The thankless job of the domestique

The fact that cycling is a team sport isn’t all that obvious to the casual observer. Of course, only one person can cross the finish line first at the end of a race, but the work that his team mates have carried out throughout the race is crucial in affording their team leader the opportunity of victory. A domestique is expected to drop back to the team car and fetch water bottles, to keep tempo at the front of a group, to chase down breakaways and perhaps most importantly of all, to shelter the team leader from the wind.

A rider can save a substantial amount of their energy by drafting behind a team mate instead of riding at the front of the race. This is a fact I’ve only come to fully comprehend recently having ridden in a group for the first time this October with the Orwell Wheelers. The respite you get by being towed along by a group of riders really needs to be experienced to be appreciated.

But what’s in it for the domestique? A friend of mine asked me at the end of the final stage of this year’s Tour de France “sure Cavendish had won five stages already, why didn’t he let yer man win the last one?”. ‘Yer man’ in question was Mark Renshaw, quite possibly the best lead out man on the planet. I thought about a way of explaining it in terms of football. In football, every team has a designated penalty taker. In Ireland’s case, Robbie Keane takes the penalties. Damien Duff’s job on the other hand is merely to set up goalscoring opportunities for Keane to put away. Mark Cavendish letting Mark Renshaw win the final stage of the Tour on the Champs Elysees would be similar to Keane allowing Duff to take a penalty in the World Cup Final. It would just never happen.

However, my friend then went on to argue that if Ireland were already up 5-0, then Keane might let Duff take a penalty. This is where the comparison between cycling and football must end. For a sprinter like Cavendish, apart from a World Championship Road Race with a flat parcourse, winning on the Champs Elysees is the ultimate victory. Cavendish is his team’s designated sprinter and therefore he rightly took the victory on the day. Mark Renshaw knew the role he had to play, and he played it perfectly.

This might seem harsh on the domestiques of cycling, but they are all aware of what is expected of them when they sign for a professional cycling team. I’ve just finished reading Jean-Paul Vespini’s book ‘The Tour is won on the Alpe‘. In it, Armstrong’s directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel had this to say about his domestiques:

“This team only exists for the Tour. Everything we do all season long is in preparation for that event. We know how to build a true Tour team. We don’t just randomly pluck nine racers in June to race three weeks in July. No, we start thinking about the Tour in December. And we pick only racers who fit in. I don’t care how good they are, if I’m not 100% sure that they will sacrifice themselves for the team’s goal, I’m not interested. They have to suppress any personal ambition. If they can’t, we’re not the team for them.

In my eyes, this attitude really isn’t all that different to that of a football team. Everybody on the team is there to do a job to ensure a victory for the team. Of course individuals will be remembered for individual feats. Most people can recall Olé Gunnar Solskjaer scoring the winning goal for Man United in the 1999 Champion’s League Final or that Italy beat France on penalties in the last World Cup Final in 2006. But can those same people remember who was United’s sub goalie during that treble winning season, or who played right-back for Italy that day? All the players in a squad of footballers have a role to play in the overall success of the team, and yet success is only achieved by individuals scoring goals.

In general the domestiques within a cycling team are expected to do everything they can to ensure victory for their leader, there are occasions where this expectancy can be manipulated and used to surprise an opponent. In other words, a team leader can be employed as a decoy while one of his lesser marked team mates can break up the road and seek a victory for himself. Recent examples of this tactic have been the last two editions of the Tour of Flanders. Tom Boonen, a previous double winner of the race was racing for Quick Step. In both 2009 and 2008 all of Boonen’s main rivals were watching Boonen and making sure to follow any attack he might make, meanwhile his Quick Step team mate Stijn Devolder escaped unmarked and soloed home for the victory.

Something similar also happened in the World Championships Road Race in 2008. The favourites were all marking the Italians Damiano Cunego and Paolo Bettini and their team mate Alessandro Ballan escaped up the road for the biggest victory of his career. In an interview with Stephen Farrand in the December 2008 issue of Cycle Sport, Ballan had this to say about the tactics of Paolo Bettini in that race:

“It was his last ever race but he gave up his chance of victory so we could win and Valverde, Boonen and Freire all fell for it.”

This tactic was also employed by the Spanish team in the Olympic games road race in Beijing. Samuel Sanchez was allowed to breakaway and win gold while his more fancied team mates Carlos Sastre, Alberto Contador, Oscar Freire and Alejandro Valverde all acted as decoys. In another Cycle Sport issue in October 2008, Alasdair Fotheringham suggests that this tactic originated at the Worlds Road Race in 1995. Everybody was marking the formidable Miguel Indurain which allowed his team mate Abraham Olano to break away and land the rainbow jersey. Famously, Olano rode the last two kilometres with a puncture. Fotheringham had this to say about the innovative play by the Spaniards:

“Ever since 1995 when Indurain let Olano go up the road to win in the World Championships, something changed.”

So while there is obviously an emphasis on personal glory in cycling, we must always remember that solo success is rarely possible without the domestiques who are willing to sacrifice themselves to selflessly ensure the victory for another rider.

Related Articles



  1. ciaran - November 25, 2009 @ 11:22 am

    great story as always. love the quote and video….

    keep it up

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published / Required fields are marked *