Tour de France: The Role of a Domestique

July 17, 2014

By Meredith Miller

It’s mid-July and that means only one thing in the cycling world — the Tour de France is in full-swing. Unlike any other sport, the cyclists “play” for 5 to 7 hours each day for three consecutive weeks (with only two rest days).

Each team starts with nine riders and each one of the riders has been chosen for a specific reason depending on his strengths. A rider may be selected to win a stage, take the sprinter’s jersey, contribute to a strong team time trial, help a teammate win a stage, or, even better yet, win all the glory — the maillot jaune (The yellow jersey worn by the leader of the le Tour). Each team will have different goals at the Tour and each team will build its roster accordingly, but one thing that is necessary on every team is the support rider, or domestique. Regardless of the stage profile, domestiques are just as important as the rider slated for victory.

Whether it’s for one day or for 21 days, a domestique’s role is tireless, selfless and most often goes unrecognized. Domestiques finish 10, 15, 20 minutes behind the leaders in the mountains. Domestiques cross the finish line after the winner has already showered and is giving interviews. Domestiques lead out their sprinter in the closing kilometers and then sit up to watch the last last 500 meters as their guy crosses the line with his hands in the air. Thanks to the relentless, committed work of a domestique, the winner collects his accolades.

Women’s cycling isn’t any different in this regard. Just as the men’s teams pick specific rosters for the Tour de France, so do women’s teams pick their rosters for each individual race. Criterium or stage race, the roster will include the team leader(s) and the best suited domestiques for that race.

For 8 years, I  played the role of domestique. While my resume isn’t full of personal victories, it is chock-full of team victories, or victories in which a teammate won and I played a major role. Stage races or one-day races, you name it, I have been the rider going back for bottles so my team leader doesn’t have to contend with the slim chance of not being able to rejoin the pack. I have been the rider on the front chasing back a break so my team leader doesn’t have to worry about losing time. I have been the rider pedaling into the wind so my teammate can sit on my wheel and conserve as much energy as possible. I have been the rider selected as first in the lead-out train for my sprinter, assigned the task of going as hard as I can to deliver my sprinter to the line first. I have been the rider, because of this, that often crosses the finish line last or doesn’t even finish at all. I have been the rider to usher my teammate into the hills and bare the heaviest workload so that my teammate can pedal away when the time is right, leaving me to pedal squares to the finish hoping that I make the time cut.

That is, by definition, a domestique — gives 100% for a teammate and repeatedly sacrifice personal glory to achieve a win for the team.

I have many memorable stories of playing the role of domestique, but one in particular sticks out in my mind. At the 2009 US National Criterium Championships my team (Team TIBCO) was 100% focused on racing for our sprinter extraordinaire, Brooke Miller. She had been on fire all season long, winning race after race. My teammates and I were throwing out attacks and counter attacks all race long to whittle down the field, weaken the other sprinters. In fact, I was off the front solo when they called the mid-race $500 prime and easily gobbled up the money. The field eventually brought me back and as the laps ticked down no one or nothing was getting away. Clearly, the race was going to come down to a field sprint. With several laps to my teammates and I started to amass near the front of the peloton so that we could take over the lead out with a lap to go. Colavita was also there fighting us for the front to put their mutli-national criterium champion, Tina Pic, in perfect position. My teammates and I muscled our way to the front where we lined ourselves up perfectly, one after another, with Brooke sitting behind us calling out instructions to go faster, faster, faster. It was a picture of flawless team unity.

I was chosen as one of the first riders in the line up because of my ability to get the pace blazing fast so that no other team could come around us. I put my head down, gritted my teeth and basically sprinted for 500-600 meters before my next teammate took over. Just past where I pulled off the lead out train was where the figure eight came together, and it happened to be a perfect place to watch the finish. Not concerned in the least about my own finish, I rolled over to my viewing spot and watched as the riders came around the last corner for the gallop to the finish line. I was jumping around and screaming at Brooke to “go, go, go”. I had goose bumps. Unfortunately, Brooke did not win, she was second, but regardless of the result we, the domestiques, had that lead out dialed and that was a great feeling.

A funny part to the story is that in order to collect the mid-race prime I had won, rules stated I had to finish the race. It was a rule of which I was somehow unaware. Fortunately, another teammate knew that I had to cross the finish line to collect our $500. My mechanic had already taken my bike away so I hopped on a teammate’s bike, which was too small, and pedaled around to the finish line so that the team could collect the $500.

Cycling is a team sport. Yes, only one person wins a race, but an individual win is a win for the team. And it is the hard-working, unselfish domestique who repeatedly lays it on the line for the team. Being the domestique may not be glamorous, but the satisfaction I get from helping a teammate win is worth more to me than anything I could achieve alone — especially when I know my teammate couldn’t have won without my help.

Meredith Miller, former pro cyclist with team TIBCO.  To hear more about Meredith’s rides, races, and the cycling world follow Meredith on Twitter!