you do?”
“Great – we won!”
“Where did you finish? How many were in the race?”
“Not sure, I was roughly five and a half hours behind!”
“Er, I thought you said it went well?”


I don’t blame them for being confused. Not finishing in the bunch once  (unless the TTT counts) during a Grand Tour doesn’t really sound like an experience you would look back on with fond memories. However, I couldn’t have asked for it to have gone better. I was flying.


Every day a small bunch unhitches itself from the peloton. Or more correctly,  the peloton separates itself from us. We are the gruppetto, a place at the back of the race where riders seek refuge and try to mend themselves after a hard day’s labour. The atmosphere can range from joy to hostility and desperation.


You see, there are three reasons why a rider might be in the gruppetto: choice, denial or simply clinging on for dear life.

Ventoux, 2009 tour de france

Watching the Tour as a kid, I always admired the heroic domestique who slaved at the front for hours on end. Mouth open and with an entire peloton strung out behind him, he’d swing off demonstratively once he hit the final climb, almost coming to a complete standstill. These are the guys who decide to be in the gruppetto, who create it.


On many occasions throughout the Giro, this was me and my Tinkoff-Saxo team-mates. As I explained in my previous blog, us bike riders are pretty vain, me included. So yes, I may have over-exaggerated the facial expressions on a few occasions. Either with the wide open mouth look (less preferred now with slow motion TV filming in vogue) or the closed mouth stealth one – the Kiryienka, as I like to call it.


Stealth or not, the feeling of satisfaction I had when I sailed down through the bunch knowing that I had caused this mayhem was enormous. All I could think about was how my Twitter feed must be lighting up with recognition tweets about me, the unsung hero (just kidding, I’m not that vain or deluded). But the satisfaction and appreciation from the team that follows is what got me through many hours of gruppetto riding.


Once in the gruppetto initially, everything seems so comprehensible. Time limit? Don’t worry about it! We have plenty of time. I became the good Samaritan of the pack. Cokes and cakes are picked up from the car and handed out to the suffering. Friendships are made and misunderstandings become a thing of the past.


In the gruppetto, everybody is welcome. Except those who are in denial. These are the riders who turn up and disturb the peace. They are not permanent residents of the gruppetto and don’t wish to be. You see them once in a while; maybe they are having a bad day or crashed. They see the gruppetto as a disease: something to get rid of as soon as possible.


“I’m sorry sir, but you seem to have caught a bad case of the gruppetto.'”


A wave of surprise and uncertainty trickles through the pack whenever a pure climber is spotted in our ranks.


“Look! Over there! It’s a climber.”
“Oh my god, you’re right. A real climber. Should we talk to him?”
“Good idea. We need to make sure he is distracted so he doesn’t go to the front.”


Peace restored


Unfortunately these types often fail to understand the fragile chemistry between riders in the gruppetto or to acknowledge the unwritten rules and unofficial leaders.


In a desperate attempt to redeem themselves, they will go to the front and gradually increase the pace. My conversation with Lars Bak is disrupted and the peaceful atmosphere is destroyed with every pedal stroke.
My mental and physical states deteriorate drastically. I’m no longer in control of the situation or myself. Desperation takes over and I’m unable to think rationally.

gruppetto, 2002 tour de france

A few climbs ago I was capable of everything, no matter how many category-one climbs we had left. Now I ride closer and closer to the spectators, hoping for a gentle push. I know it’s wrong, but I can’t deny a fan the privilege of touching their idol, can I?


Reality has hit, and it feels like cement has been poured into both legs. Vanity is out the window. My helmet is crooked and there is snot everywhere.


The time limit? Who gives a fuck? The gruppetto is either going to make it or not. There is nothing I can do about it anymore. I can only concentrate on the wheel in front of me. I even stop talking, which is a very bad sign.
Suddenly a small group is spotted in the horizon. Fellow strugglers, warriors of the bunch ready to be guided home by the gruppetto.


Bernie Eisel keeps a reassuring tempo and makes sure nobody is left behind. My spirits quickly improve as I start to imagine what the finish looks like.


The flamme rouge almost brings a tear to my eye and as I cross the line, I’m covered in a shower of champagne. Another day in pink. Alberto gives me the thumbs up from the podium. Cheers Chris!


Job well done. I couldn’t have asked for a better day in the saddle. God bless the gruppetto.


Chris Juul Jensen rides the Giro d’Italia for Orica-Scott and is better at maths than he likes to let on


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