Cycling is an undeniably complex sport, particularly where grand tours are concerned. To the uninitiated, the Tour de France may appear to consist of little more than a legion of rather effeminate men clad in garish lycra pedalling mindlessly for hours on end, their trance-like masochism punctuated only by the occasional dramatic crash or sprint finish.
You would be forgiven for assuming that each of these athletes would only endure such suffering – and suffer they do – with the hope of emerging victorious when the peloton eventually descends on Paris and brings the 21 days of racing to a spectacular closure on the cobblestones of the Champs Élysées.
Nothing could be further from the truth, however. In actuality, the handful of riders who actually have a shot at donning the coveted Mallard Jaune upon reaching the French capital are determined months before the race even begins. The remaining 200 or so participants, the humble domestiques (lit: servants), endure the trials and tribulations of the world’s greatest bike race with the overriding objective of steering their team captain to glory.
To be sure, the domestiques also compete for lesser glories: time trialists such as Fabian Cancellara will often steal the prologue; monstrously-thighed sprinters like Mark Cavendish will inevitably take multiple stage wins; and the occasional rouleur or breakaway rider will outlast the peloton to claim their 15 minutes of fame, just as the eccentric FrenchmanThomas Voeckler did twice during this year’s edition.
But such specialists can seldom aspire to a podium finish, and instead commit the bulk of their energy towards shielding their team’s GC (General Classification) contender, invariably an accomplished all-rounder with the ability to withstand all the myriad challenges conjured up by the legendary race.
During this year’s Tour, the resilience of these bonds of servitude was highlighted – and at times called into question – by the intricate relationship between the triumphant Bradley Wiggins and his right-hand man turned runner-up, Chris Froome.
To the dismay of those crossing fingers for another Cadel victory, Team Sky’s domination of this year’s tour was absolute. So much so, in fact, that Wiggins found himself facing an unprecedented scenario, wherein the greatest threat to his lead came from within his own team. Add to the mix Froome’s evident superiority during the gruelling mountain stages and a candid interview in which the younger rider declared himself capable of winning the Tour, and you can begin to understand the media speculation that Sky had chosen to back the wrong man.
Yet despite an unspoken (but nevertheless appreciable) tension between the two riders, Froome played his part dutifully and ferried Wiggins up some of the steeper climbs where he could no doubt have pedalled away to individual glory.
Rumours even abounded that the managing director at Sky would ask Froome to deliberately curb his efforts in the final time trial to help preserve Wiggins’s lead, though thankfully any need for such a grotesquely overt sacrifice was resolutely dismissed by a blistering individual effort by the race leader.
Having completed the 53.5km course an entire minute and sixteen seconds faster than his teammate, Wiggins cemented his place as Sky’s front man and buried any lingering doubts about deserving his (and Britain’s) first Tour victory.
The fact of the matter is, however, that Froome would most likely have begrudgingly sabotaged his own shot at victory if so commanded. Sky has been painstakingly built around Wiggins since the team’s professional debut in 2010, and the rigidity of this structure was not going to change mid-Tour on account of an emergent young talent.
At 32 years of age, Wiggins has spent much of his road career putting in servitude, working tirelessly as a domestique for other riders before finally earning his shot at winning a grand tour. Queue jumpers will not be tolerated; such is the nature of pro cycling.
That said, with a win now under his belt and with next year’s tour – its 100th edition – likely to feature a wealth of gruelling climbs, Wiggins may well step out of the limelight and allow Froome to take his place at the centre of Sky’s race strategy.
As Wiggins himself told the BBC, “The guy is capable of winning the Tour for sure…he will win this race one day and I will be there to support him doing that.” Thus, by keeping his patience this year, Froome may well have secured his shot at winning his own Tour next July.
Whether he can outclass an injury-free Andy Schleck and a recently returned Alberto Contador, however, is a different matter altogether.