All Hail the Domestique

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There is no other role quite like the cycling domestique. The name conjures up an image of a rider freewheeling aside their team car stuffing back pockets with drink bottles and searching for ways to carry that one extra bidon. They’ll often be the wheel giver. Their team leader should never suffer a stranded existence at the side of the road, losing both patience and vital seconds, so the domestique will volunteer to trade places. Later they will roll home seven minutes after the peloton content by the day’s work. But these are aspects of doting domestique life that are not always called upon. Often, domestiques are asked to perform physical feats that highlight just how good of a bike rider they are. Some will take colossal turns on the front chasing breaks whilst others tap out tempos on climbs to filter the field. We’ve also welcomed the rise of the ‘Super Domestique’ a name given to a rider who supports a leader on the hardest of climbs.

Great Britain's Mark Cavendish takes fee

As hard as the physical demands are, perhaps the biggest ask is to abandon personal ambitions when a captain is in difficulty. Other times domestiques will grind out nine tenths of a climb before an opportunist leader motors away on the penultimate hairpin for stage glory and a podium bouquet. To find happiness in others’ success is an endearing trait. If a domestique is content to roll in alone, exhausted, so their leader could come eighteenth after a puncture, then how must they feel when helping them land a Monument or Grand Tour? The domestique role grows complex when you consider the different sorts of goals set out in the sport. Some teams will have one protected rider who could place high overall, others will alternate depending on stage profiles, and then there’s sprinters who require completely different race support.

Often domestique life will be finite and riders will go from domestiques one month to protected riders the next. However, for every Stuart O’Grady or Jens Voigt there is a Charlie Wegelius or Cheng Ji. Some riders progress through their career without ever showing the required potential to win races. Giant-Alpecin’s Cheng Ji finished the Giro d’Italia last week in 156th position, finishing inside the top 90 on just one stage. He rode in support of sprinter Luka Mezgec who was unsuccessful in his ambitions. Ji previously finished last in both the Tour De France (2014) and the Vuelta Espana (2012) but on each occasion helped his team experience greater success with Marcel Kittel and John Degenkolb expertly feasting on bunch sprints. Ji’s role is to limit and chase attacks, heading the peloton and maintaining a high pace. His work is done as things wind up for a sprint and he doesn’t even try his hand as part of the leadout train. Former Sky, Columbia and US Postal rider Michael Barry has spoken of similar duties and how he learnt to take pleasure in his work, embracing self-sacrifice.

Britain’s Wegelius detailed his career in the brilliant book ‘Domestique’. If from the side-lines I’ve glorified the role, the word from those who know is that it is fairly unglamorous. Wegelius would have experienced it all, dropping from the highly successful Mapei team to the lesser De Nardi, plus four years at Liquigas and a spell with Lotto. His book tackles cycling as a whole but also reveals stories unique to the domestique. He spoke of managing relationships with team leaders, making important race decisions and above all burying himself time and again for the success of others. Wegelius was certainly a capable climber, finishing 29th in the 2010 Giro just eight places behind his team’s best finisher Francis de Greef.

On the topic of super domestiques, Mikel Landa was the stand out in this year’s Giro. He remained plan B behind Fabio Aru despite the Italian’s difficulties at the start of week three. At times Landa looked to have been given a free role but his attacks often acted as a means to tiring Alberto Contador. Astana’s team contained arguably three super domestiques (Dario Cataldo, Paolo Tiralongo and Tanel Kangert) in addition to the Spaniard and they all rode for the cause of Aru. Team Sky are known for executing teamwork to perfection and recently their leaders have benefitted from the hard work and dedication of Vasil Kiriyenka. The Belarussian subscribes to the tick-tick-boom school of climbing, grinding along robotically until he cracks and weaves off the front.

