It’s easy to win the Tour; the difficult bit is not losing it. And beside every hopeful Tour winner is a rider helping them to do just that.
We’re not talking a superdomestique whose relationship with their leaders is spiked with a frisson of jeopardy and the fear that at any given moment there might be a French revolution and the anointed king could be guillotined with a quick slice.
Fabio and Dan, Nairo and Mikel: we’re looking at you.
We mean super domestiques – riders who are essential part of a Grand Tour bid but never in the victory limelight themselves. They are room-mates, team-mates, confidants, comrades: essential but somewhat hidden components of a Tour victory.
Separated in age by just three months, Romain Bardet and the now retired Axel Domont were coéquipiers since 2010, at first on the Chambery CF development team and then on Ag2r La Mondiale. Frequent room-mates in that time, Domont completed his first Tour de France in 2017 and in doing so helped to place Bardet onto the podium in Paris.
The 30-year-old from Valence gave us his tips for a life spent in the service of others.
“It’s about positive pressure. In sport, you don’t get results without pressure, but we learn to manage it. If it makes you scared or stressed during the race then it’s a problem. Sometimes last year I went to sleep and thought, ‘tomorrow we might have the yellow jersey’… but it’s nothing that stresses me out.”
Accept that you’re going to get very, very tired
“In 2017, what made me most tired was all the weight of the public, permanently being on guard, under scrutiny, wanting to do well, the pressure that I put on myself, wanting to finish my first Tour, and by the end I was totally empty. More mentally than physically. Burnt out. Afterwards, mentally, I just didn’t want to talk about cycling at all. Which was hard because everyone around me wanted to talk about the Tour de France.”
Think in terms of problems
“You have to anticipate everything for the leader, whoever it is. You have to lift off as much pressure and take as many problems away from the leader as you can: the conditions, every eventuality, anticipating what’s coming up and making sure they have no worries. With Romain, it was about leading him to the foot of the final climb with the most energy possible."
There’s no such thing as an easy day
“For me the stages that look easiest on paper are actually the most difficult, because it means lots of different things can happen. The worst thing you can do is relax: you could have crosswinds, echelons, crashes… and you can lose everything on an ‘easy stage’.”
“It’s about talking about other things, or to find the right moment to speak to them about something in the race. You need to know when they are feeling a bit down. And know when to do nothing.”
Le Tour, c’est le Tour
“One day races are six hours: you focus on those six hours and then it’s done. The Tour is five hours, then four hours, then six hours, then five hours, every day. It starts to add up. Then when you cross the line each day it’s not over; there’s media, there’s this and that, there is maybe another problem to deal with. Three weeks is a long time. In the last week it’s very difficult to manage all these aspects of the race.”
Dig for victory
“You have to want to help others otherwise you just won’t enjoy your work. You have to want to work for one person. It’s not like they’re your best friend but when you respect your leader and they respect you, they’re more than just a colleague. You can go further in your efforts. Your legs hurt but you dig deeper and push through it.”
“When you have done your job to 100 per cent and the leader has achieved what they want to do, it is still satisfying. You say to yourself, ‘I didn’t do it, but he did it thanks in part to me’. In 2017 when Romain was on the Tour de France podium, I wasn’t there myself but it still felt like I had won.