“It’s mostly the legs, and then the head follows. Usually, when the legs let go, the head lets go too.” – John Gadret
There is a terrible beauty to the suffering intrinsic to road cycling and nowhere is it more compelling than in the sacrifice made by a domestique for his team leader.
That one man should give so much for another is one of the great nobilities of the sport. When the road spirals in seemingly endless trajectory to some as yet unseen summit, the great champions look to their servants to lead the way: to pace, coax, and silently encourage. Their wordless bond survives the maelstrom of the numberless hordes who line the great climbs and bellow their appreciation at a proximity that must be almost unbearable for the riders.
Movistar’s John Gadret will know what awaits him today. The nearly 200km that separates Saint Étienne and Chamrousse contains many painful trajectories, none more so than the 18km closing climb, which unfolds at an average gradient of 7.3 per cent and peaks at 11.4. The diminutive Frenchman will call on nearly a decade of experience to set tempo for Vuelta a Espana champion, Alejandro Valverde, in the hope that his leader will continue the fine run of form that has already netted him victories this season at La Flèche Wallonne, Roma Maxima, and the Tours of Andalucia and Murcia. “When he asks me to speed up, I speed up,” Gadret explains with disarming simplicity.
His lack of conceit belies the professionalism of his approach and the scale of the effort he will be required to produce. Elite cycling is an activity in which effort is now gauged with clinical accuracy. To position Valverde as expected, he will need to produce a sustained power output that would shame the most dedicated amateur. Gadret and his colleagues will begin their ascent to Chamrousse after more than five hours in the saddle. He will race today in temperatures forecast to exceed 30 degrees. There will be nothing easy about meeting Valverde’s demand for more speed, should it come, as it inevitably must if the Spaniard is to remain in contention with the likes of race leader, Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and Team Sky’s Richie Porte.
Movistar is one of a handful of ‘super teams’ in cycling’s elite WorldTour; a squad with a budget and heritage to eclipse almost all of those competing even at the very pinnacle of the sport. At lesser squads, Gadret might hope to lead the assault, if only in the mountains. He is under no illusions, however, about his abilities and those of his leader. “I know that with my help he can challenge the biggest leaders,” Gadret explains, in the same matter-of-fact tone. “But I know I wouldn’t be able to do this myself, so I’d rather give everything I have to Valverde.”
Gadret is no stranger to the mountains. One of a select breed characterised by the telling phrase, “pure climber”, his 58kg physique is ideally suited to the brutal business of cycling up the cruel gradients of the Alps and Pyrenees at a speed that lesser mortals would struggle to attain on a flat road. An approach to the task that might accurately be described as honest will be an asset. It is for correspondents like your own to eulogise his efforts. Gadret, one suspects, is not disposed to complicate the business of cycling uphill.
“A domestique is your goalkeeper or defender in football,” Alex Dowsett explains, “the guy who is absolutely crucial, but doesn’t really ever see much in the way of glory.” The three-time British time trial champion, a Grand Tour stage winner, has tasted glory, but in a squad as strong as Movistar’s, has also served as domestique. He understands well Gadret’s pivotal role.
The real business of winning a bike race is often conducted by men unlikely ever to grace the podium. “The fame and the kisses will go just to the leader,” adds Movistar’s marketing chief, Juan Pablo Molinero. The challenge, he continues, is in motivating a rider to sacrifice everything for another’s cause. The midfielder’s “assist” to the goalscorer, a single pass in a 90-minute endeavour, hardly compares.
Today, on the slopes of the Montée de Chamrousse, and before, on the 14km ascent of the Col de Palaquit, Gadret will seek Valverde’s instruction and follow it to exhaustion. Tomorrow, he will do the same. And the day after, until Paris. It is his lot, his professional duty, to sacrifice himself again and again that the team might triumph. The role of the domestique is little understood beyond the closed circle of racing cyclists and those who follow the sport at close hand. It is critical.
Beneath a burning sun on today’s thirteenth stage, Gadret will again demonstrate his worth, but do not expect the television camera crews to seek him out, or the newsmen to pester him for an insider’s view when his day’s work is done. Gadret’s effort is unlikely to be celebrated beyond the confines of the Movistar team bus. Valverde alone is likely to appreciate its true value.