Tour de Parenting

Image by Euskal Bizikleta

We had a party on Saturday morning in honor of Stage 14 of the Tour de France. We ate croissants and crepes, drank mimosas and cafe au lait, and paid half-attention to our children as we watched dozens of skinny men drag their bodies and their bikes up the Plateau de Beille.

I’ve written before about my love affair with the Tour de France, and it continues to this day – in spite of the doping scandals that have ruined the reputations of many top riders and sullied those of many more.  This year’s Tour has provided plenty of drama: crashes, surprise stage winners, and a charming duo of Luxembourgish brothers trying to unseat a three-time champion.

But on Saturday morning, as I watched the usual suspects chug their way up the mountainside, gorging myself on butter-laden pastries while the riders refueled themselves with energy gels, I thought not about the stars of the teams, but about their so-called domestiques – the lesser-known stage race riders who work in support of their team leaders.

While men like Lance Armstrong and Alberto Contador win races and the glory that comes with them, their supporting domestiques fulfill such glamorous tasks as fetching water bottles, offering up their own bikes to their team leaders if the leader has a “mechanical incident,” chasing down breakaways, and pacing their teammates up mountains.

I wondered what motivates these men.  They themselves are among the very best bike riders in the world.  They train tirelessly and face the same exact challenges as their more famous – and far more highly compensated – counterparts.

So what drives them to sacrifice themselves for someone else’s glory?  Do they simply derive satisfaction from a job well done?  Maybe they live vicariously through the success of their team leaders?  Perhaps they are holding on to the chance of attaining individual glory themselves through their participation in a successful breakaway – as George Hincapie, Lance Armstrong’s chief lieutenant, did in the 2005 Tour de France.

It occurred to me on Saturday that being a domestique is kind of like being a parent.  I don’t mean to say that one’s hopes, dreams, and chances of individual glory fade away when one decides to have kids.  Not at all.  But there is a certain amount of sacrifice – okay, a great amount of sacrifice – that comes with being a parent.  It’s simply not all about you anymore.  You rearrange your schedule and your priorities, protecting and shepherding others, carrying those proverbial water bottles up to the very mountain top.  And you revel – you really do – in the achievements of your new team leader.  And you know that every victory – whether it be rolling over or tying shoelaces – happened in part because of your hard work.  And those team victories feel as good as the individual ones.

What motivates the domestiques?  I think I’m starting to understand a little bit better now.

Do you have the personality of a team leader or a domestique?  

Do you watch the Tour de France?  Who’s your favorite rider?  Who’s your pick to win this year’s yellow jersey?


32 responses to “Tour de Parenting

  1. Interesting slant. I read the title, first paragraph and went to get a cup of coffee. In the process, I thought I want a flat stage or better yet, a parenting rest day. LOL!

    Domestiques are a lot like parents. Look at Hincapie again this year – working for a different potential winner in Cadel Evans. He has pushed himself on both the mountain and the flat stages to help the team and Evans. Another great domestique this year is Bernard Eisel.

    Parents tend to do things so that their children will be able to do better than they did. Almost the exact same – while different situation – theory as the domestique.

    Definitely am watching the Tour. You know I am a huge fan. This year I am rooting for Cadel Evans to win. While Contador is a talented rider, he annoys me with his cocky attitude. The Schleck brothers just seem a bit too young still for a win but I would be happy with either of them winning also.

    • A parenting rest day! Genius! I’d like one of those too, please. 🙂

      As much as I like the Schlecks – especially Frank, who, I think, has an outside chance of pulling off the upset – I think I’m rooting for Cadel Evans too. And right now I like his chances quite a bit. He’s certainly a better time trial rider than the Schlecks and I don’t think Contador has the form to pull back enough time in the Alps. The wild card, of course, is Tommy Voeckler. Wouldn’t it be crazy if he managed to win the whole thing?!

      • Oh yes! It would be spectacular if Voeckler could win it all. I am toying with a bottle of champagne for Sunday as they ride into Paris. I have a long run that day but figure I can have some upon return home. 🙂

  2. I have to say I don’t watch, and had no idea these domestiques existed. Fascinating. I don’t think I have the personality to sacrifice like that for someone else’s glory, which may be why I sometimes flounder as a parent, now that you mention it… 🙂

  3. I think you just endeared my husband into your insightful ways by comparing his most favorite sport ever to parenting. We haven’t been watching Le Tour barely at all this year due to our globe trotting and maybe partially the doping scandals of late, so can’t say our allegiances lie anywhere too strongly. But that George Hincapie has always been my favorite…
    BTW, was wondering when you were going to chime in re: le tour

    • George is really likable, isn’t he? I also really like the American Chris Horner who had great form going into the Tour this year, but crashed out last week. Both of them seem so modest – a rare accomplishment among professional athletes, although perhaps less so among cyclists.

      And please tell your husband he’s welcome here any time. 🙂

  4. What an apt analogy. I believe that women – often – play this role of supporter (behind-the-scenes or on the sideline), not just parents.

    For some, it’s a preference and a better fit. For others, it’s because they can’t find alternatives. Either way, I think it behooves us to recognize that ti takes a team – behind the “sport star” in any arena – and the so-called successful raising of a child.

    I would also say that when it comes to the child, we – as parents – need to know when to step back and allow them to shine.

    And yes, usually, I catch part of the Tour de France, but I admit – this year I’ve been behind on my Grand Slam tennis and other television indulgences, though I did catch the second half of yesterday’s World Cup Women’s Final.