Sylwester Szmyd

Another to mention is Polish climber Sylwester Szmyd. During his years at Lampre he and Marzio Bruseghin gave excellent support to hopefuls Damiano Cunego and Gilberto Simoni. It was reasonable to question who the better climbers were and if Szmyd had been Italian perhaps a few more chances would have fallen his way. Later, he moved to Liquigas and was instrumental to the chances of Ivan Basso and the fledgling Vincenzo Nibali. Bruseghin performed similar feats but also has three Giro top tens to his name, finishing third in 2008. In 2007 he finished eighth as a vital helper for Cunego and took a rare turn in the limelight when winning Stage 13’s time trial – his second career win. Some teams are too set in their ways when it comes to super domestiques. The talented trio of David Arroyo, Joaquim Rodriguez and Daniel Moreno were often overlooked in favour of Alejandro Valverde during their time at Caisse d’Epargne. However, some riders seem unable to make the jump up to the next level. Their personalities may not be suited to leadership and they struggle to accept the help that will be provided.

Assembling a team with one rider in mind can be a highly rewarding tactic. Lance Armstrong’s US Postal team were packed full of riders physically and mentally strong. They returned to the Tour De France every year and became names themselves – Floyd Landis, Jose Luis Rubiera, Tyler Hamilton, Viatcheslav Ekimov, George Hincappie, Roberto Heras – and though most left to chase their own success, at US Postal they rode for Armstrong. It was this team unity that made it harder to confess doping offenses in the years that followed, scared to break the ‘omerta’ they had created. They had given everything in those Tours and if the truth was ousted their own achievements, not just Lance’s, would fall away.

A nicer aspect to the world of the domestique is the money they receive if their leader wins a Tour. Cycling really is a team sport and a lot of it comes down to the benefits of drafting. Splitting the prize money is a nice touch, a thank you for the tempos set, the wheels given, and the energy bars shared. Unfortunately, this is a gesture Bradley Wiggins did not initially extend to Chris Froome following his 2012 victory.

It was much to do with Stage 11 of the race. Riding to a summit in La Toussuire, the pair were in a small group gaining time on dropped rivals. Leading the race, Wiggins was wary of nobody but Nibali whom he rode alongside. Froome was climbing well and with 4km to go jumped away from the group. What happened next is anybody’s guess. It seemed Froome was radioed that Wiggins had not followed and the attack could have acted as a launch pad for his rivals. It looked as though Wiggins could not respond (this thought not helped by his relaxed style and even paced riding) so Froome sat up and the group came back together.

Was this the act of a disgruntled and rebellious domestique? Perhaps, but Froome was riding high overall and may have wanted to consolidate his second place. Then again, it was poor judgement on his part and it was an event which could have damaged the image of both riders. His motives would come into doubt and he gave Team Sky questions to answer in front of the media eye. As for Wiggins, his Tour de France title was almost, and still may be, tainted by questions of Froome being the stronger rider. Wiggins actually rode magnificently that year winning the Critérium du Dauphiné in June and fending off the aggressive Nibali a month later. Without the attack, Wiggins would have fully enjoyed his win and Froome would have still gone on to his own Grand Tour success. For an example of how things usually work we can recall 1990. The year before his Tour de France reign started, Miguel Indurain looked stronger than his leader Pedro Delgado. At the race, Delgado was distanced and ‘Big Mig’ waited to help and admirably abandoned any chance of his own.

There was some brilliant domestique work at this year’s Paris-Roubaix. Towards the end of the race Yves Lampert and Greg Van Avermaet disappeared up the road and John Degenkolb knew it was the move to be in. Team mate Bert De Backer rode off in pursuit and less than 1km later Degenkolb followed. He reached De Backer who pulled him along for a short while before kicking on, catching the leaders and winning the race. Variations of this move happen all the time in the Grand Tours with leaders sending a man ahead of them in the morning break. In the 2011 Tour de France Andy Schleck made an audacious and surprise attack on his rivals before reaching a group containing teammate Maxime Monfort. The pair rode onwards and Schleck went on to take a wonderful stage. This was the same Tour climber Pierre Rolland protected the incredible Tommy Voeckler as he held onto the Yellow jersey longer than anybody could have imagined.

A far cry from the characterized ‘water-carrier’, domestiques are riders of many talents. Wegelius’ book details some gritty lows of his professional career but I remain enthralled by a domestiques willingness for self-sacrifice. Whilst a footballer gains praise for an assist, a domestique gets lost amongst the wheels. It has been said that a ‘team of egos’ will not be successful in football but the likes of Real Madrid challenge this idea, experiencing periods of serious dominance. In cycling this simply would not work. The humble domestique will always find both need and appreciation. Long live the gregario. All hail the domestique.

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