Thursday, July 10, 2008

Domestique?

If you haven’t noticed, the Tour is on. I’m a true bike geek and can say that I find this business absolutely fascinating. I’m getting up early to get the 5:00am coverage, and then tearing out of the house at the last possible minute to get to work on time (or maybe just a little bit late) and NOT getting the satisfaction of knowing how the stage turned out!

That means tuning in after work for the Bobke and Robbie coverage. These two do a decent job, (Bob Role on Lance Armstrong: "Lance Armstrong is the eye of the hurricane and he's headed straight for the Jan Ullrich trailer park) but a big part of the TV coverage for me is listening to Phil and Paul prattle on about the event, the riders, the countryside, the ‘suitcase of pain’, and all their other shorthand for what goes on in the peloton. They are truly entertainers. Say what you care to about Lance Armstrong, we owe our nightly hour and a half coverage of the tour to his phoenix like rise and run.

I remember TdF coverage in the pre-Lance era, a sad show indeed. Big time ‘stick and ball’ sports reporters would read maybe 30 seconds of copy on the one hour loop, badly butchering names of French, Italian, and Eastern European riders. There would be a film clip running in the background BEHIND the goony reporter at his flashy ESPN desk. BEHIND! Like I want to watch some Jock wannabe try to read names and words that are slightly beyond his grasp. There might be an extended feature if there was a crash (if it bleeds it leads) and usually a slightly extended segment on Bastille Day. Of course there would be a whole 15 minute segment on the penultimate stage along the Champs Elysees. Lots of flashy peloton clips, some Graham Watson sunflower shots, and a voice over with some dork like John Tesch or Al Trautwig. Complain about the coverage all you want but until I hit the jackpot and can spend 21 days following the Grand Boucle around the countryside in person, this is the best I can get and well, I’m glad to have it. (By the way, if you are stuck about what to get me, that 3 week vacation to follow the Tour or the Giro d'Italia would be just right!)

So if you too are a bike geek you are no doubt fielding a few questions from co-workers, relatives, neighbors, and others who know you have this little ‘problem’. Probably the most common question or mis-understanding I get is is: “how can a guy win the race today and not be in the lead?” Other questions I get in approximately descending order of frequency: “Do they stop to pee?” “What do you mean it is a team sport?” “Are they all on drugs?” I think the most stupid question I have been asked: “When they have those bad crashes, are they faking it?” Someone actually asked me this. I assume this question comes because VS, the channel carrying the coverage also regularly airs shows featuring cage fighting, hockey, and bull riding. Given that line up, the questioner can be forgiven (a little bit) his ignorance. After all, it seems that almost every sporting discipline needs to inject some degree of ‘X-treme-ness”, so why not skinny men in brightly colored spandex riding around on bicycles?

Of the 9 team members usually only one has a realistic chance of winning. As a result all, or most of the other members are similar to the worker bees in a hive; it is their lot in life to support this team leader. They ride as a protective phalanx for the team leader, they go back to the team car and fetch water bottles, if the team leader has a mechanical and can’t get help from the team car or neutral support, one of these support riders is expected to give up his bike so the team leader can ride on and avoid loosing time. The rest of the support riders would drop back to help pace the leader back to the front of the race.

They’re not called helpers, or support riders, or worker bees. In the tour they are referred to as domestiques. The French domestique literally translates as "servant", though the French term for such a team worker is porteur d'eau (literally: water carrier) Even though the very best at this task are labeled Super-Domestiques the title itself says it all. It suggests a very subservient role in a rigid caste system, and allows no thought of personal gain or accomplishment. I prefer the Italian version, Gregario: literally a kind of soldier of the roman legions, or "one into the group". The role is very similar but the title is so much more, well respectful. These two terms say a lot about the difference in attitude in these two cultures.

One tradition I like: If the race runs through the home town of one of the riders, often he will be allowed to make a break, that is get ahead of the peloton by a few minutes so that he can parade through his home turf, clearly leading in the Tour de France, often stopping for a glass of champagne, a hug from his sweetie (or mom) perhaps a bite of birthday cake and then roll on. It is also clearly understood that this rider will not abuse this privilege and attempt to win the stage.

Lately Mrs. Codfish has been a little under the weather. We’ve been trading turns riding home from work, but she’s missed some days so I’ve been driving both ways. I’ve been trying to look after her, to support her a bit when she’ll let me. I don’t make a very good domestique.

Yesterday she was in no shape to go to work in the morning but called me mid-morning to say she was feeling better and was going to come in. Did I want her to bring my bike and gear in so I could ride home? How thoughtful is that? Getting my bike up on the car top rack is no mean feat, and then there is the business of rounding up shoes, sox, gloves, helmet, bottles, jersey, and all the ‘stuff’ that goes into a simple bike ride for a true geek. She did it all, cheerfully, just to support my sick little habit. She’s not my domestique, she’s my gregario!

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