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Tour de France: Furious relaxation vital part of life on tour

When not on the bike it's sleep, porridge, massage, ergonomic seats and more sleep. Simon O'Hagan goes behind the scenes

Everyone knows that the Tour de France is just about the toughest physical challenge that sport has to offer – the equivalent, it is often said, of running a marathon every day for three weeks.

But looked at another way, the hours themselves aren't bad – if the working day is defined as the amount of time the riders actually spend on their bikes.

Tuesday's 158km stage from Aurillac to Carmaux, for example, was completed in just three-and-a-half hours. Even the much tougher Pyrennean stage on Thursday saw the winner home in just over six hours.

That leaves quite a lot of the day for other stuff. So what exactly do these fellows get up to?

The answer might best be summarised as furious relaxation. So demanding is the Tour that, away from the action, everything is geared to making the riders' lives as comfortable as possible – from the moment they dismount in the late afternoon to the moment they roll down to the start the following morning. On the bike, life is brutal, but off it there's a different kind of hectic schedule to maintain, involving massages, ergonomic seats, carefully-chosen food, minimum exertion, and that most vital of support mechanisms – sleep.

If the non-working day is defined as the moment the riders cross the line at the end of a stage, then what's striking is how instantaneously they move into downtime mode. On Tuesday in Carmaux, for example, at the end of that short stage, you could have seen David Millar, the veteran Briton who rides for Garmin-Cervelo, sweep through the finish area, continue on for a couple of hundred yards, unclip his shoes, prop his bike up against the side of the team bus and disappear inside in a state of partial undress all within the space of about 30 seconds.

The team bus is in many ways the riders' real home for the duration of the three-week event. Hotels come and go, a different one every night, varying in quality, but the bus is always there for you, a hi-tech sanctuary on wheels and as palatial as the limited dimensions of an autoroute-cruising pantechnicon will allow. And no team bus is more refined or more beautifully equipped than the one in which the Sky team glides from one stage to the next. It is perhaps the most vivid manifestation of the seriousness with which Sky entered the sport, backed as they are now by financial traders IG Markets, who are currently making waves in cycling with their new ranking system.

Earlier this week, Sky's young star rider Geraint Thomas and the team's head coach Shane Sutton talked through the off-bike routine that it's so crucial to get right, starting with those first few moments when the monumental effort needed to get to the finish line is suddenly over.

The first friendly face a rider sees, Thomas explained, will be one of his soigneurs, stationed a short distance beyond the finish line. He will be armed with a) a recovery drink and b) information on where the bus is parked. Once there, Thomas hands his bike over to another member of the support staff and then he hops aboard.

Within seconds of that happening, a rider can be in the showers – the Sky bus is equipped with two – and then it'll be into a reclining seat specially designed to aid the body's recovery. Kit is washed and food is served – generally rice or potatoes, cooked in the galley at the back of the bus – and by then the team are on their way to the next hotel.

"Really all you do is chill," Thomas explained. "We have a big screen at the front where you can watch the race highlights but generally I don't bother. I might have a little sleep – it all depends how many caffeine jars I've had during the ride."

What about a post-mortem on the day's stage? There always is one, but never until the following morning. "You have to remember that riders can be in a bit of an emotional state immediately after a stage," Sutton, a 54-year-old Australian, said. "When you've just done five hours on the bike and your blood's pumping and your emotions are high and you maybe aren't thinking logically... well there's no point having a debrief then."

By early evening the bus has given way to the hotel and, for this Tour, Thomas is rooming with Edvald Boasson Hagen, the Norwegian who in week one gave Sky a tremendous boost by bringing them a first ever stage win in the Tour, only for the team to suffer the awful blow of losing Bradley Wiggins to a broken collar-bone the next day. "I roomed with Edvald on a training camp," Thomas said. "He was a bit shy at first but we can have a bit of banter now and that's important."

Lying down is something to which a cyclist can and should dedicate himself, and it starts at the hotel with up to an hour's massage. "It flushes out the acid and it's good for the head," Thomas said. Then dinner – always cooked by the chef that the team takes with them, an arrangement that minimises the possibility of anything untoward being consumed. "We'll always have protein with pasta – beef maybe, but sadly not Welsh beef," Thomas said. "And then a little treat for pudding like chocolate cake. You need treats." Wine is not ruled out, but it won't be more than a glass.

The rest of the evening is spent in bed if not asleep. "My PR lady is usually on to me about my website, so I try and keep her happy," Thomas said. "There are always messages to pick up and send, little bits of video to film."

It's often said that the rider who wins the stage is the one who has slept the best, and as Victor Hugo Pena, one-time support rider for Lance Armstrong, once observed: "You learn to sleep like a professional".

For Thomas, that means nine hours from around midnight, and then the new day starts with porridge for breakfast.

The remaining couple of hours until the start of the next stage are crucial. This is when the team reassemble on the bus, discuss anything arising from the previous day's stage and make plans for what is to come. Directeur sportif Sean Yates takes command, explaining how the stage unfolds with a detailed guide to the final three kilometres, which will have been filmed and is shown to the riders on the big screen.

"It's precision work," Sutton said. "We'll have a strategy and talk tactics. Sean will say who he wants in the breaks, who will be the water-carriers, who will go when. We're in radio contact with the riders throughout the stage but of course there are situations where suddenly everything changes."

Sutton is thinking of the second stroke of bad luck to hit Sky this year when Juan-Antonio Flecha was knocked off his bike by a car and injured his elbow quite badly. "That's when you have to think on your feet."

Now comes the moment when the cyclist is on his own again. "You go down to the start and sign on," says Thomas. "There'll be fans around and that's nice, and then you probably want to be as near the front of the group of riders as possible.

"Of course I still get nervous but, once you're a few days into the Tour and the peloton's got to know each other, it all settles down."

The pampering is over. The pain is about to begin.