Sprinter, climber, time trialist. These three categories neatly explain different riders with different styles. Those who can straddle climbing and time trialling exceptionally well might even win a grand tour.
But what if you are good, but not exceptional? What if you are an enthusiastic bike racer but you know that stage wins might always evade you and classification jerseys are just a dream? Well, there is another role in professional cycling. It is often overlooked, never really fully recognised, and yet often the riders who carry it out are the true lovers of cycling in its purest sense and often they are in the most pain. They are the workhorse. The layman. The loyal servant. The domestique.
To understand the role of the domestique, it is first necessary to understand something about the fundamentals of professional cycling. The team leader is the team leader. Riders very rarely, and certainly not without permission, ride for themselves – everything they do is to a game plan, and that game plan is always formulated around their team leader’s chances. Domestiques bear the brunt of this rule. In French domestique means ‘servant’ and as such, they have a series of jobs to do almost all of the time in order to keep the team’s tactics on track. In this sense, it is perhaps the most versatile of all the cycling roles. The most obvious (because it makes good TV), is the task of keeping the team fed and watered. In order to do this, domestiques drop back from the peloton to their team car, unzip their jersey and then proceed to stuff it with as many full water bottles and energy gels as possible. They then ride back up to the bunch solo (laden with extra weight remember), and distribute the goodies as is necessary. They are like the fuel-man at the Formula 1 pit stop, except that they have to take the fuel to the car, whilst it carries on racing.
The list of chores for the domestique doesn’t stop there. In the ever ebbing and flowing tactical melange that is the peloton, domestiques are also the pawns that team leaders and managers use to try and break opponents. If a break-away gets off the front of the main group and it contains your leader’s rival, as a domestique you may be charged with getting yourself up to and into the break-away, before doing your best to make a nuisance of yourself. This is done by not taking turns on the front of the break-away gradually slowing the rhythm and disrupting the speed of the break, giving your team mates and leader a chance to catch it up from behind. When climbing mountain sides, domestiques are sometimes used to make leg breaking attacks off the front of the main field in an attempt to pull rivals into chasing them down. Unless of course, it is another team’s domestique who has done the same, in which case you may be asked to chase it down for your leader. Domestiques are regularly used to power the lead out trains that put sprinters over the line, so you can often see them, on the front taking exceptionally long turns in order to give their man a greater chance.
The responsibilities of the domestique are sometimes even more basic than that. As cycling author Matt Rendell puts it in his book on the subject, A Significant Other, “Whenever his leader punctures or needs a toilet stop, someone must be on hand to pilot him back to the front or, in an emergency, give him a wheel, two, or the entire bike… the domestique can expect little recognition from the public, and less from the press.”
The domestique may be a good climber, maybe a good sprinter, maybe a good time trialist, but they are certainly an anomaly in sport. Breaking the tackle that leads to the try, delivering the free kick that sets up the goal, advising the golfer on which club to use – all of these are sporting assists, but they pale in comparison to the effort, endurance, and silent sense of duty that exists amongst cycling’s servants.
Sometimes, but not very often, domestiques get the chance to move up. Super-domestiques, or lieutenants as they are often described, have been used by a number of general classification riders in order to enforce against the peloton. They have gained greater notoriety as a result. George Hincapie regularly carried out the role for Lance Armstrong. In the 2012 Tour de France, Chris Froome was such an awesome super-domestique that he finished second overall behind his team leader, Bradley Wiggins. Froome’s superior form actually created a lot of questions – in particular, on Stage 17 from Bagnères-de-Luchon to Peyragudes, Froome had to wait for Wiggins three times on a hill climb, although he clearly had it within his legs to carry on and catch Alejandro Valverde who eventually won the stage. Rumours of tension within the Team Sky camp now exist, with Froome apparently adamant that he won’t play second fiddle to Wiggins again, now wanting his own shot at the yellow jersey. All this serves to show the significance of the domestique’s role.
Domestiques are the unsung heroes of professional cycling, with a high pain threshold, and a self sacrificing nature. Their efforts maintain the strange anomaly in sport that is professional cycling, which walks a strange line between the team and the individual effort. Domestiques help keep cycling so compelling.