It’s easy to evaluate and compare the performance of cycling’s champions. How many victories? How many jerseys? But what about the sport’s water-carriers – the domestiques? They are invariably lauded for their efforts and assistance by their victorious team leaders – but how can we tell whether they deserve it?
Most cyclists are losers. 2648 different riders have managed to complete the Tour de France and yet only 62 of them have ever won it. The rest of them are losers. That's a win rate of 0.023%. It's roughly the same ratio for every other cycling race you can think of. You could say that it's also true of other sports. I haven't done the maths on all of them but I'd imagine you could find similar numbers of losers in tennis or golf. But this is where cycling differs. The winner wins and he often wins alone. But he cannot do so without his team. For so many reasons, the fact that cycling is a team sport but a single rider crosses the finish line makes it interesting. Not merely because it gives us this abundance of losers, but mainly because most of them are not even trying to win.
Of course, I'm being ridiculous just to hoik you in. I know and you know they are not losers – far from it. The domestiques that shape the sport are some of the hardest bastards in it and quite often put in even more work, produce more watts and suffer a lot more than the team leader they're working for. They're not 'unsung' heroes. There is a very wide appreciation and acknowledgement of the work that they do. When a team leader wins, often the first thing they do is praise the effort of their teammates.
But how do we know who are the best domestiques? For team leaders, it's straightforward – race wins. There can be some debate about quality vs. quantity and there are different types of riders who can win different types of races. But ultimately, the races a leader wins will define him. For everyone else there is no such measure. How do you measure the contribution of a domestique? How much credit can Egan Bernal take for Geraint Thomas's Tour de France win last year? How much credit should Mark Renshaw take for all the times he led Mark Cavendish toward the last 300 metres?
A simple measure would be the volume of 'assists' a rider produces. That is, how many times a rider takes a part in a race and one of their teammates manages to win it.
Famously, George Hincapie assisted Lance Armstrong to all seven of his Tour de France wins. Obviously domestiques were not the only professionals assisting Armstrong during those years, but it didn't stop Hincapie from building almost his entire career around the notion that he was the best domestique in the business (the rest of his career he built around losing Paris-Roubaix every year).
George Hincapie, if you include Armstrong's wins, has actually assisted three different Tour de France winners. After the seven Tours with Armstrong he remained on the Discovery Channel team for a couple of years and was still present when Alberto Contador won his first Tour in 2007. Hincapie then moved on to HTC-Columbia, where he proved to be something of a mentor to a young Cavendish, before ending up at BMC Racing, where he was on the Tour team in 2011 when Cadel Evans made it to Paris in yellow.
Helping three different riders win the Tour de France sounds like it's no accident. Big George must have had something (drugs, obviously – but maybe something else too). He's a rare breed. Since trade teams were permanently reintroduced to the Tour de France in 1969 only two other riders have managed this feat of über-domestiqueness.
The first to do it was a French rider called Alain Vigneron, the very definition of the 'loser' we've already agreed is by no means a loser, with no professional wins to his name. He was signed to the Renault team by Cyrille Guimard in 1981 and was trusted straight away with aiding Bernard Hinault in July. I'm not sure how much help the Badger really needed, but the relationship was a success as a third Tour de France came Hinault's way. A fourth came the following year, again with the help of Vigneron. Hinault was going for three in a row, and five in total, in the summer of 1983 but a knee injury forced him to withdraw from the race before it began. This left the door open for another teammate, Laurent Fignon, to capitalise as he took his first Tour win, again with the help of Vigneron.
The following off-season was when relationships soured between Guimard and Hinault and the latter went off to form his own team, La Vie Claire. He brought Vigneron with him and again he was there when Hinault finally did make it five in 1985 and then promised to pass the crown to Greg LeMond the following year. Vigneron witnessed first-hand the mutiny and baffling tactics which coloured the battle between Hinault and LeMond as Vigneron himself made it five Tour de France assists in total, this time with his third different leader.
