Domestique Mentality is Pervasive

This entry was posted in Racing on by . had this article on one of the BMC riders, Amaël Moinard, who in a video talks about how great it is to be a domestic. I’ll never understand it.

This guy finished 15th in the Tour in 2008 and now he is happy riding tempo for someone else. I wonder if that is why he started the sport? It’s guys like this that make the sport boring. Actually, I’m probably being too hard on him. The sport has dictated that good riders become domestiques. It has to mainly be a $$$$ issue. Which is sad.

John Wilcockson wrote this article on Velonews about why he thinks that a lot of “underdogs” won big races this year. Some of what he wrote is true. But the main reason that there were a bunch of unexpected winners is because in cycling, the best guy doesn’t always win any given individual race. That is what is so great about the sport. The outcome will differ each and every time the event is held. And as the drugs become less prevalent, there will be more and more unexpected winners. The lack of drugs in the peleton will make the sport more exciting, but much less predictable.

The reason the sport came up with these long Grand Tours is because, in theory , after that many days, the best rider will win. But, that isn’t a 100% guarantee.

I’ll never understand the domestique mentality. I hate setting tempo. I look forward to when the race is going to get to the pivotal selection and see how it is going to play out. I hate having a bad day and missing observing the decisive moves from within.

I’ve ridden with a few guys that were wired to be domestiques. I’d say it would be a toss up between Roy Knickman and Joe Parkin on who relished in it more. Joe probably had the goods to be the best at it. His physical attributes matched up good with a strong worker. Roy, on the other hand, had to mold himself into a domestique. His physical abilities were of a race winner. He had to tone down that ability to fit the role. One thing that both of them shared was the same mentality. They wanted to go into the wind and ride. Ride for someone else. Neither were weak mentality. Exactly the opposite, both were hard guys on a bike. I think it was more of not wanting the internal, personal pressure of having to ride for themselves. But that still might not be right. Maybe they got more satisfaction out of helping someone else win than wining themselves. I’ll probably never know completely, even if they explained it to me themselves. Roy is a fireman now in California. That is the perfect job for his team mentality.

Anyway, this mentality has made its way into domestic racing. Young guys want to go and set tempo. You don’t learn much about the sport by riding to set tempo. Young guys need to watch what is going on and figure out the flow of the race. You can’t do that by doing a 6 rider TTT at the front for the first 3 hours and then get popped when the race really starts.

I do understand the need for domestiques in cycling. Especially in the Grand Tours and longer stage races. But we really need more bike racers and not so many bike riders. Strong guys don’t always win. Sometimes they never win. We should hope that our strong guys want to win. That is what makes a great bike racer.

Joe got all his wiring mixed up in Belgium.

And Roy in France or somewhere in Europe. Man, those brake levers are low.

Roy working for Oravitz at Killington.

24 thoughts on “Domestique Mentality is Pervasive

  1. John Adamson

    I know what you mean – we all want to be winners.
    But who is more admired than guys like Jens Voigt – I hope it is not the sprinter who comes around the last minute

  2. SB

    If the choice is: paycheck as a domestique, or go back to work selling refrigerators at Sears… which would you pick?

  3. Dan Fox

    In that last picture, Roy is on 7-Eleven and Greg is on Coors Light. Roy was 2nd behind Greg on GC that year at KSR, so … don’t know if Roy was working for Greg there.

  4. John

    Just like that random tiger vs human dealio you posted the other day that several folks didn’t get or agree with. You might not get this… some people are wired to be selfless team players… sacrifice for others… think of others before themselves. It has nothing to do with ability or desire to accept pressure.

    Let me guess, you played right field and batted ninth in little league… right? I’m guessing not. It’s called being a role player. “Team” sports have those roles.

    I haven’t been following baseball or the World Series lately. Maybe everybody plays shortstop and hits 3rd… I could be wrong…

  5. tilford97 Post author

    Dan-You’re absolutely right. But, it’s the only picture I could find of Roy at the front. Maybe Roy was just pulling? Or was bought? Probably I was just wrong.

