Since my earliest days of racing, I found the role of domestique oddly sexy. The nearly behind-the-scenes efforts of a leadout rider to ensure the team’s success was a part I was born to play. Watching stylish riders like Ron Kiefel and Sean Yates do their work with pride made those silent efforts even cooler.
In watching other riders play the role of draft horse, I was filled with a sense of nationalistic pride; as if taking a bullet at the front of the field was an act of patriotism. The more ignominious the finish, the more self-confident and solid the ride was. Seeing a rider finish five or ten minutes down on the field, but roll in relaxed, without the frantic pedaling of someone showing off for the cameras is large-scale PRO. Soft pedaling across the line means you are secure you’ve done your job well, very well.
There is a flip side to the role, though. There are those episodes when the rider is treated more lame mule than valued draft hose. It might be something that I alone am sensitive to, but I took it as a point of pride that when I rolled up to a rider with pockets full of bottles, I had one ready to hand off. If a rider grabbed a bottle out of my pocket, I was a mule.
Similarly, I loved nothing more than finding my team leader buried in the field and giving a tap on the ass to say, ‘Hop on, I’ll take you back up front.’ If someone tapped me on my butt to say, ‘Take me to the front,’ I wasn’t really doing my job.
Being asked to do the role of a domestique diminishes that role. The value of a great domestique is the ability to read the race and watch the time. Providing bottles on a schedule, keeping the boss out of the wind, fed, hydrated and near the front is the job. Do that without someone asking and you’re valuable. It’s not much different from the jobs we all do by day: The most valuable employees are the ones who know how to jump in without instructions. It’s what made Radar O’Reilly’s character on M*A*S*H* so funny: He had paperwork filled out before the colonel asked for it. The best domestiques are as strong as two men and smell need like bees smell fear.
The height of PRO is watching a rider kill it at the front with the team leader sitting on his wheel, mouth closed—both relaxed and silent. Silence is the truest test of a great domestique; the best one is the guy no one needs to talk to.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International.