Blood, Sweat And Gears
Domestiques are part mule, part Marine, fueled by loyalty to their leader.
"A lot of being a domestique goes against what America sees as the elite athlete," said Ted Butryn, a professor of sports sociology and psychology at San Jose State University. In this country, the typical professional sports star is admirably self-indulgent -- holding out for a contract, negotiating a deal, celebrating in the end zone. Compare this with the domestique, who gets respect in the subculture of cycling but is completely anonymous beyond that. "Where we're socialized to succeed, to work hard, what if your success is predicated on somebody else succeeding?" Butryn asks.
Postal team member George Hincapie said recently: "I'm not really there for the recognition." He was in the Pyrenees and he had just finished a six-hour training ride so punishing that his speech was slurred. "I love the sport and I appreciate that I get to do it for a living."
Hincapie, who is the only teammate to have squired Armstrong through all five Tour wins, marks his achievement in small, personal ways.
There was the day last year when Armstrong's handlebars caught on the straps of a feed bag dangling from a fan's hands and he slammed to the asphalt.
Doubts about Armstrong's fitness had been gathering throughout the race, but he went on to win that stage, thanks to Hincapie, whose push into the wind had brought his leader to the base of the Luz Ardiden peak in such good fashion that he could go on to conquer it. Hincapie slogged across the finish some 20 minutes behind. Armstrong, shaken but victorious, was already on the podium, acknowledging the comrade who had helped put him there.
"I was going through the crowd," Hincapie said, "and I pointed to him, yelling at him -- and he was pointing to me. It was funny; we both knew he had just jumped from not being sure of himself to being sure of himself -- and being the same old Lance."
Brotherhood -- and fealty -- alive on a Pyrenean crest.
Tour de France history is full of examples of heroic exertion and gallantry. To be sure, there are also rats and opportunists and selfish "wheel-suckers," those who take up real estate in the slipstream and never pull at the front. As in many endurance sports, doping allegations and suspicions have dogged some of the favorites. (Armstrong included -- an accusatory book has just been published in France by two journalists, British and French, though they acknowledge they have no proof of drug use and Armstrong, who is tested incessantly, denies the rumors.) Just in the past week, four riders have been forced to pull out of the Tour because of suspected drug use.
But no other sport boasts a champion like five-time Tour winner Eddie Merckx, the Belgian considered to be the greatest cyclist of all time for his unmatched stream of victories in races besides the Tour.
Merckx's 1975 attempt at a sixth Tour win was plagued with disasters. During one stage a spectator socked him, injuring his kidneys. Doctors advised Merckx to stop. He refused. Two days later, he touched wheels with another rider and crashed. Nose smashed and jaw broken -- and wired shut -- he sucked food through a straw for the remaining days of the race. Yet he wouldn't quit, even though at his daily news conferences, the whole dais would be shaking because Merckx, racked with pain, was shaking.
"Journalists followed him everywhere, waiting for him to retire," recalls veteran cycling commentator Phil Liggett. "And he said, 'You can forget it. I'm not giving up, even if I can't win the Tour de France. You will say that the guy who wins only did so because I abandoned.' "
Merckx soldiered on, heaving himself into second place behind Frenchman Bernard Thevenet.
In the process, said Liggett, the vanquished winner "made Thevenet look fantastic."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company