We had a party on Saturday morning in honor of Stage 14 of the Tour de France. We ate croissants and crepes, drank mimosas and cafe au lait, and paid half-attention to our children as we watched dozens of skinny men drag their bodies and their bikes up the Plateau de Beille.
I’ve written before about my love affair with the Tour de France, and it continues to this day – in spite of the doping scandals that have ruined the reputations of many top riders and sullied those of many more. This year’s Tour has provided plenty of drama: crashes, surprise stage winners, and a charming duo of Luxembourgish brothers trying to unseat a three-time champion.
But on Saturday morning, as I watched the usual suspects chug their way up the mountainside, gorging myself on butter-laden pastries while the riders refueled themselves with energy gels, I thought not about the stars of the teams, but about their so-called domestiques - the lesser-known stage race riders who work in support of their team leaders.
While men like Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador win races and the glory that comes with them, their supporting domestiques fulfill such glamorous tasks as fetching water bottles, offering up their own bikes to their team leaders if the leader has a “mechanical incident,” chasing down breakaways, and pacing their teammates up mountains.
I wondered what motivates these men. They themselves are among the very best bike riders in the world. They train tirelessly and face the same exact challenges as their more famous – and far more highly compensated – counterparts.
So what drives them to sacrifice themselves for someone else’s glory? Do they simply derive satisfaction from a job well done? Maybe they live vicariously through the success of their team leaders? Perhaps they are holding on to the chance of attaining individual glory themselves through their participation in a successful breakaway – as George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong’s chief lieutenant, did in the 2005 Tour de France.
It occurred to me on Saturday that being a domestique is kind of like being a parent. I don’t mean to say that one’s hopes, dreams, and chances of individual glory fade away when one decides to have kids. Not at all. But there is a certain amount of sacrifice – okay, a great amount of sacrifice – that comes with being a parent. It’s simply not all about you anymore. You rearrange your schedule and your priorities, protecting and shepherding others, carrying those proverbial water bottles up to the very mountain top. And you revel – you really do – in the achievements of your new team leader. And you know that every victory – whether it be rolling over or tying shoelaces – happened in part because of your hard work. And those team victories feel as good as the individual ones.
What motivates the domestiques? I think I’m starting to understand a little bit better now.
Do you have the personality of a team leader or a domestique?
Do you watch the Tour de France? Who’s your favorite rider? Who’s your pick to win this year’s yellow jersey?