The final rider to achieve this peculiar hat-trick was Dominique Arnaud, who was actually a teammate of Vigneron’s in 1985 when they were both on Hinault's La Vie Claire team for that year's Tour. (Arnaud is not to be confused with Dominique Arnould, who won a Tour stage in 1992, then moved on to the Reynolds team which won the Tour with Pedro Delgado in 1988.) Arnaud went on to ride for Banesto, in the service of Miguel Induráin during his maiden win in 1991. Sadly, Arnaud died of cancer, aged 60, during the Tour de France in 2016.
But of course, there is more to cycling than just the Tour de France. What about the riders who have been able to drag their leaders not just around France, but around Italy and Spain too? There are 34 riders who can say they have assisted a win at all three Grand Tours. Both Vigneron and Arnaud are among them. Hincapie is not, given his focus on the Tour throughout his career (he rode the Tour 17 times but the Giro only once and the Vuelta twice).
The first ever rider to bask in the glory of their race-winning team leader at all three Grand Tours was the Italian all-rounder Nino Defilippis. He was a teammate of Angelo Conterno at Bianchi when he won the 1956 Vuelta a España. He was at Carpano in 1960 when Gastone Nencini won the Tour de France. And finally, when Franco Balmamion won his first Giro d'Italia in 1962, Defilippis was there too. In all three of those Grand Tours Defilippis won at least one stage of his own.
In subsequent years a mish-mash of riders have managed this triple. For every Raphaël Géminiani, there's a Bernard Quilfen; for every Jean Stablinski, a Michel Stolker. The rider who has assisted the most overall wins in Grand Tour history is Victor Van Schil, who did it 11 times. This is perhaps unsurprising as Van Schil spent most of his good years as a teammate of Eddy Merckx. With Merckx he assisted at four Tours, four Giri and a Vuelta, with a further Vuelta alongside each of Rolf Wolfshohl and Raymond Poulidor.
The most recent addition to the list is Mikel Landa, who was at Astana when Fabio Aru won the Vuelta. He was at Team Sky for two of Chris Froome's Tour wins and at this year’s Giro he provided a foil for Richard Carapaz to take the first ever Grand Tour win for Venezuela. Perhaps there is something to the 'Free Landa' movement after all.
Taken at face value, it would seem that these guys are some of the most successful domestiques in cycling history. They are the riders you would want on your team if you were trying to win a Grand Tour. But is that really true? How do we know that their team leaders won because of them, and not in spite of them? What did they actually do to help their leader? Why were they better at doing whatever that was than everyone else?
There's a great article in the March 2010 issue of ProCycling magazine where Daniel Friebe profiles the German rider Andreas Klier. At that moment he was on the Cervélo TestTeam and was gearing up to aid Thor Hushovd and Heinrich Haussler in their efforts to win the Tour of Flanders, although Klier also seemed to harbour some ambition of winning the race himself. He was 34 by then but had managed to finish second in the Ronde before, back in 2005.
Haussler describes him as “the reason he joined Cervélo” and “the man who knows more about riding the Tour of Flanders than anyone else.” Friebe goes on to write that “his team-mates have dubbed him ‘GPS Klier’ such is his knowledge of Classics courses.” Klier had been living in Flanders for 12 years at that stage and had made it his vocation to study the local roads and embed all of the fabled routes in his brain. Another teammate and now GCN presenter Daniel Lloyd (he rode for the Cervélo TestTeam you know?) revealed in that same article "Everyone's got massive respect for Andreas. A lot of the people who used to be his teammates – you see them following him around the bunch, because they know he's always in the right spot. There aren't many people who are that clear-headed in those situations."
But even now, when I ask Lloyd what it was about Klier that made everyone want to be his teammate, he can't quite put his finger on it. And even the bit of detail he did give me was anecdotal. Which is what being a domestique boils down to – a load of anecdotes. There's no measure for this stuff. Sure, you can measure power output or VAM, but that is no indication of how good a teammate you can be. Sure, in certain situations they can help. But you could have the best numbers in the world and still be a dreadful teammate. The only current measure of the effectiveness of a domestique is the trail of anecdotes they leave behind in the tales of former teammates.
