Hi, my name is Ian, and I am a Tour de France addict.
I love this time of year. During these 23 glorious summer days, I prefer to sit in my house and watch lycra-clad, skinny guys ride bikes. I will sit and watch salt-crusted, exhausted men, ride up and down mountains and along roads lined with sunflower-filled fields for hours on a Saturday or Sunday. It is my Super Bowl, my World Series, and my NBA and NHL finals all in one. I don’t get bored, and I don’t skip stages.
My wife, on the other hand, lasts about two days, and I fully recognize that I bear much of the blame for this. Early on, I failed to sit down and fully explain the intricacies of the race. Taking a step back, I realized how confusing and complicated the different jerseys and competitions, the points, the time gaps and bonuses, and the different stage types could be.
If you are the significant other, roommate, training partner, or concerned parent or friend of a TdF addict, read this four part series. It will help you communicate with the afflicted individual and help you to understand our odd annual ritual. Don’t worry, you won’t need to shave your legs to watch if you decide to join us on the couch!
The team concept
Cycling is an individual sport like NASCAR is a team sport. Other than Ricky Bobby and Cal Naughton Jr., it is very rare to see a NASCAR driver sacrifice his chances for another driver to get the win. It just doesn’t happen. Cycling, on the other hand, is a sport all about sacrificing for the team. Riders protect the team leader by keeping him out of the wind, bringing up nutrition and water bottles so the leader can remain in a good position, and sometimes even giving up a wheel or a whole bike. Like in most team sports, each cyclist has a defined role in the team. Not every team has a rider in every position, as the goals of the team dictate the composition of each team. Here are some of the most common roles for a cyclist on a team.
Team Leader – This rider represents the primary goal of the team and will usually wear a number ending in 1. That identifies the rider as the Team Leader. The Team Leader is not necessarily going for a high General Classification position. He could be a sprinter or young rider’s jersey rider. He carries the burden of meeting the goals for the team’s sponsors. The interesting thing as the Team Leader may not actually be the rider directing things on the road. In fact, a very talented but inexperienced young rider may be the Team Leader, but a tactically saavy, experienced rider may be the one calling the shots. Often the term “protected rider” is thrown around for this type of Team Leader, but I do not find it fitting. At the end of the day, the Team Leader is the one who has to produce results. Just because he may not have the experience to see how the race will unfold, he will have to show the goods at the end of the day to show his teammates that he is a worthy leader.
Road Captain – This is the crafty veteran on the team calling all of the shots in coordination with the Director Sportif. Sometimes, the Team Leader and Road Captain are the same person. Chris Froome on Team Sky and Alberto Contador on Trek Segafredo are definitely dual-hatted. Matt Hayman on Orica Scott and Alejandro Valverde from Movistar have that responsibility for their young Team Leaders. The Road Captains can dictate who goes up the road, who goes to the front to chase the bunch, and who gives up a wheel if the Team Leader has a flat. The RC is the puppet master at 30 miles per hour.
Lieutenant – The lieutenants are the key guys for the Team Leaders at the critical time of the race. For the teams with General Classification aspirations, the lieutenants are the last riders with the Team Leaders on the climbs of the big mountains and shepherding the sprinters up the climbs to make the time cut. The Lieutenants make sure the sprinter Team Leader is up at the front of the peloton inside the last three kilometers and that the Team Leader has an extra gel nearby in the case of a looming bonk. The best Team Leader-Lieutenant combinations are when they are almost the exact same size. That means that the Team Leader will always have a spare bike right next to him. For the Lieutenants, this is a life of suffering. It means that you are always the bridesmaid and rarely have the opportunity to get personal glory. While a Domestique might get sent up the road in a breakaway and luckily get a chance to win a stage, the faithful Lieutenant will always stay by his leader’s side until the engine just can’t produce enough power. The best Lieutenants move on to become Team Leaders themselves, but not all of them experience the same success.
Domestique – The Domestique is the roughest job in the professional peloton. This poor rider has to work until exhaustion almost every day. On rare occasions, the Domestique will get to be in a breakaway. Then, after spending hours out in front of the bunch with only a few other riders to share the burden, he will likely get caught by the charging peloton, sometimes in sight of the finish line. Back in the bunch, the Domestiques have to go back to the team car to get bottles, food, rain jackets, and anything the Team Leader or Lieutenants need. The most bottles I have seen a Domestique carry from the team car is 16 bottles. 16! That’s about 20 extra pounds that the waif of a man had to bring to his teammates. More than 10% of the average rider’s bodyweight. Craziness. If the Team Leader has to stop to pee or has a mechanical incident, the Domestiques have to pace the Team Leader back to the peloton, burning precious energy. Finally, after working hard at the front to chase down the day’s break and set the Team Leader up, the Domestique gets dropped off the back of the peloton and through the convoy of team cars. Depending on the remaining length and terrain of the stage, the Domestique may have to make an excruciating, solo effort just to make the time cut with no support from neutral service or team cars. Oh, after that difficult day, he’ll have to get up and do it all over again the next day. The Domestiques are the cycling version of the pawn in chess. They get summarily knocked off the board throughout the day, and nobody gives them another thought. I love watching these guys in the breakaway. They recognize that it is their one chance for glory, and they sell it out for that one-in-a-million chance for a stage win. During the hilly and transition stages, watch for these guys to shine. They are the cycling Cinderella story.
Director Sportif – The Director Sportif, or DS, is the mastermind in the team car. The DS keeps the riders apprised of the situation on the road, gives directions to the riders, and motivates the riders to give their best. A good DS lays out the plan of the day for each stage and identifies every rider’s task and purpose. The best DSs know how to get the best out of their riders. Orica Scott’s DS, Matt White, is a genius at keeping his guys loose while still maintaining some intensity. Plus, he’s funny as hell. I highly recommend following the Orica Scott YouTube channel because of him.
Soigneurs, Mechanics, and Chefs – The soigneurs, mechanics, and chefs are the unsung heroes of the professional peloton. The soigneurs massage the tired legs of the cyclists after each stage, wash their dirty kits each day, make sure the food bags are prepared, and stand on the side of the road with the bottles and bags for the riders to grab as they fly by with no public recognition. The mechanics also have a hard job. They wash and lube the bikes after every stage. They make repairs to bikes while leaning out of a car window driving at more than 20 MPH. If the Team Leader’s bike is not set up correctly, it is the fault of the mechanic, and nobody wants to be blamed for ruining the chances of the leader. The Chefs have to keep the riders’ energy stores full. They prep the pre-race food, the post-race food, and the team dinner. Riders come from all over the world, so the eating habits can vary widely, and the Chefs have to make do with what they can find on the local economy. Oh, they also have to make sure that all of the food is prepared to eliminate the risk of any stomach issues for the riders. The last thing a Chef wants is for his riders to have to stop and drop a deuce in the middle of the stage due to food-related GI issues. Let’s face it, cyclists can be a bit Diva-ish when you think about it. Ok, maybe we should cut them some slack since they are riding about 150 miles per day at full gas.
Well, that’s the generic team composition. In part 3, we will cover the different types of riders and stages. If you like what you are reading, subscribe to the newsletter, and you will get an email every time I publish a new post.