Sacrifice. To give up one thing to gain something else. The thing to be given up is measured and weighed and pondered. How much does it matter? Is the thing that might be gained more valuable than what is certain to be lost?
A professional cyclist’s career is one of sacrifice; the line between what is enough and what constitutes excess is impossibly fine. Yes, riders load up plates at buffets in the early spring races in the Middle East – but they pare down in June, trading desserts for apples and ice chips. Beers become distant memories.
To get to France in July, every man must be at the peak of his powers. How much have you given up? How much are you willing to give up still? For once the pedals begin to turn, a whole new level of sacrifice is called for. It is constant now, and in most cases selfless. The Tour has one yellow jersey, fought for by 100 or more domestiques, most of whom will be faceless to the average cycling fan, and who will remain so long after this grand dance has drawn to a close. Those cyclists lucky enough to don the maillot jaune in the first week are only keepers of the golden fleece for a short time.
The winds that trimmed the peloton down on Sunday’s Stage 2 also cut the yellow jersey from the back of BMC’s Rohan Dennis. But he willingly submitted, all for his team leader, Tejay van Garderen. The winds blew off the North Sea and forced a wedge though the bunch and Dennis, in yellow all too briefly, found himself on the wrong side of the gap. BMC did not wait but instead drove the race on, and it was Dennis who told them to do so once he noticed that the man with the No.1 on his back, Astana’s Vincenzo Nibali, was behind him.
“I didn’t expect to have to make the call that I did out on the road, that they go ahead when there was a split,” Dennis said after the stage. “In the end, it was the best decision for Tejay’s long-term goals in this Tour. I decided to not chase, to give up the yellow jersey to put Nibali in a spot of trouble, and maybe [force him] to lose a bit of time. It went that way but it took me a while to be 100% happy with that decision. It was the best thing for the team.”
The yellow jersey is something Dennis may never see again, save for the one on his wall. Come Tour-time, ‘domestique’ doesn’t seem a sufficiently noble word for what they surrender. It’s a job, yes, but one where the pain is immense and the reward is unseen, at least by the public.
Each morning they step off the bus, smelling fresh, legs shining. They tinker with earpieces that will soon tell them where to be and when, to come back to the car to haul bottles up to the front, to take the real estate of the team to the right or left of them, before the crosswinds.
To ride in the service of others is a true offering in the sporting sense. Tony Martin’s yellow jersey flashing in the front of a leadout train this week is a perfect example; working for Mark Cavendish when, a day previously, it had been Cavendish whose hopes had fallen victim to Martin’s gumption.
Come Sunday, there will be another fine display of that sacrifice, in the form of the team time-trial, from Vannes to Plumelec. Over 28 wandering kilometres, riders will burn their matches down to their fingers, only to tuck back in and do it again, and again, for their GC leaders. Yes, the stage itself is at stake but the significance of the day won’t be fully known until the Tour hits the mountains days later. With this Tour so light on time trials, every second gained in the team effort matters hugely. Riders will molt off the back of the train and scratch back, only to take one more pull before dropping off again.
What have you given up? What do you stand to gain? Sacrifice. Just to be on the start line on the first stage, and now, every single day afterward.
– Matthew Beaudin is Content Manager for Rapha North America and has covered the Tour de France three times as a reporter for Velo News.
Shy and scrawny, René Vietto came to be regarded as something of a martyr by the French public. A 20-year-old busboy from Cannes, Vietto was pitched into the Tour of 1934 riding for the French national team. When the race went into the mountains, Vietto surprised everybody by darting up and down the climbs. By Stage 15, he was in third place behind Italian Giuseppe Martano and his team leader, Antonin Magne, in first position.
Stage 15 was in the Pyrenees. Riding at the head of the race, it was on the descent to the finish that Vietto was informed by a marshall that his boss had crashed. His busboy status obliged him to give up his front wheel to Magne, and he is said to have turned around and cycled back up the mountain to offer it to his stricken leader.
Whilst he sacrificed a potential yellow jersey that day, he became a star for his service and subsequent show of emotion. Once Magne had securely taken off in defence of his jersey, Vietto realised the magnitude of what he’d relinquished; he was photographed sitting on a wall next to his dishevelled bike, with tears in his eyes.
Vietto would never again have the opportunity to lead the great race.
This abandonment of his own chances, this immolation at the altar of the sport, was it not so cruel, so inhuman, so unjust to have demanded it from a young champion of 20 years old, who, even yesterday was unknown to the general public, and yet who today is a star, just as popular for his moral qualities as for his extraordinary merit as a climber. Could he, should he have tried to win the 1934 Tour de France? And yet, before the start of the race, Vietto’s chances were being written off by everyone:
– It’s crazy to set this 20-year-old boy off into the Tour de France… Sure, we want to see what he is capable of doing in the mountains, but Le Galibier is something else compared to Mont Faron.
