We often hear people talk of cycling as a team sport, but what does that mean? I mean it’s individual riders riding their bikes, and only the winner gets to stand on the podium (most of the time) and enjoy the success and put the medal in their cabinet. How does this equal a team sport?
Well let’s look at the dynamics of cycling. On the road it’s probably most pronounced, even though only one rider wins the race, no rider can do this on their own. They have teams of domestiques who help them. Look at guys like Chris Froome, who have literally assembled a team to help him win the tour de France on numerous occasions. Albeit boring for some of the public, he and his team gets the job done, and he is as quick to thank them afterwards as he accepts the glory of the win.
Another part of road cycling is the lead out trains for the sprinters. A guy like Mark Cavendish who has one of the most prolific records at the TDF would undoubtedly not have won a fraction of them without his lead out train, who he has compiled and fine-tuned over the years. He celebrates the victory, but is probably one of the sprinters who shows the most gratitude to his team mates for their help.
If you look at these great champions, they are of course extremely talented and have the mental and physical fortitude to pull off a win; they can handle enormous amounts of pressure and can deal with victory. But more than that, they have to be great leaders! These riders have to somehow convince and motivate riders who could sometimes win themselves (look at a guy like Chris Froome working for Bradley Wiggins in the 2012 TDF, or Ritchie Porte working for him the year after), to put themselves on the line to enable another rider to win. It must speak something of their leadership skills, their character and the type of person they are. I think the domestique must have huge respect for the leader, and visa-versa.
Of course, sometimes it’s just a job for a domestique, they do a job and they get paid, they’re not fussed about the win or anything else. Others absolutely enthral themselves in the role and give their all for their leader. Those guys are the special type, those that can self-denyingly and self-sacrificially give their chance of winning for another guy.
What reward could a domestique possibly get? Sometimes a simple nod and a pat on the back is all they need, the recognition by the public for their sterling job, or a fat pay check from the team boss. Either way, their role is as important as any other, and needs to be recognized somehow. Each accepts a different way I suppose.
Why would anyone do it? Why would anyone want to be a domestique? I mean you’re one of the best riders in the world, yet you give it up to work for someone else. Well not everybody wants to win, some just like to be a part of the win, but know that they can’t actually do it, or simply don’t want to. Others don’t like the limelight the victory gives them, and others view it as nothing more than a job that pays the bills. Domestiques are some of the more interesting characters on the road and have their own little sub-culture in the peloton, just read some of their books or interviews!
Another part of cycling where team events are more prominent is on the track. There are specific team evets like team sprint and team pursuit, where they not only work as a team, but they share the victory as one too. They are also totally dependent on one another. They start as a team, and finish as a team. Each guy has to put the same amount of effort out to achieve the goal, and if one fails, often the team fails as a whole. The saying, “you are only as strong as your weakest rider” rings true. In the modern era, countries put the team events as the main focus as it’s a reflection of the depth of the countries riders, it’s a controllable event against the clock, and often it has the most pride involved. It’s a beautiful journey to train as a team for a united goal, and then achieve it together and share the celebration!
“it’s great to win, but it’s better to win as a team”
In mountain biking, there is also a key team aspect, the 2 man teams of multi-day stage races. Look at the Cape Epic, a brutal 8 days where a team have to get through every km together. Not only that, but they live together, eat together and suffer together day in and day out. If one suffers, they both do. If one has a bad day, they both do. I’ve heard of guys saying how it’s sort of a balancing act between the 2 riders, and how the momentum shifts between the 2 as they carry each other along. They share the pain, and feed off each other as they go along, but also, they share in the glory at the end. And that must be an amazing experience!
The dynamics of a team in a sport like cycling, is that it offers a cause greater than oneself, it allows for belonging and gives the opportunity to be more than one could have been alone. It often allows the rider to get more out of themselves and be more courageous than they could’ve been alone.
With all of the above mentioned, I will touch on an absolutely key part of any success however small or big: the support team. We all have this, whether you think so or not. It could be in the form of your coach, masseuse, and chef; or in the form of your family and friends. These people form a crucial group of support that carry you to your win. Great coaches and mentors are invaluable, mechanics and sponsors, to family and friends providing the emotional support needed.
Whether you feel you are an individual going for an individual goal, or a member of a team doing the best you can to fulfil your role. You are not alone, you are carrying the team, your family and friends; if you don’t see that, you need to assess your situation and look for that, because you are nothing alone. Along your journey there have definitely been some people who have helped you, albeit in a small way, but you wouldn’t be where you are now without other people. Appreciate them and that.
At the end, cycling, as much as any other sport, is as much of a team as it is an individual.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together” – African Proverb
Matthew de Freitas