By Chris Carmichael
Respect plays a large role in the dynamics within the professional peloton, and even within your own team. Just like outside of the sport, respect is earned over time and can be lost very quickly. And as you gain the respect of your peers in the pack and the directors in the cars, your clout in the peloton grows. This is important because your level of clout impacts how difficult it can be to do your job.
You might think that all support riders – or domestiques – in the peloton are on the same level. They’re not the stars of the team for the general classification or the sprints or the climbers’ competition; they’re not protected riders at all. In fact, they are most often the protectors. They ride in the wind all day to set the pace, shepherd their team leaders through the chaos of the peloton to keep them out of trouble, and fetch bottles and gear from the team cars. But when teams look for riders to build a successful Tour de France squad, there are some very specific domestique roles that need to be filled.
One of the most visible examples of a long-range pace-setter in this year’s Tour de France has been HTC-Highroad’s Danny Pate. As a support rider, his value to the team is that he can sit on the front of the peloton with a few other guys and maintain a tempo of up to 40km/h for 100-150 kilometers. Other riders who have been sharing this type of work with him this year have included teammate Lars Bak and Garmin-Cervelo’s David Zabriskie and Ramunas Navardauskas. All of these riders are very good time trial riders, and they can maintain a steady pace that’s significantly below their time trial pace for very long periods of time. The team directors observe riders during races earlier in the year, see who on their larger team is able to withstand the workload best and (since those races are the best training for the Tour), select the best performers from earlier races to do the job in the Tour.
As the finish approaches during a sprint stage, or in the valleys between smaller climbs later in a hilly stage, or even in the run-up to the base of a major climb you’ll see a second category of domestique at the front of the peloton. These riders have the job – and the ability – to raise the tempo to 50-70 km/h. There’s definitely some cross-over between these riders and the long-range pacesetters, as guys like Pate and Zabriskie have been active in the final 20 kilometers of sprint stages even after spending long periods on the front earlier in the stages. When teams are looking to recruit talent for this short-range pacesetting, they look for physically large riders who are fast time trialists and/or sprinters.
In the Tour de France this is typically where you’ll find men who were favorites for victories in the spring classics. At the Tour their role is just a different application of their power and skill. Marcus Berghardt, George Hincapie, Matt Goss, and Bernie Eisel fit this bill perfectly and are highly sought and highly valued for their skills.
Specialists: Leadout Men and Mountain Men
While the skills of these two groups of domestiques are very different, the sprint leadout riders and the mountain domestiques are similar in that they are specialists brought into teams to fulfill very specific roles. Men like Mark Renshaw for HTC-Highroad and Julian Dean for Garmin-Cervelo are crucial for delivering your sprinter to the final 300 meters with a great chance of victory, and even though these men might not be incredibly helpful in the mountains, they do as much work for the team as they can before retreating to the gruppetto with the other sprinters.
The mountain domestiques are not all that helpful on the flat stages because they don’t really have the power to sit out in the wind setting the pace all day, nor the power to lead out a sprinter. They do quite a bit of work getting bottles in the early stages, but as the mountains approach these duties will often get lighter so they can conserve energy for the big climbs. For instance, Frank Schleck is a key support rider for brother and teammate Andy Schleck; and Alberto Contador will be counting on the services of Daniel Navarro.
It’s all about respect
The ability of these support riders to get selected for the Tour de France squad and do their jobs well during the Tour is partly based on the level of respect they’ve earned in the peloton. It’s one thing to have the physical ability to drop back to the cars, load up with bottles, and make it back to the peloton. Respect comes into play when you have to distribute those bottles to your riders – especially when your riders are at the front. As a team, you want domestiques who can get back to the cars and return quickly with bottles. It means the riders can get more bottles throughout the course of the stage, and it means less work – and hence less fatigue – for your domestiques.
When well-respected, highly-experienced domestiques who are working for the biggest teams and biggest favorites in the race are coming through, the other riders give them more space. They’ve paid their dues and earned a smoother path through the field. Riders with less clout get out of the way. Domestiques who have not yet earned that level of respect are not necessarily treated badly, but riders don’t go to lengths to make it easier for them to get back to the front of the peloton.
Who you’re working for also earns you a level of respect in the peloton. Of course, to get to work for the yellow jersey or sprint contenders you have to have earned a lot of respect already; but then once you’re on a Tour squad with the job of shepherding Cadel Evans or Andy Schleck through the pack, you gain even more. Everyone knows that George Hincapie is Cadel’s guy, and that Fabian Cancellara is Andy Schleck’s guy. When these two are moving their guys up through the peloton, support riders from smaller teams – heck, pretty much everybody – does what they can to make the passage easier. That’s not to say that they’re given a free pass; there’s no parting of the Red Sea, but out of respect for who they are and who they’re working for, riders are more apt to give them room when they can. Younger riders and riders from smaller teams have a harder time moving through traffic.
What about the youngsters?
There’s always new blood coming into the top professional ranks, and there’s a huge learning curve for riders who have the talent to eventually be stars of the Tour de France. But with a culture that’s so dependent upon respect, how do young guys like HTC-Highroad’s Tejay Van Garderen get treated? Well, young riders are generally given the benefit of the doubt – for a while. The peloton is the best judge of any rider’s true potential. They can spot a talented rider immediately, and they generally give these riders some time to adjust to the unique surroundings of the Tour de France.
This means that young, talented newcomers start out in the Tour with a kind of “learner’s permit”. More experienced domestiques and even the stars of the sport will give them more space than they would to a domestique from a small team who is on his fourth Tour de France and not destined to progress much beyond his current status. But the learner’s permit expires quickly unless these talented riders prove they have what it takes to ride safely and confidently in the peloton. If the pack gives you a chance and you prove to be too timid to take advantage of it, you take several steps backward and have to start from the bottom level again.
Van Garderen came to his first Tour de France at 22 years old and with a serious pedigree. He finished fifth overall at the Tour of California this year, third overall at the Dauphine Libere last year, and he won the Tour l’Avenir in 2009. Most notably, in the Dauphine last year his climbing and time trial performances were not far off those of Alberto Contador! The peloton knows who he is and fully grasps the fact that he’s a huge talent. Today’s performance in the breakaway, including initiating and responding to multiple attacks on the final climb, is another big step toward earning the respect needed to become a leader of the pro peloton. We often talk of a rider’s first Tour as a learning experience, but it’s also part of the process of moving up through the levels of respect that eventually grow into the clout needed to lead a team and win the biggest races in the world.
Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France in 1986 with 7-Eleven and has been writing Tour de France commentary for the past 11 years. He is CEO and Head Coach of Carmichael Training Systems, the premier destination for coaching, training camps, and performance testing since 2000; and Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. Follow Chris on Twitter at www.twitter.com/trainright, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carmichaeltrainingsystems, orwww.trainright.com.