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The supporting cast

• Posted in Misc. • By JoeBaker

Imagine training day in, day out, pushing yourself to the limit every day. Working hard for months and months to get yourself in peak condition and then competing in a 3-week competition, covering around 3,500 kilometres in intense heat, rain and wind. Through mountains, treacherous roads and steep declines. You only get two days break, cycling for 5 to 7 hours each day. Then imagine doing all of this not to win and be in the headlines but simply to help elevate a single teammate to glory.

Welcome to the world of the Tour de France domestique – the most selfless, and unrecognised, profession in sport.

One of the most famous events on the sporting calendar is well underway again, with Team Sky’s Chris Froome the favourite to win an incredible fourth Tour de France. The effort and talent needed to win just one tour is astounding. That is not in doubt – the various crashes and departures through injury already have shown that. Yet few people truly understand the level of effort needed by the supporting cast who work together to prop that individual up and set them on their way to victory. It is team work at its very finest. 

If Froome is to become only the fifth person in history to win four or more titles, he will as always be reliant on a nine-man team. Each team has their main man, the one individual that this group will be built around in the hope that they end up with the yellow jersey. Each of these riders gets selected for a certain reason – some are good time-trial riders, others are there to secure stage wins for the team, some to take the overall sprinters jersey. Yet the most important are the domestiques who repeatedly sacrifice personal glory to achieve a win for the team.

You might barely even notice the unglamorous domestiques – they finish way back in the pack and sometimes not even at all. However, their role is vital.

One of their main tasks is to help the team leader conserve energy at certain points in a stage. Often, you will see a cyclist like Froome hanging back sitting on the back wheels of his teammates who are at the front pedalling hard into the wind. The domestique will carry the heavy workload just so that their teammate can pedal away when the time is right – conserving energy is always crucial. If the strongest rider in the race wastes his energy, they simply won’t win. Next time you watch an intense stage don’t just instantly try to seek out the favourites for the overall win but cast your eyes to the ones silently getting on with their work to protect their leader. It is mightily impressive.

During a stage race, you will often see racers almost taking it in turns to launch a breakaway from the peloton. This is a tactically timed attempt to pull away and create a big enough lead to hold up to the finish of the stage. And whose job is it to chase after them, reel them in and eventually drag everyone up with them? The domestique. And the reason being simply to stop the team leader from having to worry about losing any time. Their response is crucial when there’s an attack, pacing their leader up the climbs as they chase down the front runner. They are there to help control the race and keep that one rider in the best position possible.

Control and tempo is especially important during the mountain stages, of which the Tour de France has some of the most famous and difficult in the world such as L'Alpe d'Huez and Le Mont Ventoux. During such climbs, you’ll see renowned domestiques such as Tony Martin, Fabio Santini and until he crashed out Geraint Thomas guiding their leaders up the mountains, down the descents and through the peloton. During these testing periods, such riders provide a wheel for the likes of Froome to get behind and follow-up, to ensure a steady and relentless pace is sustained and that they stay in the fight, or ahead of the pack, for the overall win.

Planned by the Team Director, each domestique has a different responsibility. You will see some hanging back on the wheels of their team-mates all day before attacking hard towards the finish of a stage to split up the race and put the leader in a position to win. Others have a bigger role earlier on by protecting the leader; whether it is swapping wheels if he has a puncture, bringing them water and food from team cars or even helping them back to the front after stopping for a toilet break.

You don’t see many other athletes completely sacrificing themselves to help another athlete finish in first place. They almost bizarrely enjoy not being in the spotlight, taking pleasure in celebrating a team victory behind the scenes rather than taking the individual glory on the podium. Imagine the mental strength needed to put yourself through all the pain and the burning lactic acid, knowing there is no personal reward at the end of it? A domestique also must carry out tactics to a tee in the most intense of scenarios, something that requires supreme intelligence, concentration and judgement.

Only one person may get the overall Tour de France win but it is very much a team sport.  And it is the hard-working, unselfish and understated domestique who repeatedly lays it on the line for the team. Whoever wins the Tour de France this year will know that they simply would not have done it without these dedicated riders behind them. 

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