Cycling’s ‘servants’ do the dirty work at Tour de France
ROUBAIX, France — Mouth gaping, his huge body bent over the bike, Tim Declercq is doing the dirtiest job at the world’s most prestigious cycling race.
The 29-year-old Belgian cyclist is riding at the front of the pack, his 1.90-meter (6.2-feet) frame taking the full brunt of headwinds, mile after long mile, day after day at the Tour de France.
And he is loving every moment.
Declercq is what in cycling is called a “domestique,” French for “servant,” which means a support rider who knows he isn’t fast enough to reach the finish line first. Instead, he and his kind are tasked with humbly helping their more talented teammates win the day’s stage and compete for the glory of the Tour title.
“It’s what I was made for,” Declercq told The Associated Press this week. “I know I am not explosive enough to be a team leader. But I don’t think that is a shame. I have found what I am best at. I still do what I love to do.”
During the Tour’s first week, Declercq could regularly be seen the head of more than 160 riders as they rolled through the green hills and wheat fields of northern France.
Slow in sprints, but good at the steady, long haul, Declercq’s job is to make sure that the daily bunch of breakaway riders doesn’t get too far ahead. By setting the pace, his Quick-Step team can also test the fitness of rivals and try to wear them down before unleashing their top riders at the end of the stage.
“When you start at kilometer zero almost knowing you are going to go 150 kilometers, and if you are going to do it alone, it’s mentally hard to keep pushing, keep pushing,” Declercq said.
For Quick-Step sports director Tom Steels, having a rider like Declercq is key to a balanced team.
“You don’t build a team with all good riders, you build a team with riders with different qualities,” Steels told the AP. “You always have to have somebody to do the dirty job.”
That job sometimes includes joining a breakaway so the team has a rider in the front bunch, or using one’s body— like Declercq’s— to shield the team’s top riders from winds that make them spend valuable energy.
Then there are the inglorious chores of dropping back to the team car to load up on water bottles, food and, in rain or cold, jackets to distribute to the rest of the team.
If a team leader has a mechanical problem like a punctured tire, the domestique must be ready to give him his own bike.
“For the worker you got to do your job all the time and there is not much glory in it,” said Tom Scully, a New Zealand rider for EF Education First said. “You have to know where your leader is at all the time. If he stops, you stop.”
Scully had to jump into action to make sure that Rigoberto Uran, the 2017 Tour runner-up behind Chris Froome, didn’t lose time when he crashed near the end of Stage 2 and Scully quickly led him back.
Spanish rider Imanol Erviti has more work than most of his brethren.
While the Tour’s eight-rider teams normally designate one man as their leader, Movistar says that Nairo Quintana, Alejandro Valverde and Mikel Landa all have free reign to go for the overall lead.
Erviti’s hustle was key in helping Landa recover lost time after a fall on the cobblestones of Stage 9.
“It changes things. You do the same job to help and protect, but you have three guys to keep an eye on,” Erviti said. “It gives more options for the team (.). But it is a bit more stress for us.”
Beyond their work ethic, many domestiques share the common story of young riders who had to set aside dreams of becoming stars and accept that laboring in the shadows was their way to be a professional cyclist.
The payoff comes when a teammate climbs onto the podium.
Declercq has twice been able to enjoy stage wins by sprinter Fernando Gaviria at this Tour after spending many a mile keeping Quick-Step in charge of the race.
“That makes the victory even sweeter,” Declercq said. “I really killed myself two or three times, and if then you can bring home the bacon, then that’s a really, really nice.”