TEAMWORK AND TACTICS IN PRO CYCLING EXPLAINED
How Is a Team Chosen?
Based on the demands of the race, the team’s manager selects a ‘leader’ or ‘captain’, who has the best chance of winning, and ‘domestiques’, French for ‘servants’, tasked with securing the leader’s place on the podium. The Grand Tours allow nine riders (one leader and eight domestiques) per team, who are handpicked from each team’s full roster (Team Sky, for example, has 28 cyclists to choose from). The riders are supported by a ‘directeur sportif’, coaches, doctors, mechanics and ‘soigneurs’, who are responsible for everything from clothing to feeding. In the Grand Tours, each team is allowed one support car, from which the sporting director communicates tactics via radio, fuel and water can be collected by a domestique and quick mechanical assistance can be provided. Event organisers supply extra medical and service cars to assist all teams involved.
How Does The Team Work?
The strategy for the entire race is dictated by the strengths of the team’s leader – if the leader excels in climbing, for example, then the team will focus on winning the mountain stages. If going home with the esteemed ‘GC’ jersey (general classification) is the goal, securing the fastest finish for the leader in every stage will not necessarily be a priority. Instead, performing consistently across all of the race’s stages (time trials, sprints and climbs) and scoring higher than other GC contenders is the target.
The domestiques support and protect the leader so that he can do what is necessary to win, whether that means racking up points or securing stages. That also means preventing rival leaders from stealing their own leader’s top spot.
Among the team’s domestiques, there’ll be accomplished sprinters (like Mark Cavendish, pictured left) and climbers (like Chris Froome), ‘lieutenants’ who protect and assist the leader at all times (this includes giving up their wheel if the leader has a puncture), and riders who fetch and carry water, sandwiches and gels from the team’s trailing support car.
Cyclists like Cavendish and Froome are capable of winning stages while supporting their team leader, but domestiques can also create tension when they exceed their role as servant and prove that they’re more capable than their leader – Froome, for example, caused controversy in the 2012 Tour de France when he mounted an attack that left leader Bradley Wiggins behind, supposedly against team tactics.
What Are The Tactics?
Domestiques take turns cycling in front of their leader to minimise wind resistance and to maximise aerodynamics – this is known as ‘drafting’ or ‘slipstreaming’. Riders in the peloton get the benefit of drafting too, as they take turns fronting the pack and dropping back (sometimes, teams surge ahead just to give their sponsors some air time).
The domestique in front sets the team’s pace (riders are allowed to use power metres) to help their leader conserve energy for attacks. Setting steady speeds and drafting can prove especially crucial for the leader on tough climbing stages (pictured above). Domestiques can also form a ‘lead-out train’, which safely carries their leader to the front of the peloton to freely attack. If a team breaks away from the peloton, domestiques ‘chase’ them down if they threaten the leader’s chances of victory – breaking away, however, can also be used as a tactic to wear out other teams. Domestiques can also ‘block’ attacks and lead-out trains by riding ahead of teams at a slower pace, and even isolate leaders from the protection of their own domestiques.
Despite these offensive tactics, riders still follow a code of etiquette – if a fellow competitor crashes, for example, the peloton has been known to slow down (usually by order of the race’s most senior and experienced rider, like a Fabian Cancellara), to allow the uninjured to rejoin the pack. Unwritten rules like these, of course, are followed on a case-by-case basis!