  6. Forrest

    That is why I loved to race mtn bikes, seems like the strongest on the day always won. Never saw the appeal of road racing because of all the other factors. I wanted to know how I measured up against the others everytime I got on my bike to race and mtn bike racing did that for me.

  7. Jack

    Cycling is often a team sport, doesn’t mean it should or shouldn’t. When it is, then everyone has a different position within the team. This doesn’t preclude winning, but it does mean working for something a little less selfish occasionally, such as a teammate’s result which impacts every rider on the team. Not everyone can be centerstage, but every rider on a winning team shares some of the spotlight.

  8. Jimbo

    That John guy epitomizes the new America: personal success through the ‘team’. Maybe that’s always been America.

  9. tilford97 Post author

    John-I agree that some people are wired to be “team players”. But, at least from my generation of the sport, cycling drew the fringe athletes. The ones that didn’t want to participate in the organized team sports. It drew athletes that were used individual thinking. I still think the sport has that appeal.

    The change is in the Professional aspect of trying to win and hiring whole teams of riders to work as one cohesive unit.

    This has only succeeded because of the use of drugs in the sport. As the sport becomes cleaner, there will not be any domestics that can ride at the front for the whole 3 weeks of a Grand Tour. Or at the front for the whole 6 hour duration of a classic.

    This is going to change the landscape and what we perceive as the “normal” tactics of cycling considerably.

    I have no problem working for other riders. I do it nearly in every race I race. But, that doesn’t make me not want to win the race. Many riders today don’t ever have an intention of winning. Because they are being realistic and don’t know they will never be given the opportunity.

    It is way too hard of a sport to do only for the money a domestic gets paid. There are much easier ways to make a living.

  10. Phil

    Steve-I think your opinion of “easy ways to make a living” are very different than most of us. You make your living by traveling to races when and where you want and don’t have anyone to answer to but yourself and your giant herd of kittens, and a few sponsors. The rest of us have wives and kids and real jobs that we have to go to. If these domestiques want to earn their paycheck on the bike by helping their team leader win the race, good for them. I have more respect as a rider for Danny Pate or the Vellits brothers than Mark Cavendish. They work for hours for him, so he can uncork his explosive kick for 10 seconds and take all the glory. I know he is always the first to thank his team mates, but in the end the domestiques are stronger riders than he is.

  11. jp

    I’m not sure what to make about the herd of kittens thing comment, but I think womens racing has a pretty good balance going on, be it domestic or in Europe. It seems to be more common for the team member that has the legs on a given day to go for the win rather then always riding in support of a given rider, it is not always a selected team leader, if its going to come down to a sprint I think in the end a team will end up working for their sprinter, but womens racing certainly lets the depth of their teams show through, at least I think it does.

  12. rider


    This mentality you have is why 1/2 the field hate you. They have done their job and are rolling across the line for 67th place and you are getting in their face about not sprinting for 66th place.

    There can be plenty of satisfaction laying it all on the line for someone else. Someone mentioned cav, well he sure as hell thanks his guys every time he wins. You think Renshaw does not enjoy a cav win. You think BMC 8 domestiques did not have cadels win as their best moment in cycling (ok Hincapie maybe not).

    Parkin awesome. If it wasn’t for the UCI points crap he’d probably still be a pro.

  13. tilford97 Post author

    Rider – Really? You’ve witnessed this? Me giving another rider attitude for not sprinting? I’d like to hear the specifics on that one.

    I agree Parkin is awesome. Roy too. That doesn’t stop me from wondering “what if”.

    And, I doubt that the 8 domestiques think that helping Cadel win the Tour as their best moment in cycling. If they do, then they are doing exactly what they are wired for.

