Lance Armstrong took a big lead over his main rivals in the Tour de France late on Tuesday, as his team raced together up a 22-kilometer mountain climb. But Armstrong finished in sixth place for the day on Wednesday, more than a minute behind the leader. Armstrong explained that his team “can’t chase down everybody … we have to prioritize.” A peloton of Slate readers have e-mailed to ask: How do cycling teams work?
One member of the team serves as its leader, and the others do everything they can to help him win. In the major races, each team leader works with eight other riders, called “domestiques,” who don’t have much chance of winning the race themselves. Top teams typically have 20 or more cyclists on their rosters, from which team managers can choose a nine-person team suited for each event. By tradition, the winner of a race like the Tour de France splits his cash prize with the members of the team and its staff.
What do the domestiques do? For the most part, they ride in front of the team leader. Cycling team strategy revolves around the notion that it’s easier to pedal when there’s someone in front of you to cut the wind. Cycling experts say that “drafting” like this can save you between 20 and 40 percent of your energy in a long event.
The various teams in a road race tend to ride in one tight clump, called a peloton, so each competitor gets the benefit of drafting. Except for the guy in the lead, of course—he’s said to be “pulling” the pack. The puller tires more quickly, even as he sets the pace for everyone else; after a short stint in front, he’ll move back and let another rider take over. Team leaders like Armstrong tend to hang back in these clusters to conserve energy, while their teammates take turns out in front.
More advanced strategy comes into play when someone tries to break away from the peloton. This is called an “attack” and often precipitates a “chase.” In a chase, members of the pack switch off pulling at a higher speed and expend lots of energy dragging the group closer to the attacker.
If a competitor of Armstrong’s surged ahead of everyone else, Armstrong’s teammates might take on the burden of quickening the pace of the peloton. On the other hand, if Armstrong himself were the one in a breakaway, his teammates could attempt to “block” rivals from mounting a chase. For example, a domestique might pull at the front of the pack at a slow speed.
Teams can also mount group attacks. One domestique will surge ahead and force a rival team to lead a chase. As soon as the pack catches up, another domestique will surge ahead. The goal is to tire out the opposing teams and soften them up for a run by the team leader.
Explainer thanks Andy Lee of USA Cycling.