At Tour de France, Rules of the Road Are Often Unspoken

LIMOUX, France — On a muggy morning before another 115-mile race through the Pyrenees, the cyclist George Bennett peered at a few of us sweaty fourth-estate types, shrugged and said, “Looks like I have become a domestique.”

Say what?

Bennett, a 29-year-old from New Zealand, is one of the best professional cyclists in the world, so to hear him talk of taking on the role of domestique — servant — in the late stages of the Tour de France is a bit like hearing the N.B.A.’s James Harden declare he has decided to close out the season as a defensive-minded role player.

The tousle-haired Bennett was expected to compete this year for the maillot jaune, the yellow jersey worn by the Tour’s leader. But in the course of this 2,200-mile race across France, he endured mishap piled atop miscalculation and fell out of contention. So he has accepted his fate and will spend the rest of the Tour, which has curled into the lung-burning high reaches of the Alps, lugging water and clearing space for his Jumbo-Visma teammates.

In the language of cycling, this alpha rider has become a domestique.

To ride in the slipstream of this grandest of cycling races for two weeks is to learn language, customs and rules no less powerful for being unspoken, to step inside a private club as I write as a bit the novice myself. (O.K., “a bit the novice” might understate matters in the eyes of hard-eyed riding sorts, who have complained that I referred in an earlier column — la scandale! — to the “cylinder” of the bicycle as opposed to the top bar. I will console myself this evening with an extra glass of a fine Alpine wine.)

Each of the Tour’s 22 teams has five or six domestiques, men whose job it is to sacrifice for the greater glory of their team’s lead cyclist. The term is an example of a curious upstairs-downstairs argot in what is at its core a working-class sport.

Domestiques provide wind-cover, going out in front of a team’s leading rider for long stretches and allowing him to conserve strength. The domestique also fetches water and food for teammates from the team cars that accompany the field, and even cannibalizes his own bike — or, in a worst-case situation, surrenders it — in service to the team’s alpha rider.

“The roles are pretty clear, and they have to be because otherwise everyone thinks they could win the tour and you lose your team structure,” Tony Martin, another fine cyclist with Jumbo-Visma told me. “And that becomes dangerous.”

Having disposed with roles, let’s move to the unspoken rules. Some are a vestige of a more genteel time, and a few have slid into history’s shadow. Once it was considered bad form to make a breakaway in a tunnel, though that is no longer forbidden. And if the peloton passed through the town or village of one of their own, the native son was given the brief honor of the lead.

Others remain ironclad. France’s Julian Alaphilippe is the 27-year-old sensation of this race, and with his explosive forays through the Alsace-Lorraine, the Massif Central and then down into the Pyrenean foothills he remains the cyclist with the best cumulative time. That lead comes accompanied by privileges.

When Alaphilippe decides he needs to take a nature break — the term of art for emptying his bladder — the peloton either stops and takes its own or slows enough to give him time to catch up. A television viewer can hazard a guess as to the timing of nature breaks as the NBC announcers cut away from the race and begin to rhapsodize about a particularly handsome château. Taking advantage of such a moment to attack is still considered bad form, and can result in a scolding on wheels. (Caveat: Should the need for a nature break arrive toward the frenetic end of a day’s racing, the biker just takes care of business as he pedals.)

To police these rules, spoken and not, it falls to the dominant riders to play hall monitor for the peloton. Earlier this week, two rivals got into it, jockeying for position as they raced from Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct in Provence, to the Alpine town of Gap. Temperatures had reached 105 degrees and the riders — both of whom carried reputations in the peloton as good guys — had grown tetchy. Alaphilippe pushed forward and advised them to knock it off.

“Maybe they were scared I was going to attack, so I just tried to calm them down,” he said. “I told them not to take any risks. I wasn’t going to attack.”

Race officials bounced the quarrelsome riders, including Jumbo-Visma’s Martin, from the Tour anyway, and levied big fines in what felt like a great overreaction given the brain boil temperature.

“We’ve gotten to the point in the race,” one coach told me in Nimes, “where everyone is exhausted and sick of everyone else. Even on the team bus, you have to be very, very careful what you joke about.”

There is, too, the question of injuries — the broken bones, torn tendons and broken teeth — and in cycling language the strange pejorative that accompanies it. The Tour is a cross between a marathon and a Formula One race. Most often, riders who fall crawl off the ground, spray antibiotic cream on road rashes and hop back on their bikes. But those who break bones or get concussed must withdraw.

Such injured cyclists are said — in Tour speak — to have “abandoned” the race, which carries a soupçon of disapproval.

This year’s Tour offered an exception: Last week, Rohan Dennis, the best sprinter in the world, paused at a feed stop, put down his bike, and simply walked away. No mas, over and out, où est l’aéroport?

There were rumors Dennis was unhappy with his bike, with his team, perhaps even with the quality of his spandex. (Real rumor.) He’s not talking specifics and, at the least, we can safely say that he “abandoned” the race.

Others will soldier on, not least the alpha who ended up a domestique.

“I just have to deal with it and put effort into someone else’s race,” Bennett said of his final week in the Tour. “I worked as a domestique early in my career. So, I guess ….”

His voice trailed off.

“I can’t say I like it,” he added, “but that’s racing.”

Michael Powell is the Sports of The Times columnist. A native New Yorker, he joined The Times in 2007. He was part of teams that have won a Polk Award and a Pulitzer Prize. @powellnyt

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