  14. Jim

    Winning or having a great ride once or twice will change a lot of domestique’s attitudes really quickly. Voeckler and the strenghth of the yellow and all that, but a guy like Pierre Rolland also who was tipped for greatness but now believes it.
    In GTs it makes sense for a team of domestiques of various strengths built around one guy, but One Days and lesser races, I agree, will be spread around to opportunists a lot more. But what will limit their chances is their designation or assigned pecking order by the boss, reflected in their salary. Hard to make the break if the earpiece is on fire telling you to work.

    If Gilbert is in the race all goes out the window though.

  15. Aki

    I felt both happy and disappointed when I read this post. Happy that you like the winning attitude. Sad that you chide those that enjoy working for others, no matter how lightly or with how much respect.

    Part of cycling is the need to give up one’s chances in order to help the best rider on the team win. Even the best winners would do that, like Lemond in Paris Roubaix (or the Tour for that matter).

    At the same time, I think the reason why some riders only popped up recently is because they had it drummed into them that they were domestiques and only domestiques. I can’t say I know any of these guys personally but Yaroslav Popovich first came on the radar when he single-handedly contested the Giro GC, sitting second for a while, racing on a small second tier team (I only learned of this by watching the DVDs of the race). Vandevelde was a huge tempo guy (if you will) for CSC. Wiggins, he too was a tempo guy (and prologue “specialist”). Even Contador and the Schleks were domestiques first – in the 2006 Tour (which I’m watching again now) Frank and Christian ride tempo for Sastre.

    Of course the other part is that many riders simply cannot win, not unless they get a miraculous set of circumstances. I rarely win, and I’ve only ever won once from a break. I’m a sprinter if you will, but one race I won by lapping the field with a rouleur type rider. He did much of the work; I tried to make it fair by pulling pretty consistently. I wanted to lead out for the last couple minutes to give him a chance at the sprint but he repeatedly attacked me in the last lap until he blew himself up. Only afterwards did I learn that he raced the whole race on a soft rear tire, and the field let us go because “he had a flat and I can’t TT”. I seriously doubt I’ll ever lap a field again.

    I spent the latter half of my 2010 season working for others. I reveled in the lack of pressure to perform, the limits I could explore, stuff I couldn’t do when I was racing on my own (as a sprinter) – big leadouts, chasing down breaks, following dangerous moves with the idea of neutralizing them. With a solid team I could race for myself in the earlier part of the season then try and return the favor later. One of my favorite races was when I never kitted up – I could give my most solid contribution by working the feed zones in a road race.

    I think we all respect and empathize with the Jens Voigts, the unadulterated effort in service of another racer. It’s a critical part of cycling, one that makes it so fascinating for us, so incomprehensible for non-cyclists.

  16. Biker89

    Very well said Aki,

    There are many very rewarding moments working as a domestique. There are many riders who just aren’t winners but would like to be, therefore it is better to contribute to a win and have a prosperous, profitable career than be hell bent on a top 20 or what ever result. It is a race, and winning is the goal. And it’s a team race, so if you are unable to win yourself, helping a team mate is the next best thing. From a completely different sport, Ayrton Senna once said, “if you are no longer racing to win, you are no longer a racer.” Also there are some riders who just don’t perform well under pressure, and prefer a long career as a domestique with the odd opportunity for a personal result. That is cycling.

    And I think Mr Tilford would be surprised, I’m pretty sure many riders on BMC would class Cadel’s tour win as a career highlight. Most of those guys won’t ever be able to win the tour themselves, but to be a part and contribute to a tour win is a fantastic achievement. There are a lot of qualities that are required to be a good domestique, athletic ability of course is important, but also you need to fit in and be a reliable, steady dependable team mate. These guys not only spend the 3 weeks of a stage race living in each other’s pockets, but in fact the whole season! Despite being obviously a talented athlete in his youth, Mr Tilford I understand has never experienced that and clearly has no appreciation of that concept.

