Thursday, May 28, 2009

Draft Horse

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.


bikesgonewild said... that "new guy" on astana that's been helping levi since chris horner crashed out ???...

Jim said...

Lance going to the car to get water, handing out bottles, giving his second to last bottle to Lance, and Popo riding by and taking the last bottle out of Lance's pocket, and Lance reaches back moments later to get a drink only to find air... awesome. Lance bringing Levi home on Monday night - similarly awesome.

To be a good leader you should first know how to be a good follower.

hoon said...

agree with jim's comments which is why many super domestiques have become great team leaders in their own right (Hincapie, Hamilton, Landis, Evans, etc.).

Disclaimer: drugs and weird mental issues not included in my above statement

Dan said...


Depression is not a "weird mental issue."

Sean said...

"Silence is the truest test of a great domestique; the best one is the guy no one needs to talk to."

Are you talking about domestiques, or wives?

LSIII said...


Your are in peak form with your writing right now. The last few articles have been spot on awesome! Great great work!

maryka said...

Great post. The role of domestique is something that appealed to me when I took up racing this year as part of a team (even more so when I realised there was no hope in hell I'd ever be good enough to be a team leader!)

So far at my level of women's cycle racing it's been everyone-for-herself for the most part, which is a bit disappointing -- not sure if this is just a fact of life in amateur racing (or is it just women's amateur racing)? But I'm still holding out hope as time goes by that I'll earn a rep as a hard worker and luck into a strong and cohesive team.

Cycling is a great individual sport and challenge, but being able to do it as a "team sport" is such a cool concept. You nailed it exactly with this post. A very enjoyable read!

Unknown said...

Awsome- f'n awesome. Applies in so many ways.

b nameless said...

on so many levels what you are writing about here--which is limited so strictly to the unwritten rules of cycling--applies to all the great teams i have been on throughout my life. the anticipating and not getting in the other members way when its their turn to do a piece of the job which will bring the whole team to the finish line ahead of the rest in cycling is unique in the manner of sacrificing your glory for the team or team leader.
it is a shame that most of us don't ride for a living and that the jobs we do have are lacking in this understanding of how to get more out of each person's abilities and anticipate the flow of the "race". glad to have you back posting on a more regular basis. we were missing your take on these subjects.