Anyone who has even a passing interest in professional cycling would be familiar with the big names of the Tour de France. Names like Lance Armstrong, Cadel Evans, Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck or Ivan Basso who are all contenders for the overall win.
Or the big name sprinters such as Robbie McEwen, Thor Hushovd, Mark Cavendish, or Tyler Farrar and the current holder of the Maillot Jaune—yellow jersey—Fabian Cancellara.
These are the glamour boys of cycling. They get all of the publicity, a big chunk of the endorsements, and probably the biggest paychecks too.
And with good reason. These are the guys who put the sponsor’s names in front of the world’s media. They get the television coverage, they get the full page photos in the newspapers. And that, after all, is the name of the game and it’s why the sponsors shell out the big dollars.
But, for every big name there are four or five others who are there to make them look good. These are the so-called domestiques—from the French word for servant— who are the dog’s bodies of the cycling world, who are there to ensure that the leaders are in the right place at the right time and they have water and sustenance.
Scratch the surface, however, and you soon realize that these guys are not just there to make up the numbers; these unsung heroes are often cyclists of note in their own right. They have a wealth of knowledge and experience that proves invaluable when it comes to riding the over 3,500 kilometres of the Tour de France.
Take Saxo Bank’s Stuart O’Grady as an example. He can be seen, day after day, sitting at the front of the peleton, tapping out the pace for the Schleck brothers or Cancellara. He will sit there for hours, dictating the speed of everyone around him. He sacrifices his race for the benefit of his teammates.
But if you look closely, O’grady himself has a remarkable record. He has won three stages of Le Tour, held the Maillot Jaune for nine days, worn the green jersey as the tour’s leading sprinter. He has won the gruelling Paris-Roubaix, World championships, Olympic, and Commonwealth gold medals. He is, in short, an outstanding cyclist who has been reduced to the status of “helper.”
That pattern is repeated throughout the peleton. Lance Armstrong’s team RadioShack is littered with cycling superstars. Helping Armstrong are Andreas Kloden, a two time podium finisher at the Tour, Levi Leipheimer has won multiple national championships, multiple Tours of California, an Olympic medal and finished top ten at the Tour, and Ukranian star, Yaroslav Popovych.
Cadel Evans at team BMC has one of Armstrong’s former lieutenants in George Hincapie to help guide Evans through the tour. Hincapie is the only rider to have been with Armstrong on each of his seven Tour victories and with 14 starts under his belt, has as much knowledge and experience as anyone on the Tour today. He is another national champion and, again, a cyclist of some note reduced to being a tour guide.
Despite being gutted when Armstrong started up team RadioShack, even Astana has managed to get the talented and well credentialed—if somewhat tainted—Aleksandr Vinokourov, to help Alberto Contador’s defence.
And it’s not just the General Classification riders who are pampered in this way. Super sprinter Mark Cavendish would be nowhere without Mark Renshaw to lead him out. Tyler Farrar has Robbie Hunter. And so on.
While the big guys get all of the attention, they would be lost without their supporting riders. The riders listed here are only the tip of the iceberg, too. The teams have even more junior riders whose job it is to bring water from the team cars, to help pace a team leader back after a break down, or to give up their bike so that the team leader can continue.
So, next time you’re watching a stage and hearing about the exploits of all the Armstrongs of the world, spare a thought for the guys who help them look good. They are the unsung heroes of the cycling world.