This time of year, I’m majorly enthralled by the Tour de France. I’m going to presume to explain a few things about professional cycle racing even though I’ve only been following it avidly for 7 years now (and a little less avidly back when one of the riders in the peleton was a guy I’d shared tips on preventing penile frostbite with). Some of this might be laughably wrong to people who are really into the sport, but it should be close enough for the rest of you.
Professional riders in the Tour de France can be broadly separated into the following categories:
- The Big Man: Teams that want to win the GC (General Categorization) have one of these. He’s the team leader, the one that most or all of the rest of the team is devoted to protecting and helping. On Discovery, it’s Lance Armstrong, on CSC it’s Ivan Basso, and on T-Mobile it’s (sort of) Jan Ulrich. Most Big Men are specialists in the mountains.
- The Sprinter: Some teams don’t worry about the GC, and instead go after the sprint points. As well as points for winning individual stages, there are lesser points at certain points along the route. Some teams are totally organized around their big sprinter, like Fassa Bortolo is organized around Petacchi. Other teams, like T-Mobile will attempt to carry a Big Man and a Sprinter.
- The Lead out Men: Teams that are organized around a Sprinter have a bunch of guys who are also good sprinters, but whose job it is to burn themselves out in the last kilometer or so pulling their Sprinter into position for the final sprint.
- Time Trialers: Dave Zabriske on CSC is a perfect example. He’s a great time trialist, and does his best work when he’s alone on the road, just him and the clock. The best of the Big Men have to be great Time Trialers as well, like Lance Armstrong (and before him, Miguel Induran).
- The Domestique: Every team has these guys. Their job is to protect and lead out their team leaders, either Big Men or Sprinters, to make pace on the front of the peleton when the team needs the peleton to catch a break, or to go into a break to force another team to do the work of bringing the break back. Their other job is to do the dirty work – they’ll go back to the team car to get water for everybody else, or collect the food at the feeding stations, etc. Sometimes they’ll go on a break-away just to get air time and publicity for their team sponsor, especially if the team doesn’t have anybody to contend for the GC or the sprint points. Sometimes the Lead-Out Men will do this duty during the stage, sometimes the Big Men will even do this when it’s a flat stage where they aren’t going to lose or gain any time on their GC rivals.
- The Super-Domestique: The best teams have, as well as the ordinary Domestique, one or more Super-Domestiques. This is the guy who does the really hard work of leading the Big Man in the mountains. Often times it’s a guy who is nearly as good or better than the team’s Big Man, but without the experience to lead a team.
I don’t know how the teams hold onto their Super-Domestiques. Discovery has several, and over the years they’ve lost several who have decided that they are good enough to lead a team. Last year, Lance was helped through the mountains by Super-Domestique Floyd Landis. This year, Floyd is leading the Phonak team. Liberty Seguros is lead by Roberto Heras, who was Lance’s top Super-Domestique the year before. I suspect that teams hold onto their Super-Domestiques either by paying them a hell of a lot of money, or by promising them that when the current team leader retires, they’ll be the new leader, and maybe throwing them a stage win or two if they can do it while maintaining the team’s overall strategy.
And that brings us to this year’s Tour. One of the Super-Domestiques on Discovery is George Hincape. George has been on the same team as Lance since Lance first came back from cancer. And he’s having an amazing year this year, with several excellent results in early season “classics”. He’s currently sitting in second place in the GC. You’d think he’s a natural to replace Lance next year. And I think you’d be right.
But then you look at T-Mobile. Jan Ulrich is the official team leader, but last year he blew apart on a couple of the climbs, and his Super-Domestique Kloden ended up being the real team leader and coming second in the GC. This year, Kloden is back but not looking as good as he did last year. (Although they aren’t in the moutains yet, so maybe he’s just biding his time.) T-Mobile also has Alexandre Vinokourov. “Vino” is a damn good climber, and has done amazingly well in the time trail which has left him in third in the GC. He’s also made it quite clear that he’s unhappy with playing second banana to Ulrich when he’s clearly in better shape. He’s a free agent this fall, and there are rumours floating around that Discovery wants him as the leader.
So here you have two Super-Domestiques on two different teams, but both competiting for the same thing – next year’s Discovery team leadership position. I think today’s finish was an example of “Vino” auditioning for Discovery. He went out and attacked on what is a flat stage and normally the domain of the sprinters. It was wet and there was a treacherous turn near the end, and he attacked and caught the lone break-away rider there, with about 900 metres to go. That lone break-away rider crashed just as Vino passed him (and behind him, so did all the big sprinters), and a lead out man who came along with Vino ended up winning.
I expect we’re going to see more of Vinokourov ignoring T-Mobile team discipline and trying to make a name for himself. I’m not sure what George Hincape can do to cement his position other than doing a great job for Lance and helping him win some mountain stages.