I still have an awful lot to learn about professional cycling. Like with the rest of the sport, I know very little about the tours, the teams, the strategy, the goals, the determination, etcetera. Actually, I only found out about a month ago why pro cyclists shave their legs (it’s apparently less to do with aerodynamics than it is to help prevent infections from setting in when they crash and lose layers of skin).
That said, I’ve found myself drawn to watching pro cycling in almost equally addictive fashion to riding (almost). I watched a couple of stages of the Vuelta a Catalunya on TV earlier this year, predominantly because it was being held in Catalunya, my most-visited and favourite region of Spain, and because my adopted favourite team, Garmin-Sharp, was doing well. Garmin-Sharp’s Dan Martin eventually won the whole thing. I also watched the first third of the Giro d’Italia and nearly every stage of the Tour de France, which was quite a journey start to finish.
So much of pro cycling is a mystery to me, though. I mean, I get the fundamentals: riding as hard as you can from start to finish, careful to leave enough in the tank for the next day, and the next day, and the next… Some teams have strategies in place where 7 of the 8 team members are there strictly in a supporting role for the remaining teammate who is ideally capable of winning the overall title.
Here’s how I understand it: there are multiple “winners” besides he who crosses the finish line on the final day in first place (total aggregate time) – he who climbs the hills the quickest; he who gathers the most points by crossing various intermediate and finish lines the quickest; the best young rider; and in some cases the rather subjective “most aggressive” rider who probably displays the most carelessness towards his own well-being and race longevity.
Some of what I see, however is confusing. For example, why groups of 2 to 8 riders bother to take off from the pack (peloton) at the start of a 180km leg when 999 times out of 1000 those riders burn out far from the finish and end up next to last.
I also don’t understand (and I totally know this is my naivety speaking) why each athlete competes for anything other than first place overall. Cycling is the only sport I can think of where individual athletes literally sacrifice prime years in their career to support teammates to win titles. A teammate in a prescribed supporting role will often respond to competitors’ challenges, expending energy to make sure his teammate remains in the hunt in order to keep his overall time close. Or he will take the lead position for great lengths of a race, with the top teammate drafting neatly in behind. This burns out the guy in front (in cycling, a supporting role is unapologetically called a domestique, or translated, a ‘servant’) and he often suffers greatly as a result, finishing minutes if not hours out of the overall lead.
I mean, it’s obvious that without a team effort no one cyclist could ever hope to win a tour, but I find it bizarre since there is rarely any recognition for teammates in a supporting role especially in comparison to the glory obtained by the eventual champion. In hockey, soccer, football, or any other team sport, supporting roles are vindicated by championship rings and names on trophies. And in those sports, teams win championships, not their captains. In individual sports like golf or tennis, you either win or lose and careers are based on 1st place finishes. There are no supporting roles. But cycling is unique in being an individual sport filled with teams (or vice versa?) and outside of team lore and the inner circles, most casual observers have no clue who helped the winners stake their claims. I hope there is a sweet payday at least for the teammates whose leader wins a championship.
I can only imagine that there are many a debate held in team busses and incredible stress and pressure on athletes and team managers to ‘select’ and justify who will be the supported leader heading into Tours de France, Giros d’Italia, and the like.
I’m not passing judgement, since I fundamentally don’t understand. This aspect of the sport, and indeed many others, remain a head scratcher to me.