In Pictures: Life behind the Tour de France

Why did Wiggins and his team go for a bike ride on their day off, what do riders eat for dinner, why do they room together and what's going on with those funny socks? Alasdair Fotheringham explains all

Q Why do riders warm down by pedalling on a stationary bike just moments after they've ridden for six hours?

A This decompression technqiue is something relatively new in cycling, although it has been used in rugby in the Six Nations for some time now: it's a way of eliminating lactic acid levels, helps heart rates return to normal levels more gradually, helps avoid fainting or dizziness which can happen when blood gathers in the large leg muscles after vigorous activity and ensures that core temperature do not drop too fast. It also makes the riders look hard, but that's a side benefit.

Q What do riders do in the evenings of stage races?

A As little as possible. Stage races are won as much – if not more – on how well a rider can recover from the day's effort as they are from what actually happens during the race. The fresher they are for the following stage, the better they will perform. The aim will therefore be for riders to start re-upping their calorie levels and repairing damaged muscle fibres as quickly as possible, drinking recovery drinks as soon as they have crossed the line, then eating light snacks on the team bus, and sleeping or resting in comfy armchairs during the transfer from the finish to the hotel.

When the riders reach the hotels – which can be up to two or three hours away in the worst circumstances – the recovery process continues, with more food – often muesli or cereals – then a 45-minute massage to ease muscles and also allow riders to unwind. This is followed by the main meal of the day. Even if they call their families or watch TV afterwards, nine times out of 10 they will be lying on a bed as they do it. By 9.30 or 10pm they will normally be asleep. After which it all starts all over again.

Sleep is probably the most important part of the recovery process, to the point where the Dutch 1968 Tour winner, Jan Jansenns, was so obsessed with it that he would bring his own blinds with him to races to ensure that they cut out the light completely and he could get a decent night's kip.

Q Do riders hang out with their team-mates in the evenings?

A They have no choice. Traditionally, professional cycling is a very social activity, in which all riders on the same team eat together, without management sitting in, at their own table in the hotel dining room. Riders always (except for Lance Armstrong, who was the exception to almost everything) share hotel rooms – unless they are ill when they will sleep alone. This is partly to keep expenses down, partly to ensure they don't get too wrapped up in their own thoughts, partly because that way they can sound off about the day.

Some teams will switch riders around during a race to ensure they don't form a "team within a team", others positively encourage it. The brothers Schleck, for example, nearly always room together, and the same went for Prudencio Indurain and his brother and five-times Tour winner Miguel, both professionals, who often shared. It's rare, though, for teams to allow relatives or partners to sleep over – but not unheard of.

Q Why does Bradley Wiggins go for a two-hour bike ride on his day off?

A To keep his muscles from "seizing up" by a sudden drop in activity levels and to stay focused on the race. It's also a way of chilling out, (Sky stopped for a coffee midway through their training ride on Tuesday) and the ride will be taken at a steady pace. Sometimes it is used to check out a climb on the next day's stage and above all it means the riders are not spending too much time staring at four hotel walls.

Q What else happens on rest days during the Tour?

A They'll also get longer massages (an hour rather than 45 minutes), visits from relatives and friends, and a chance to talk to the press.

Rest days used to be far more relaxed affairs than they are these days. In the 1963 Tour rest day in Andorra, the future race winner Jacques Anquetil went to a lamb barbecue and stuffed himself silly (he nearly abandoned with indigestion the next day after everybody attacked at the foot of the first climb) while British great Tom Simpson pedalled up the Envalira pass to see some friends, then went to a bullfight. And in the 1993 Tour I came across Belgium's entire No 1 team, Lotto, tucking into hamburgers and frites at a McDonald's near Pau. Sometimes a special Mass will be held for the Tour's riders, particularly if they're near some religious sanctuary such as Lourdes.

Q What do they eat and drink of an evening?