    He is, I believe, correct though when he talks about cycling in the US and other non-traditional countries attracting individuals that don’t fit the stereotype for typical team sports. Cycling is not helped here in the US by the very average commentary of the races on tv either. The commentators here just don’t have a solid knowledge of the riders and what’s going on, even those two lovable Englishmen are forced to dumb it down for a US audience. When you watch a race on Italian, Dutch or Belgian television it is a completely different experience, much more insight. But I guess it is good that the US channels are trying to make cycling more appealing to the average viewer that doesn’t have any knowledge about the sport. But then you will see it in your local race the next weekend, riders “blocking” or doing whatever because that’s how it was explained to them on Bob Roll’s post stage show!

    I do, however, struggle to understand Mr TIlford’s negative comments about, “setting tempo.” He has been talking about this in US racing for a while and now he is questioning it in the pro ranks? That is also cycling, the way it has always been. In fact, I think cycling is a much better place now for young riders than it was 1 or 2 decades ago. Then, when you became professional there were such levels of hierarchy that young riders most often had very little chance of riding for themselves until they had “done their time” working for the respected team leaders. Of course there were exceptions, but this was generally the case. Young riders now have the opportunity to win straight from the start of their pro careers, and in some cases that is expected of them. This is also thanks to the new mentalities of the non-traditional teams, the Sky’s and Garmin’s etc. But when you see Sky or Garmin leading a stage race, surprise surprise they ride on the front, control the race and defend their lead. “Riding tempo”. That’s how bike races are won. Professionalism.

    And yes this is creeping into domestic racing, as domestic racing is becoming more professional. More foreign riders are using the US as a stepping stone to start their careers, good bike riders are coming to the US to finish their careers and they are bringing the professional attitudes with them. It may be a negative for riders like Mr Tilford who is no longer able to finish 9th in an NRC crit because United Health Care are riding professionally and dominating the race, but there are many more pro riders who now earn their living by racing here in the US which I think we should all agree is a great thing. And in fact these same riders livelihoods are sometimes put at risk but the un-professional rider who might, for example, pull their iphone out of their pocket during a dangerous 210 rider stage of the Redlands Stage Race and start taking photos of what is going on around them, as if they were spending the afternoon on the Santa Monica Pier!!


  17. tilford97 Post author

    Biker89- Your statement about tempoing -“He has been talking about this in US racing for a while and now he is questioning it in the pro ranks? That is also cycling, the way it has always been.” is not correct.

    It is not the way it has always been. I dare you to find a picture of any professional team setting tempo in the Tour de France before the Telecom era. Show me a picture of La Vie Claire sittting in line with Hinault and Lemond sitting on. Show me a picture of any team that Eddy Merckx rode on that has him sitting behind a line of riders on his team for hours upon hours. It just didn’t happen.

    Setting tempo is a “new” way for the a team to neutralize a bicycle race. They are doing it for any number of reasons, but the effects are the same. It neutralizes the racing. It’s made for TV bike racing. Boring for the spectators and boring for the riders.

    A couple others thoughts. More foreign riders are using the US to start their careers? I don’t even want to go there. We could start listing the number of foreign riders that have come to the US and dominated the NRC races, only to turn up positive eventually. And more riders earning a living by racing here in the US? What do you think the average salary is for the a D3 team? Do you actually think the average American Pro gets paid enough to live on? I think not.

    And riding a long road race in a US stage race usually isn’t much different, most of the time, than spending the afternoon on the Santa Monica Pier.

  18. Biker89

    Off the top of my head I can think of a few riders that have started their careers in the US and gone onto great things without any suspicion… Greg Henderson, the Haedo brothers, Svein Tuft. And the up and coming legitimate young foreign riders on the US development squads and Pure Black/Fly V etc who will soon be hitting the big time. Most of the suspicious characters that you mention are usually older guys, with good results but unable to land a good team. Usually a bad sign. Like this last idiot that tested positive, some great results on his resume, but even at his best lately he was far from utterly spectacular. It was obviously a last roll of the dice by him in an effort to make something of his career. Lets all hope guys like this become fewer and farer between, regardless of their nationality as it seems there have been a fair share of local domestic riders busted lately also. But as long as there are humans there will be cheats. People cheat on their significant other, people cheat on their taxes etc etc. It is nice to see these people in our sport get busted, but a lifetime spent dishonestly on the bike or off the bike, whether they are caught or not will usually end badly.

