Cyclists are like soldiers

Cycling is a well-organised sport. The roles are pre-determined. The star role is for the leaders but the rest are not merely a following pack. In cycling terms they are also called “supporters”, “sentries”, “bodyguards” or “workers”. Whatever the name, the domestiques are indispensable.

We know the winner of the 2022 Tour de France.
The Tour de Pologne starts on July 30.

The Tour de France is a world sporting icon, not just cycling. It is seven years older than the modern Olympics. It started in 1903 and lasted throughout the twentieth century, (with two breaks for the world wars) and as always, it’s going strong today, over the Alps and Pyrenees.

At times, the distance has been held at over 5,000 kilometres. This year’s was over 3,000 but not easier. It was broadcast by over 80 channels to 180 countries. It means big profits and lucrative pay for the best.

The prize money is not fixed. It can vary as much as twice or even three times higher than usual. Market conditions determine the sponsors’ contributions. But these can vary depending on the pandemic for instance, economic depression or even war.

In 2007, the prizewinning pot amounted to EUR 3,200,000 and the were EUR 450,000 for the winner. In 2001, the pot amounted to a total of EUR 2001 2,288,000 with EUR 600,770 to the eventual winner Tadej Pogačar.

Team sport

Despite outward appearances, cycling is a team sport. One individual triumphs, but it’s the work of many. Solo efforts fall by the wayside during events such as the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia or the Vuelta a España. You can’t show off during a race of twenty stages or more.

Broadly speaking there are two main types of cyclist- those for endurance and others for the sprint. To the first category belong the hills and time trials competitors. The second, sprinters, come into their own during the finishes and their ability to disperse the rest of the field.

There’s a rich vocabulary of cycling slang that define the cyclists’ job. One is called on to “disperse” the field. His job is to cycle in front of the leader at maximum speed. He slipstreams those behind him. A couple of hundred metres before the finish line the leader overtakes and takes the victory.

  The sprinter, and usually a competent rider, who takes on the role of a disperser during the stage can be a “welder”. He has to be aware, because if there a chance of a breakaway by a group he should react immediately, chasing any breakaway riders and pulling the leader behind him.

Usually the pursuit if the leader is joined by a group from various other teams and the “welders” can eliminate such a move: “welding”. Each rider in any group has a clearly outlined task to perform and so it’s a true team effort.

But only one cyclist is nominated as the leader of the team. He has an open road to become the leader of the entire race and to the ultimate triumph. Naturally with help from his teammates.

The nomination of the leader takes place before the start of the race. There is no such thing as internal rivalry during the stages to take this position. Cycling fans are fully aware of this situation. But there are fewer fans than in football it must be said.

There’s no accident in anointing the team leader either. The leader is usually the most outstanding or the best all-rounder. Although the best groups do not necessarily employ other riders but the course, length and fitness determines the choice of rider.

A classic sprinter rarely wins the Tour de France, a race that usually favours endurance. It’s this type of cyclist that suits being a leader. It’s the same in time trials in mountainous country.

Cycling in this respect is close to alpine skiing. We can remember the times of skiers Justyna Kowalczyk form Poland and Marit Bjørgen from Norway. Only Kowalczyk was able to last in the Cermis alpine race. Bjørgen weakened with each step despite doing well in the less-punishing races as well as in the sprints.

Cycling is an organised sort. The roles are pre-determined. The star is the leader but the rest are not relegated to the background though. In the sporting slang, they are known as “supporters”, “sentries”, “bodyguards”, “workers” or “domestiques”. Whatever they are they are indispensable.

First among equals

Czesław Lang was the first Pole in a professional team. He was an Olympic silver medallist, when in 1982 he went to Italy. He was also a silver and bronze world amateur medallist. Professionalism did not exist in Poland at that time.

Lang started out in several Italian teams. First in the Gis Gellati team, then at Carrera-Inoxpran. After that, Del Tongo and Malvor-Sidi. He was a domestique in these teams rather than a leader, very effective nonetheless, and respected by his team mates.

Lang introduced his fellow cyclist Lech Piasecki to the Italian scene. Before he signed a contract Piasecki was a world amateur champion, winner of the Peace Race, a communist bloc Tour de France, and winner of the poll for the top sporting personality run by Przegląd Sportowy (Sporting Review) magazine in 1985.

Piasecki remained in Italy until 1991. He rode for Del Tongo, Malvor-Sidi, Diana-Colnago and Colnago-Lampre. He won one stage of the Giro d’Italia individually, many time trials and a road race in the world championships in Genoa at 5,000 metres altitude.

Both Poles belonged to the global amateur cycling elite. Both turned professional with mixed results. But both signed on as domestiques.

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If anyone thinks that this denigrates these Olympic or world championship medallists, they are mistaken. The domestique doesn’t exist just to hand on water bottles or energy snacks to the leader. They don’t worship their leader either.

The leader is the first among equals, in all respects in the capacity for hard work and for his cycling skills. There is nothing the leader can do that the domestique cannot. If that were not the case then there’s no room for the domestique.