Anecdotes are not worthless. When a star rider changes team a whisper in the ear of a directeur sportif, an anecdote and a recommendation could be all it takes for a domestique to get his next job. But it doesn't seem good enough that the careers and lives of some of cycling's best people can be left to the whim of a leader and the hopes that he doesn't forget the work that was done.
So what can we do? How can we measure it? There must be something better than the simple 'assist' example I've detailed here.
These days teams collect and analyse the power data produced by their riders, both on training rides and in races. And no doubt there is a benefit to having this information and knowing when and where a rider's limitations were reached and breached in given circumstances. But again, it just feels like there is a piece of the puzzle missing. If a rider increases their power output significantly during a race for a short period of time, was that power used wisely? Did the rider start working harder simply because they were badly positioned? Or perhaps they were beautifully positioned and the extra power was needed to shut down a dangerous move. The power data itself only tells half of the story. The other half is positioning. And the only way to fill in those details is with a highly accurate positioning system. Perhaps a global one?
It seems like it has been years since GPS was going to transform how we view and consume cycling, but the revolution has yet to take place. We do get some on-screen graphics about rider whereabouts and there are better uses of it to be found online, particularly during bigger races where a shiny website tracking all the riders' positions is provided. But this is a GPS view at a rather macro level. We're only ever told which group contains which riders. We never know whereabouts in each group each rider is to be found.
Cycling is different to most other sports. It does not take place in an arena where all competitors are visible all of the time. In a sport such as football, computer vision techniques can be used to make remarkable conclusions about team and player performance. But this is not possible in cycling. When a race begins to split up in any significant way it becomes very obvious very quickly just how few cameras there actually are covering the race. There are usually only four. Recall this year's Amstel Gold Race, where a fractured finale meant we had no idea where Mathieu van der Poel was until the final straight.
GPS systems exist now which can provide accuracy to within a few inches. That would allow fans, riders and team managers to know exactly what is going on all of the time. Or perhaps, which is more feasible, to know exactly what has gone on – a post-race analysis to interpret all of the data and explain everything that had just happened. And for domestiques, this data could finally provide them with certainty as to what their value and their worth actually is.
Which riders are the quickest at moving from back of the bunch to the front? How long does it take a rider to go back and get water bottles for their leader? When instructed to stay in front of their leader for a certain period of the race, how much of that time did they actually spend in front of their leader? How much time did they spend at the side of the bunch eating wind? When they get to the front section of the bunch, are they able to stay there as instructed? For how long? If they're asked to mark a rider and stay on their wheel, how well are they able to carry out that instruction? The GPS information coupled with the power data from the same race would give a rich tapestry from which previously unknown conclusions could be drawn.
There was an article published in the New York Times Magazine earlier this year which provided details of the data analysis behind the success of Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool team. Director of research Ian Graham went to Klopp's office shortly after the German arrived at the club and began discussing a game between Klopp's former club Borussia Dortmund and Mainz. Dortmund dominated the game from start to finish but ended up losing it 2-0. "Ah you saw that game?" Klopp asked, remembering how bizarrely unlucky his team had been to lose it. "It was crazy. We killed them. You saw it!"
But the remarkable thing was that even though Graham hadn't seen the game he still knew more about why Dortmund lost than Klopp did. Purely through analysis of the data, Graham knew everything there was to know about this game without seeing a ball kicked. This might seem utterly unromantic to many people, but again perhaps this is where cycling differs from stadium sports like football. With football all of the action is presented to the viewer and we can all make up our own minds about what we've seen. With cycling, we hardly see anything. We don't have the information we would need to make our minds up about who is a 'good' rider and who is not.
How did Óscar Freire always seem to be absent for the entire race only to appear at the front with 200 metres to go? What does Steve Cummings do all day long at the back of the bunch? What was Mark Renshaw doing for the final 10 kilometres when he piloted Mark Cavendish to all those victories? Does Andreas Klier's knowledge of race routes actually make a difference to how his teammates ride?
We have no idea. It's about time we found out.