Among pros, the riders I most admired weren’t the sprinters, nor were they the climbers. Not even the rouleurs. I liked the domestiques, especially the super-domestiques. Those were the riders strong as two, powerful enough to win races in their own right, but instead toiled to give their draft to the team’s alpha.
It was in taking a subordinate roll in the victory that I found I was most able to share in triumph. I didn’t much like the spotlight and never felt like I could do enough to spread the gratitude and glory, though the first time I won a crit in a bunch sprint I gave the teammate who led me out the biggest bear hug my exhausted body could muster.
I began to see my interpersonal dealings as efforts within a race. There were moments of just maintaining my position in the peloton, utterly neutral interactions, that neither took anything from anyone else, nor gave anyone a benefit of my effort. And then there were those dominant moments when I gained, when I benefitted, I took.
It was in an oddly counterintuitive twist that I noticed one day how my team’s leader, a guy we referred to as G Money, or just G$, one of two guys within our team most likely to win the race, was the guy who on a training ride was quickest to welcome the new rider. Ready with a compliment or the encouragement necessary to result in someone burying themselves in a final, 200-meter effort, he was sunshine even in fog. I began to see that while he was a winner on the road, he was a domestique in spirit. People who interacted with him came away upbeat, happy, and to my eye, feeling better about themselves.
With my eyes opened to that, I realized that the fitter who worked on me, as well as the shop owner, were two more examples of that domestique spirit. What else could get me to drive the hour from Redondo Beach to Santa Monica? Any time I saw them I left smiling, happier about being me, encouraged in my soul.
I realized I wanted that for myself, not to continue to improve how I felt about me, but to lend my effort to others so that they’d feel better about themselves. I’ve previously written that I simply am not that guy. I’m too introspective, too serious, too melancholic to offer a psychic draft to others.
To be a domestique, I must be strong enough to reach the front of the race. To be a good domestique, I had to be strong enough to ride at the front of the race when it is hardest. And anyone with the power to ride at the front of a race when it is hardest has the grit necessary to win a race. When was it I finally learned that lesson?
A friend once observed to me, “It is not necessary to believe in God to be a good Jew, but if you are a good Jew, you tend to end up believing in God.” It’s an erudite spin on, “Fake it till you make it.”
So I imitated generosity. I smiled. I waived. I asked after others. I did all the things that I saw my friends do. I’ve continued to insist I’m not that guy, even as someone recently told me, “I believe you are that person. It takes courage to change.”
If I were to claim I’d become that person, however, it would be a supremely arrogant act, an instant antidote to what I’ve attempted to cultivate, proving that some targets can’t be hit by aiming at them. But what I can report is that I’m happier, that I believe in who I am in a way that is better, that I’m kinder to myself.
It’s a win when I thought I was the domestique.