The “sentry” must also be a strong element. He has to do the back breaking work in the race then leap ahead in the straights and establish and maintain the lead. He has to be physically and mentally prepared to cope. He doesn’t work for peanuts for sure.

From domestique to leader

Financial affairs are similarly organised in this sport. The money depends on the classification that the team starts in. Generally there are a few groups but generally the top one being the UCI World Team (first division) a cycling Champions League.

There are currently 18 teams with 30 riders in each. Th minimum annual salary starts at USD 60,000. The leaders salary is a separate issue. The domestique can increase his wages during the races in competition for the different stages.

He can achieve this by winning one or two stages, depending on the situation. More often than not, these are the time trials because all the riders go all out, from the start to the finish. The finish can be equally as varied. A points win or a win in the mountain stages also goes into the team pot.

The domestique is usually young and fit. He may become a leader eventually. The harder he works the better his chances. It rarely happens overnight. First he has to apply himself.

Rafał Majka won the mountain stages in the 2014 and 2016 Tour de France. In 2015, he won the eleventh stage. He was third in the overall classification in the Vuelta a España. He was a domestique for Alberto Contadora in the Great Loop race in western Poland.

The Spaniard wanted Majka in his team, Tinkoff-Saxo. When he saw the cyclist who was tailing him wheel for wheel, he had no doubts that the Pole would support him.

Majka was a bodyguard for Tadej Pogačar in this year’s Tour. But the Pole had to withdraw before the 17th stage after having suffered an injury from a broken chain. The Slovenian will not participate in this year’s Giro d’Italia. Majka could assume the leadership of the UAE Emirates Team. The road from domestique to leader is not a short one, but it’s possible.

In contrast to Lang or Piasecki, Majka is not ending his professional career. He started and will continue professionally. He has talent and all the characteristics of a domestique as well as a leader. So, all to play for.
Michał Kwiatkowski in the INEOS Grenadiers team during the 119th Paris-Roubaix race in 2022, photo Tim de Waele/Getty Images
Michał Kwiatkowski is in a similar position. He is the second Polish talent discovered in this decade. He is a domestique and for the time being at least, has the potential for becoming a leader although at shorter distances. He’s a sprinter, but good in the mountains and has Majka’s type of endurance.

He is an individual world champion, he won a stage in the Tour de France. The mountain stage starts only in the third week and they are always decisive. He participated in the Great Loop eight times and the highest place was eleventh.

Cyclist Zenon Jaskuła achieved the highest position by Poles in the Tour de France in 1993. He got a third place podium position. No other countryman has equalled or surpassed this position.

You can always be a leader but you always remain a cyclist

Generations of Polish cyclists lost out on professional careers since having lived under communism. Ryszard Szurkowski, Stanisław Szozda or Joachim Halupczok are a few notable examples. Given the chance and opportunity, they could have changed the history of this sport.

Szurkowski and Halupczok both qualified to lead large teams on long-distance races. They had endurance and sprinting speed was not lacking either. They had to content themselves with being world amateur champions.

Professionalism reigns in today’s cycling. Much has changed in this sport. The bicycles are lighter, more technologically advanced. I don’t mean just small motors mounted on the frames but the innovations that are permissible by the rules.

Today, the communication between the domestiques and the leader or the team captain is better. This enables race strategy and tactics to be formulated at every stage, at a time when all groups have leaders and domestiques.

An earpiece mounted in cycling helmets ensure good radio communication. Officially the UCI allowed these innovations in 2015. Today it is difficult to surprise a leader with a surprise attack from the peloton.

The cards are dealt beforehand. But looking from the side it might seem suspicious. If someone has been appointed as the winner and that others should be overshadowed and have no right to overtake him so where is the fair play in that?

But no leader has been nominated to a victory but has to earn it first of all. There are many teams and many leaders. It’s the logic of team sport and cycling is one such sport.

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In basketball, volleyball or football there are always those who get the points, get the baskets or score goals and the rest support them. Robert Lewandowski or Christian Ronaldo are among them because they are the best at what they do. This is why they are supported.

Alberto Contador or Tadej Pogačar show the greatest propensity for multi-stage winning. Their success also is that of the teams. Lewandowski’s goalscoring reflects on the rest of his team.

The better the brand the more sponsors. The more sponsors, the more financial stability: more money for race preparation, more for salaries and future careers. Leaders can always change but team solidarity lies in the common interest.

Cyclists are like soldiers, especially during long distance events. These require a military discipline. The domestique and leader are united in a common cause. No one is insulted because all are conscious of the fact that you can always be a leader but you remain a cyclist.

-Marek Jóźwik

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

-Translated by Jan Darasz

Main photo: Pole Rafał Majka (first from left) in the 109th Tour de France 2022, was a “bodyguard” for Slovenian Tadej Pogačar (behind, in the yellow jersey). Both rode for the UAE Team Emirates. During the 9th stage, 192 kilometres from Aigle to Châtelles Portes du Soleil, photo Tim de Waele/Getty Images
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