Over the last couple of years I’ve read books about Bradley Wiggins’ triumph in the Tour De France, about Team Sky’s rise to dominance and about David Walsh’s dogged pursuit of the truth about Lance Armstrong. I’ve enjoyed them all – Walsh’s in particular was difficult to put down – but my new favourite is – Domestique by Charly Wegelius.
The book is ghost written, but elegantly so. You feel Wegelius’ voice coming through, flint hard punishingly self critical, witheringly pragmatic, bleakly honest.
Wegelius was a precocious cycling talent in the days shortly before the ascendancy of British Cycling. As such he was forced to move to France in order to pursue his long and fiercely held ambition to be a professional cyclist. Work-hardened in the forge of the French amateur circuit he got picked up by by a major Italian team and it was here he discovered he wasn’t the winner he had previously believed himself to be. It wasn’t just that he found winning more difficult in the ferociously competitive environment of continental cycling, where all the main players have been pampered stars since their youth, it was that he didn’t enjoy the pressure, expectation and responsibility of someone whose objective was to win.
In road racing teams there is position for a cyclist who is prodigiously talented but not a winner. The domestique supports those in the team who are expected to win. He fetches and carries, he protects from the wind, provides slipstream and a wheel to follow, he covers the breaks of rivals or looks to break those rivals. It is a punishing job with varying levels of acknowledgement but for a man of Wegelius’ masochistic tendencies it seems to suit.
I like cycling so I liked the book but what made it stand out for me is its implications beyond cycling. I like the fact it is not a book about winning or a winner. It is about a team player, about striving and hanging on in there, taking pain but never getting personal glory. In passages it becomes a book about leadership from the perspective of the follower. It is about someone who dedicates their young life to the pursuit of a dream, who achieves his dream and then starts to wonder if the dream was worth the sacrifices.