    As for riders of years past. Yes you will struggle to google a picture of Merckx sitting behind his team. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, of course it did. Do you honestly believe that in those days those guys would race each other full gas all day? Especially with the 300km+ stages. I’m pretty sure Merckx’s team mates weren’t sitting down the back while he was covering every move himself like it was the Rock Island 90min crit! Photography wasn’t as advanced back then, there was no internet, no Versus, no phones in camera’s, and I believe people back then really didn’t give a shit about anyone other than the riders winning the races. That’s why you will only find pics of those guys slugging it out over a mountain pass or across the cobbles, because that’s all people cared about and wanted to see. There was most probably 200-250km of undocumented racing that went on before those pics were taken and I can guarantee these guys had their teams controlling the race. Also domestiques back than commanded far less respect. Cycling wasn’t truly international, and there just wasn’t as much money involved. In fact many of those domestiques worked during the off season to be able to survive, much like a rider in a domestic continental team may do now.

    I also believe some of this idea that teams spend an entire stage on the front tempoing as you put it, has come about because of the poor tv coverage. Sometimes in the grand tour stages, the first 1-2 hours are the most exciting of the race, but it is hardly ever shown. Quite often those stages start absolutely full gas, 45-50kmh average. Finally a break with the right mix will go, the field will relax, the riders that wanted to be in the break but missed it will save their energy for another day, and the leaders team will take control of the race. But more often than not we will turn the tv on, there will be a break of 3,4 or 5 guys up the road at 6min with the leaders or the sprinters teams working on the front and we will all think… boring! But perhaps the most exciting part of the race that led to those riders getting 6min up the road has not been seen.

    As I’m sure you know continental teams have no minimum salary requirements, all you have to do is pay the UCI and USAC registration costs, have at least 8 riders under contract and away you go. The contract may be for three buckets of gravel as a salary, doesn’t matter as long as there is a contract. So in the unlikely scenario that I had 7 friends, we could chip in a $1,000 or so each and call ourselves a pro team! Not too far off the US racing in the 80’s where if you bought yourself a pro license, you were a pro, whether part of a team or not.

    Having said that though, I believe a decent rider in a US continental team would be making 25-35,000, although that is just an assumption on what I’ve heard. There may be 80% of a team like Bissell making this amount, where as a smaller team may only have a few guys on the pay roll. Far from truly professional I know. But then there are the pro-continental teams, Type 1, United Healthcare etc who must follow the UCI salary requirements that stipulate they must pay at least the minimum salary which is I believe somewhere around $45,000 which is well above the poverty line, plus they must pay health insurance also. As a result I think domestic US racing is in much better shape than it was in the past. Teams are moving up divisions, good riders are being developed and the racing is getting more competitive.

    And as a closing jest, I can’t help but point a little gem that I did find on the internet….. must have been a particularly hard day out on the roller coaster at the Santa Monica Pier!!!!

    March 31 – April 3, 2011
    RESULT: The City of Beaumont Road Race Stage 1
    Men Pro-1

    DNF 121 Noonan, Zack FCS Cycling Team
    DNF 122 Gerald, Tucker FCS Cycling Team
    DNF 123 Anton, Blake FCS Cycling Team
    DNF 124 Foster, Cody FCS Cycling Team
    DNF 125 Boulle, Nicky FCS Cycling Team
    DNF 127 Tilford, Steve FCS Cycling Team
    DNF 155 Olin, Shawn US Military Cycling Team
    DNF 156 Chocha, Andy US Military Cycling Team

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