Anybody who pays even a little attention to the world of professional road racing and the Tour de France has likely heard of the sport’s superstars: names like Chris Froome, Greg LeMond, Eddy Merckx, and – the most infamous rider of all – Lance Armstrong.
If you’re familiar with these riders, you might also have heard another key cycling term used to describe the other riders on their teams: ‘domestique’.
Domestiques are the foot-soldiers of the cycling world. They don’t get the fame or glory of the team leaders they serve, but the superstar riders would be lost without them.
To help give you the lowdown on all there is to know about cycling’s unsung heroes, we’ll be exploring:
- What Is A Cycling Domestique?
- What Do Domestiques Actually Do To Support Their Cycling Team?
- Evolution Of Domestique Cycling In Bike Racing
- Why Would A Pro Cyclist Be Happy Sacrificing Their Own Shot At Glory?
Ready to decipher domestique cycling?
Let’s jump in!
What Is A Cycling Domestique?
A domestique is a rider whose main job is to ride in a way that helps the team and its leader, rather than trying to win races or stages for themselves. Most riders on any given team will effectively be domestiques.
The term domestique comes from the French word for ‘servant’.
Interestingly, the French themselves use the term équipier to describe the role, which translates as ‘team player’ or ‘crewmate’ – perhaps reflecting a sense that such skilled, self-sacrificing riders deserve more respect than to be reduced to the rank of ‘servant’.
The Italians and Spanish go one further with the term gregario – derived from the old Latin word for a ‘soldier of the Roman legion’.
What Do Domestiques Actually Do To Support Their Cycling Team?
The role of a domestique can essentially be split into two parts.
#1: Basic Assistance
Domestiques are there to do all the legwork for their leader, preserving their teammate’s energy as much as possible for the decisive moments of a stage or tour.
This can include riding in front of the team leader to give them a slipstream, protecting them from crosswinds, and basic tasks such as dropping back to collect food and water from the support vehicle and delivering it to the star cyclists.
If the leader is involved in a crash or mechanical problem, the domestique might also be expected to sacrifice their bike to get their teammate back on the road as fast as possible.
#2: Tactical Role
Where the great domestiques really make their mark is in the tactics of a professional road race.
The domestiques will often ride at the front of the peloton, dictating the pace in a way that suits their leader. This usually means burning through their energy reserves to drive up the pace of the pack to blunt the potential for attacks and breakaways from opposing teams, or to drop their leader’s rivals in the General Classification (GC – the overall Tour victory).
If they think one of the leaders of a rival team is struggling, they might form a breakaway of their own to force a chase and punish the rider’s legs even further.
If their own leader falls behind, the domestiques will drop back and pace them up to the pack, giving them a slipstream as well as a psychological boost from having a wheel to follow.
If the team has a specialist sprinter, the domestiques will act as a ‘lead-out train’, pushing up to blistering speeds to provide their finisher with the best launchpad possible in the final kilometer before the line. The best lead-out riders are often great sprinters in their own right – such as Mark Renshaw, the top lieutenant and right-hand man of sprinting legend Mark Cavendish.
- Check out our Complete Guide to Cycling Team Roles here!
Evolution Of Domestique Cycling In Bike Racing
The first known case of cyclists being used solely to benefit another rider came in the 1907 Tour de France.
Henri Pépin promised fellow competitors Henri Gauban and Jean Dargassies the equivalent of the prize money for winning the Tour if they paced him through the race – a practice which was strictly forbidden at the time.
Pépin had no intention of actually winning the Tour, however. He was a wealthy cycling enthusiast who seemingly just wanted some companions who could keep up as he rode leisurely from luxury hotel to fine restaurant to luxury hotel. In his words:
‘We are but three, but we live well and we shall finish this race. We may not win, but we shall see France.’Henri Pépin
On Stage Five from Lyon to Grenoble, Pépin decided to call it a day – paying his teammates the money they were promised and jumping on the next train home.
It was four years later, on the 1911 Tour, that the term domestique was born.
Maurice Brocco was a talented rider in his own right, but a mechanical failure on the stage to Chamonix was terminal to his hopes of winning Le Tour for himself.
Frustrated by having to choose between withdrawing or riding the rest of the Tour with no real purpose, he instead offered his services to François Faber, who was struggling to finish within the time limit. Brocco paced Faber to the finish line, helping him survive one of that year’s toughest stages.
Tour de France co-founder and chief judge Henri Desgrange was incensed.
He wanted Brocco disqualified, but couldn’t prove the allegations. Instead, he was restricted to venting his fury through the newspaper he edited, L’Auto:
‘He is unworthy. He is no more than a domestique.’Henri Desgrange
Unsurprisingly, this left Brocco feeling he had a point to prove. At dawn, he sought out Desgrange at the start line and declared before a crowd of fellow riders: ‘Today, sir, we shall settle our debts.’
Brocco went on to win the stage by a scarcely believable 34 minutes – taunting Desgrange all the way up the legendary Col du Tourmalet climb as he passed leader after leader.
He’d made his point.
Though individual occurrences and accusations of cyclists serving as domestiques for other riders continued over the next two decades, Desgrange managed to keep the practice outlawed from the Tour until 1930.
That year, the race was split into national squads to limit the influence of bike factories and sponsors, forcing Desgrange to implicitly accept the role of teamwork – and by extension, the domestiques.
Why Would A Pro Cyclist Be Happy Sacrificing Their Own Shot At Glory?
Well, for starters – sometimes they’re not!
One of the most famous examples of a disgruntled domestique came at the 2012 Tour de France. Before he was a four-time winner himself, Chris Froome was riding as a domestique for fellow Brit Bradley Wiggins.
This was the source of some tension between the two. Froome felt he had the ability and form to win the Tour for himself, and attacked Wiggins on Stage 11 on the brutal climb up to La Toussuire. Wiggins was briefly dropped before Froome was ordered by the team – with some fairly robust language – to drop the pace and allow his leader to recover.
The relationship between the two never fully recovered. There were even rumors that Wiggins initially refused to split the Tour winner’s prize money with Froome – an age-old tradition that dictates the victorious leader shares the financial spoils evenly with the whole team.
However, domestique insubordination is the exception rather than the rule.
For many riders, serving as a domestique is an accepted part of the journey from being a rookie as they work up through the ranks, eventually becoming a team leader themselves. Cycling legends such as Greg LeMond, Miguel Induráin, and Froome himself all served as domestiques before going on to win major individual honors.
However, most domestiques come to terms with the fact that their destiny is to remain a member of the supporting cast, never taking the limelight for themselves.
There are many different skills and characteristics that different cyclists on the Tour will excel at or struggle with. One rider might come alive to dominate the mountain stages but be left exposed in the time trial, for example, while another could be a world-class sprinter but a useless climber.
To be a GC contender – and therefore a team leader – a rider must excel in most of these (especially climbing and time trials) and have no glaring weaknesses in any of them.
For most pro cyclists, this just isn’t the case.
For these riders, serving as a domestique is a means to achieve their dream of being a professional cyclist. While they won’t achieve the fame and glory of their team leaders, there is a huge amount of respect and satisfaction to be gained from being a cog in a successful machine.
And the pay is nothing to be sniffed at either – though they won’t match the salaries of their superstar team leaders (which can reach upwards of $4 million per year), an established domestique can still expect to take home anywhere from $150,000 to $500,000 each season.
For so-called super-domestiques (top riders arguably good enough to compete for Grand Tour wins in their own right), wages can even climb as high as $1 million per year.
So, there’s plenty to keep the domestiques happy in their roles!