2013.01.19

How to win the Tour de France (with seven other guys)

The greatest trick Lance Armstrong ever pulled was convincing America he won the Tour de France by himself. Nobody wins the Tour by themselves, even the guys who do it clean.

In just a few days, the 2013 cycling season starts in Australia with a multi-day stage race called Tour Down Under (a lot of races are called Tour [Blank]. You’ll get used to it.) A lot of teams are already there, riding the roads, doing recon, acclimatizing to the insane heat. Only one rider is said to be the winner, but teams race together.

A professional cycling team has anywhere from 20-30 riders on its roster. But not everyone rides every race. You don’t send a climber to a one-day Classic. You don’t send a time trialist up a mountain. The seven-man teams in Australia will consist of a leader, a sprinter, a lead-out man, a climber, a rookie, and a couple of domestiques.

(Longer multi-day races also include a time trial, which means the team also includes a time trial specialist. Tour Down Under is only six stages, not quite enough time, but it’s also in Australia, while most teams are based in Europe. A time trial means a whole other set of bikes for the team, and can you imagine the shipping costs?)

The leader of a team races for the general classification. He is racing to win. The GC guy has to be an all-around rider. He has to be great on the flats, in the mountains, able to stay at the front of the peloton, and kill a time trial, if he has to. He’s the quarterback of the team, too, calling the play from on the road.

A GC rider can be flashy like Lance Armstrong or Alberto Contador, the centre of attention. Or riding under the radar, like Cadel Evans or Ryder Hesjedal, blowing past the field and winning because no one was paying attention. Every team wants to win, but the kind of GC rider they choose says everything about how they want to win.

Most teams bring along a rookie rider who might ride GC in the future. Young, but good at everything. This is how he gets the experience you need to win. Fostering new talent in this way has become such an important part of the sport, race organisers began awarding a jersey to the best young rider.

There are a lot of wins to go around in cycling. Climbers have their own prize, a polka-dotted jersey, which makes them the easiest rider to pick out of the group. There aren’t as many or as gruelling mountains in Australia as in the Alps, but climbing mountains on a bike is an integral part of the sport. It’s a point of pride for the climbers and necessary survival for the sprinters.

Sprinters go for the win at the end of every stage, forget about the end of the race. But a sprinter in cycling isn’t the same as a sprinter on the track. Before he even gets to the 100m line, he has to survive the four hours in the saddle, in the wind, in the mountains. Then, after he’s exhausted, a final burst of speed is needed to get him across the finish line. That’s what a sprinter does on a bike. He, more explicitly than any other rider, is helped across the line by his lead-out man. The lead-out is a sprinter in his own right, but here, plays a supporting role. He rides at the front of the group, allowing the sprinter to draft as long as possible, then the lead-out gets out of the way.

The lead-out man is really a specific kind of domestique. From the French word for servant, domestiques are every rider who helps another rider to the finish. They ferry water bottles from the team car at the back, through the peloton of more than a hundred riders, all the way to the front where the team is riding. They wait for you when you need a nature break. They give you their own bike when yours breaks down.

A rider with a specific skill might find his job done before the race is over. Fabian Cancellara is a time trialist who often takes the first stage win at the Tour de France, rides in the yellow leader’s jersey for a few days, but when the race moves into the mountains, he becomes a domestique.

Jens Voigt wins Classics, the one-day races on mostly flat roads. Which doesn’t make him seem like the kind of rider a team wants on their team for three weeks in the mountains. Jens Voigt is a super-domestique. I think they invented the name just for him. At 41, he’ll be riding his 16th Tour de France this year. There’s no doubt in my mind his team will take him. He’s a big guy who can ride forever without complaining. Put him at the front of the peloton for hours, and he’ll take the wind for everyone. Jens does the hard riding so his guys don’t have to. He also does it with the best attitude, the best sense of humour, and the best sense of morals in the peloton.

A few hundred words ago, I wrote that the general classification rider was the leader of his team, the quarterback. When the quarterback is someone like Lance Armstrong, the whole team suffers. Sure, they won a few races, but ask George Hincapie, ask Levi Leipheimer, ask Christian Vande Velde if Lance still invites them to his Superbowl party.

Someone like Jens, like Cadel, like Ryder, lifts their teams higher on their own victories. When confronted with praise, they point it elsewhere. Cycling is a team sport first, because no one can get through those long days and mountains alone. You need the guy to ride draft, and the one who brings you a bottle, and the other, your partner, to lead you out to fly across the finish line.

Even Lance figured out you can’t win alone. Except he picked doctors and bullies, instead of riders and domestiques. He picked the wrong kind of team.