Most cycling biographies focus on what we have come to believe are the two fundamental cornerstones of pro cycling: the Agony and the Ecstasy; the pain and the victory. Epic suffering (often experienced both on and off the bike) is eventually contrasted with transcendental glory as the subject overcomes adversity to achieve their goal. The format is repeated in any number of books for any number of riders. We have come to believe that this is how is must be. Charly Wegelius’ illuminating book “Domestique: The True Life Ups And Downs of a Tour Pro” (£16.99, Ebury Press) differs from the standard template. We get plenty of the pain and suffering of training and racing but the glory of victory is even more painfully absent. Wegelius spent 11 years as a pro cyclist, riding for some of the biggest teams in the peloton. He was well respected and, at times, his services were highly sought-after, yet he never won a single race. And therein lies the real beauty of his story.
Co-written by his friend and former Great Britain teammate Tom Southam, “Domestique” lays bare some of the less trumpeted corners of pro cycling: uniquely a sport where individual glory is facilitated by a team effort. The superstars of the peloton require a number of domestiques – French for ‘servants’ – to work for them in order to ensure that they arrive at the business end of any given race as safely and as fresh as possible. Sacrificing their own career ambitions, personal lives and often their health for the team leader, they occupy a position not found in any other professional sport.
Wegelius realised early in his career that he was physically and emotionally suited to the domestique role, embracing it fully and enthusiastically. In simply charting his progress from selfishly focused neophyte, through to experienced campaigner and then beyond to when the gloss starts to fade and both the body and the mind start to say ‘No’, Wegelius and Southam have written a beautifully balanced book which throws a welcome new light on the intricacies of this aspect of the métier. It builds well – the final two chapters being the best of the whole book – with good insights into both the state of cycling for a British rider in the years immediately before the Cav-Sky-Wiggo revolution, and the ins and outs of living and surviving in the European race scene. Still virtually unknown in this country, Wegelius rode mainly for Italian teams during his career and experienced life in both the top and lower-tier teams. The accounts of the drudgery of unheard-of-races, shitty hotels, preening teammates, contract negotiations and the increasingly unrealistic demands of his managers bring the glamour of professional sport back down to the entirely understandable level of crappy assignments, inter office politics and a bulging In Tray. It’s a job: you do as you are told and you get paid for it. Occasionally someone recognises what work you are doing and rewards you but within a couple of months you are just another cog in the machine again. Entirely necessary but ultimately replaceable.
In many ways the book reads like a series of love stories. We learn of an ongoing infatuation with the Giro d’Italia, of an acrimonious breakup with British Cycling, of doomed marriages of convenience to the Tour de France and the Vuelta, and also, finally, of a woman who turns his head and gives him the peace that he has unknowingly been searching for. As his cycling life winds down Wegelius finds that there is something beyond the next team bus, the next hotel, the next desperate slog to a stage end when all the hard work has been done and the team leader is already finished and is smiling for the cameras. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything in saying that maybe here Wegelius finds his victory after all – it’s just not a cycling one. Domestique is a brilliant book about cycling. It’s also a damn fine book about life.
Charly Wegelius is now a Directeur Sportif for the Garmin Sharp Pro-Cycling team.
Tom Southam is a writer and Press Officer for the Rapha-Condor-JLT cycling team.