– He can’t descend either: he is always scared of falling.
– And on the flat, with his impossible riding position, he will never manage to stay in the wheels.”
But the general public, with the fervour and spontaneity that they always show, have seized this 20-year-old boy, so young, so brave, so enterprising, who, with admirable ease and magnificent assurance, crossed these formidable mountain passes in first place. Was Vietto going to continue his prodigious rise to wear the glorious yellow jersey? No, because at that fateful moment our hero was no longer free in his acts. A slave to the ruthlessness of team spirit, he had to protect the man in the yellow jersey and sacrifice all of his hopes, all of his ambitions.
Was his return forced or voluntary? Was it spontaneous generosity or ruthless compulsion? A problem of true beauty, all a secret drama in the wings of this enormous test.
Afterwards, Vietto takes the time to reflect, to weigh up his judgement. Then, lifting his beautiful black eyes towards us, fringed with long eyelashes, he responds with an ever so slightly pale smile, disillusioned: “Yes, I believe that I could have won the Tour de France…”
Words: Raymond Huttier
For the young British riders hoping to make a name for themselves in the 1960s, a move to France – unsupported and into the unknown – was the only way to secure a chance at racing as a professional. Giving up home life in pursuit of their trade, away from friends and family, riders filled the gaps left by those at home with bonds forged in the peloton. Vin Denson, a British cyclist considered the first ever superdomestique for his work in the service of Jacques Anquetil, tried to surround himself with familiar faces wherever possible – even moving to Belgium so he could train with his friend Tom Simpson. Back then, the sport was full of cliques and hardship, of Italian fans pulling on your brake pads and of tacks strewn across the roads, so this brotherhood amongst countrymen was crucial. Home will always be where the heart is, though, and when Denson finally returned home from the Continent, he finished his career as he had started: racing the local club time trials and going cycle touring on the weekends.
A cyclist who rides in the service of his team leader, the role of a domestique is an entirely selfless one. The word was first used in relation to cycling in 1911 by Tour organiser Henri Desgrange. Enraged that Maurice Brocco had been offering his services to his fellow cyclists during the race, and at a time when riders had to rely on themselves alone for support, Desgrange dismissed Brocco as “unworthy, no more than a servant”.
Domestique was one of the earliest French words to pass into the English cycling lexicon. It remains in its original form to this day, and is far more common than its Italian equivalent, gregario.
“36 weeks = 252 days = 6048 hours – Away from home”
– The words printed on the bike of Adam Hansen, who is currently attempting to complete a record-equalling 12th Grand Tour in a row.
Tony Martin’s victory on the cobbled Stage 4 of this year’s Tour was a triumph for cycling’s nice guys. A fabulously talented time triallist, the ‘Panzerwagen’ spends most of his days suffering on the front of the peloton in the service of others. The German never complains, even though he would have achieved far greater personal glory if he didn’t sacrifice himself so much.
In fact, Martin is so nice that he apologises to fellow competitors if he catches and passes them during time trials, and his daring lone victory into Cambrai to take the yellow jersey was celebrated joyously by his Etixx-Quickstep team-mates, who clearly appreciate the work that Martin does for them.
Of course, on Thursday’s Stage 6, the maillot jaune then broke his collarbone and had to leave the race. In a sport as cruel as this, are the sacrifices worth it?
Stages 8-12 take the race towards the mountains. The fatigue will be setting in by now, and the knowledge that so much remains to be ridden will not be a comforting thought.
As the race continues its westerly traverse along the northern coast of France, the peloton will face yet another steep finish up the Mûr-de-Bretagne, which was the scene of Cadel Evans’ only stage win en route to yellow jersey success in 2011.
Today’s team time trial ends the first week of racing, with a rest day to follow. It’s a relatively lumpy 28km course and features a challenging climb at the finish.
A welcome break in the race. Riders will likely spend some of the long transfers to the south of the country contemplating the mountainous days ahead.
The sprinters’ stages are, for the time being, truly on hold. The Pyrenees will host the riders for the next three days, starting in the foothills at the market town of Tarbes.
Six categorised climbs feature today, including the Col d’Aspin and the infamous Tourmalet. With thunderstorms forecast, this could be the most electric day of racing yet.
Another steep day in the Pyrenees, the peloton will face a hors catégorie climb for the finish up the dead-end road to Plateau de Beille. A stage for pure climbers.