Nearly six and a half hours into one of the most difficult days of racing in recent memory, after enduring a relentless barrage of rain, sleet and snow on the vicious hillsides of the Ardennes, Wout Poels powered calmly over the cobbles of the Côte de la Rue Naniot to join the select group of four that would fight for victory in the 2016 Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He removed his gloves at the base of the long finishing drag up to Ans and tucked onto his opponents’ wheels, where he remained almost the whole way up, marking their attacks without wasting a pedal stroke. Towards the top, he surged once to make sure he was well positioned, came through the final left-hander on Albasini’s wheel, and immediately launched his sprint with a ferocity that astonished everyone. In the finish-line photo, his long, spindly arms stretch toward the sky. His jaw is set. His palms are open in the classic winner’s pose. With all of the strength, nous, and ruthlessness of a great champion, he’s just written his name onto the honour roll of the oldest and hardest classic of them all. Like Hinault, Anquetil, and Merckx before him, he’s the winner of La Doyenne.
Flash ahead to July. At the end of the fifteenth stage of the Tour, Poels crosses the finish line alongside the yellow jersey, his captain, Chris Froome. Poels’ performance during the stage was nothing short of commanding. On the slopes of the Lacets du Grand Colombier, he neutralised every attack Froome’s GC rivals threw at them, cooly ratcheting up the pace every time one of them flung himself off the front. He’d curtail their lead until the folly of their effort became clear and they had no choice but to drop back into the blue-and-black-lead line, humbled. It was a role Poels excelled in all Tour. As Chris Froome’s aide, he played a pivotal role in his teammate’s overall victory. It’s just a part of cycling’s absurd cruelty that he and his teammates couldn’t join Froome on the top step of the podium in Paris, that Froome will be known forever as the winner of the Tour and Poels will be but a minor character in the story of his victory. Cycling is a team sport. But the glory goes to the leader.
Most riders reconcile themselves to their role in the sport’s hierarchy quite quickly. Even within the professional ranks, riders with the class to compete for victory in a Grand Tour are a lofty elite. The rest have to accept that their own chances for glory will always be secondary. Perhaps, they will get the opportunity to go for a stage win or chase a result in a week-long stage race. Perhaps, they will become classics specialists, heralded by the cognoscenti. But on the most important days of the year, the days when the whole world is watching and history is being written, they will always be helpers. They will cover attacks from the gun and make sure no rider who poses a threat to their leader goes up the road, that the breakaway that does stick eventually is harmless. Even then, their torturous job won’t be done. They will ride in the wind for hours, keeping their leader protected and the peloton in check. They will set tempo on the early climbs. They will fetch water bottles and bring clothes back and forth from the team car. They will stop when their leader has to piss. At all times, they will be ready to give up their wheels if he has a puncture.
They will ride until they are delirious. Then, they’ll press on the pedals a final time and pull off, only to struggle to the finish, minutes down, shattered, often after the podium celebration has taken place. Day in and day out, they are what are called domestiques — servants, as the French word implies — pawns in the rolling game of chess that is cycling. They are easily dismissed. Their work, which is so essential to the sport, is undervalued by everyone except for their colleagues. Undervalued, underpaid — it’s a precarious life. Men who were winners when they were juniors and amateurs learn to sacrifice their chances for the benefit of better riders. They learn to accept their own defeat and do the job their ability demands of them.
And yet, amongst this class of riders, there are a special few for whom domestique duty is not fated, who always seem to be on the cusp of greatness. They make the finales of the most significant races time and time again, but instead of waiting for their moment to pounce, to write their own names into the history books, they opt to destroy themselves for their teammates. They are known as super domestiques, and more often than not they are the ones who decide races. They are as strong as their more illustrious leaders, or very nearly so. Their leaders count on them to be there when it’s crucial. When races are whittled down to the best of the best, it’s their presence that often makes the difference. Whether it’s covering late attacks so their leader can counter or supporting him through moments of difficulty, super domestiques make race-winning decisions on the fly, over and over. If a domestique’s duty is mostly drudge work, a super domestique’s is highly specialised. Their racing intuition is often second to none. They just have to suppress their own killer instinct.
That might seem faint-hearted of them, an unconscionable lack of ambition and waste of talent. Glory goes to the leaders. But for the men who fill this super domestique role, it allows them to preserve a semblance of sanity in the crazy world of professional cycling. It takes a special sort of madness to assume the leadership of a team during a grand tour, to step up and ask each of your teammates, plus a multimillion-euro organisation, to live or die by your sword for three gruelling weeks, when one split-second error or moment of weakness is liable to doom you to failure. Who can blame anyone for forgoing that pressure in exchange for the satisfaction of a job well done? For staying out of the limelight and avoiding all of the extra hours in the media scrum? For taking their chances in one-day races where the pressure is alleviated by adrenaline? Cycling demands that its leaders be vain, but glory in the sport is founded on the quiet competence of footmen. Every great champion has had a great domestique. Jean Stablinski spent nine years in Jacques Anquetil’s service. Hinault had Greg Lemond. Merckx had Joseph Bruyère.
The Maastricht-born rider won Liège-Bastogne-Liège twice, in 1976 and ’78, but was better known for the work he did for his friend and captain, the man they called “The Cannibal”. During the best years of his career, Bruyère was Merckx’s loyal and able domestique, the man at his side in the mountains when it mattered. When Merckx retired, Bruyere tried to take up his mantle, but the best he could manage in the Tour was fourth. Few today have ever heard of him. Prosper Depredomme is another two-time winner of Liège who spent most of his career riding for others. Fausto Coppi was his captain. Tyler Hamilton won the race once. For several years, he was Lance Armstrong’s best man in the mountains. Going it alone ruined him.
Perhaps, the best-known example of a super domestique’s plight is the case of Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault. We all know the story. Lemond did an exemplary job in support of Hinault’s 1985 Tour victory. He relinquished his own opportunities and accepted second. In 1986, he was supposed to get his chance. Hinault had promised to work for him but had other thoughts. Already a five-time winner, he had a champion’s mentality. He wanted to be the greatest of all time, to win an unprecedented six. The two fought tooth and nail for the duration of the Tour, dividing their team. In the end, Lemond finally usurped “The Badger.”
So, fans got what they wished for. Upstarts should race for themselves, should usurp their leaders, should do everything possible to fulfil their potential. And the only potential worth having is a winner’s. The story of Andrea Carrea, who broke down in tears during the 1952 Tour when he accidentally earned himself the yellow jersey by covering a move for his leader Fausto Coppi, seems unnatural, impious.
The conversations are already swirling. Will Wout Poels be the next Chris Froome? When people see how well he rides in the mountains, the way he won Liége-Bastogne-Liége, they think, if only… if only he were racing for himself. They’re waiting for a critical juncture, the moment in a grand tour when Poels has to decide if he will wait for his leader or push on and race for himself, as Lemond did, as Froome did. Will he do his duty?
When that moment comes, or rather if that moment comes, Poels may or may not take up the reins. If he doesn’t, don’t think he’s any lesser. Watch the man race. In a finale, he is masterful. He’s the doyen of a profession that is nobler than its name suggests. The word domestique is a bad one. Henri Desgrange first used it in 1911 to insult Maurice Brocco in the pages of L’Auto. Brocco had been riding for others. “He is unworthy. He is no more than a domestique,” Desgrange wrote in a vain attemp to uphold his illusion that cycle racing is an individual endeavour. Incensed, Brocco won the next stage by 34 minutes. He was a damn good bike racer. So is Wout Poels.
Glory ought to go to the winners.