A Lots. In one of cycling's three Grand Tours – that's the Tours of Italy, France and Spain – riders cover 3,500km (2,188 miles) at an average speed of 40km an hour, roughly the equivalent exertion of a marathon every day for almost three weeks, which means they will consume up to 8,000 calories a day, which is about the same as 17 Big Macs. According to a Dutch study, their metabolism can sometimes become so efficient that only four species on earth can better it. Alcohol is not indulged in on Tour for obvious reasons of rehydration. Some teams will celebrate stage wins with a small glass of bubbly.

Q So what do they eat to hit this 10,000 calorie mark?

A Carb-high food to pack those calories in, lots of roughage to make sure the waste gets out the other end. A rider's meal I once ate back in the early 1990s – by accident, they thought I was part of a team – consisted of salad with olive oil, a huge dish of pasta (lots of complaints from the foreign teams, prior to them bringing their own chefs, that the French are incapable of cooking well), a steak the size of a house (these days it's more fish and chicken) and boiled potatos, then a crème caramel.

Riders will often become obsessive about what they eat, or irritated if they can't eat what they like – as Mark Cavendish admits has been the case he was placed on a sugar-free diet earlier this year to bring down his weight pre-Olympics. Lance Armstrong used to weigh his food on his own personal scales. Chefs will be brought in to try to vary the very limited options on offer and prepare personal favourites if the riders are feeling down or have won a stage. Back in the 1990s one American team would wrap the riders' mid-race sandwiches in torn-out pages of Playboy to try to cheer them up. Haimar Zubeldia, currently Spain's leading rider, eats a ham and cheese tortilla every morning of the Tour, specially made by his chef. I can also remember bringing a British rider packs of Jello jelly cubes on the Tour in the 1990s (unobtainable in continental Europe) as a treat. Although the "special treats" can go too far: Alberto Contador claims that his positive test for the banned substance clenbuterol was due to a prime Spanish steak brought over specially for the rest day.

Q Is there any change in diet on rest days?

A Not much, but riders will eat more roughage, given they use up less energy.

Q How do riders stop injuries and illnesses?

A Prevention is a large part of it. Riders will be kept under close observation by team staff as a matter of course. A cough or sniff at breakfast, particularly as the Tour hits its third week, can set alarm bells ringing. Riders will be weighed before and after stages – they can lose up to three or four kilos because of dehydration – but teams will nag them to up their fluid intake to quickly regain it.

Health checks are carried out, both by the teams and the UCI, cycling's governing body, to look for anomalies and to serve as an early warning system for illnesses.

Most professional teams have their own doctors, osteopaths, physiotherapists, masseurs and several have chiropractors. Psychologists and psychiatrists will occasionally pay a visit, if needed.

The dark side of the recovery process is, of course, banned drug use to speed it up. According to a recent study of all 26 Olympic sports, cycling is the worst offender in terms of the rate of positive or anomalous findings per sample with 3.71 per cent over the last eight years. The number of positive tests is decreasing but we're not out of the woods yet by a long way.

Q Why do riders wear those funny knee-high socks after the race?

A They ease circulation, reduce muscle vibration and minimise damage to muscles. They also help promote the metrosexual side of their personalities.

Q Are there any other tricks of the trade for off-the-bike recovery?

A Thousands. Sky would probably call them "marginal gains". Britain's top Tour pro of the 1980s and early 1990s, Robert Millar, used to call it "the knowledge". Back in his day these varied from everything to taking a screwdriver with you to disable automatic air conditioning (Miguel Indurain was an expert at this) in older hotels so you don't catch cold to keeping the windows down in your team car to avoid air conditioning (again, for the same reason). Others, such as ensuring you sleep furthest from the hotel bedroom door to avoid having to answer it, were more selfish.

Fashions go in and out. One relatively recent one is having an ice-cold bath post-stage to speed up elimination of muscular toxins and accelerate the repair process of muscles.

Sky have taken this marginal gain process to such extremes they have different coloured lighting in the team bus to influence the riders' mood (more aggressive before stages, calming afterwards) and the riders sleep on special mattresses with inbuilt music systems that the team's back-up staff will lug around from hotel to hotel. If they win the Tour de France expect everybody else to do the same next year.

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