    • I’m certainly feeling the “It takes a village to raise a child” thing right now with my three under four and I think that’s why the parenting metaphor came to me before the female one. In my relationship with my husband, we alternate the roles of lead rider and domestique most of the time, but I think it’s instructive to look at the times we take on each role and why. I’ll have to mull that one over some more.

      And now that you mention it, I have been missing your Grand Slam tennis posts. Maybe you’ll delight us with one during the U.S. Open next month? Perhaps if one of the Williams sisters (if they play!) wears something really fun? 😉

  5. The boys in my house are glued to the Tour … I am more interested in the Diamond League track meets in Europe. (Truthfully, I am more interested in watching movies on my laptop).

    Anyway, pretty fascinating commentary. I think I would rather be a mom than a domestique though. I have no idea what motivates them!!! Do they get paid a lot?

    • The ones on the top teams make somewhere between $50,000 and $150,000 per year, I think. (The real stars make more like $4 million, plus endorsement deals.) So the domestiques make good money, but they’re really working for it!

  6. I hate to say it, but my favorite part of the Tour are the crashes.

  7. This time around I have not watched it, but you made it sound like a lot of fun! I’d like to be at your house watching it 🙂

  8. I hadn’t made the link between parenting and domestiques but there are a lot of similarities! It seems like as a parent you have a lot more at stake than a domestique. You are willing to give up those things we have to give up as parents because we want our offspring to be healthy, happy and well-adjusted people. In the case of the domestiques, what do they get out of their team leader winning besides money? I guess for them it must be the love of the sport.

    As a side note, I am saddened by all of the domestiques who had to wait for team leaders after a crash (I have Bradley Wiggins in mind) and lost so many minutes in doing so they have no chance at a good GC placement and their team leaders are out of the tour. I guess they are now “free to fly” as Phil and Paul say so at least there is that…

    I LOVE the Tour. So fun to find another blogger who is watching it.

    • That’s a good point, Alecia. And – to continue the parenting analogy – maybe a warning to parents who place all of their hopes and dreams on the small shoulders of their kids. It’s important, I suppose, to take care of yourself too and to maintain an identity other than that of “parent.”

      It sounds like you love Phil and Paul as much as I do. My husband and I keep a list of all of their classic expressions (“suitcase of courage” being a personal favorite). 🙂

  9. You know I love a good metaphor and this one is fantastic. I do think that parenthood entails being a domestique on some level and that this offers the opportunity for a new kind of victory. But part of me wants to know whether we can continue to be team leaders too? Whether we can race for ourselves still, and go for glory, even as we are shepherding others? I really, really hope the answer is yes. But I think I know better.

    Honestly? This is what I struggle with a bit, and in many ways, why I blog. I love being a parent. It’s my most important role. But I also love being a person, a person with big ideas and big dreams and big goals, a person who wants to win the big race for herself. Still.

    Thanks, as always, for making me think.

    • I think you know that I struggle with this too and am always trying to find the balance between doing it all for my kids and doing it all for myself. And usually I feel like I’m doing neither thing particularly well. I wonder, then, if these domestique riders are actually content sacrificing themselves for someone else or if there is dissatisfaction brewing under the surface for many.

  10. I love the tour, and am also completely fascinated by the team system. To be a domestique must be at times rewarding and at times infuriating. Exactly like parenthood! Such a great comparison, Kristen.

    I have not been able to watch as much this year, so I don’t have a favorite. When I do get to watch I am engrossed in the technical aspects, having ridden my first race this year. I’m a cautious, fearful – oh, and slow – rider; it’s thrilling to watch the real athletes do it!

  11. My husband loves the tour …and he catches up in the evening…so I think that is like 5 hours of racing he watches at night. He always wants me to watch too…but decline. I know I would get sucked in.

  12. I’ll shamelessly admit I’m French and I don’t ever watch the Tour de France. I don’t have cable TV so it helps to stay away from most TV programs…

    I don’t consider myself a domestique for my kids. Knowing the French use of domestique, it’s too close to “servant” and I’d never want my kids to consider me that way. I don’t help them getting around but I also want them to become independent and resourceful. The learning phase is a long, windy road…

    • It’s so interesting to know the context of the word from your perspective as a native speaker. Now that I think about it, I’m not so sure I like this metaphor anymore! 🙂

      • Argh, sorry to crush your metaphor… If you want a good illustration of what domestiques are, think Mr Stevens and the rest of his team in The Remains of the Day. Servants, loyal and ready to do anything for their “masters”.
        I think most parents see themselves as nurturers and helpers but we still draw the line at what we’ll do and won’t do for them. You know how kids love to push the boundaries we set for them!

        • Oh goodness, Mr. Stevens – and the way he turns a blind eye to his own interests and potential passions – is a real cautionary tale. I am happy to support my kids in almost every way, but I don’t intend to give up my own life and dreams completely!

          (Have you ever seen the movie version of Remains of the Day? I haven’t, but, as much as I enjoyed the book, I would like to some time soon.)

      • I now have a copy of the movie and I’m planning to watch it soon, so I’ll let you know. I can’t imagine the movie to be bad, with Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins as the main characters.

      • I just watched it today and really liked it. The pace is slow like the book but if you liked the book, you’ll like the movie. The tension between Thompson and Hopkins is painful to watch. You just want to smack Hopkins and have him kiss Thompson already! But the guy is so clueless to the end, it’s mind-blowing. They changed a few things from the book but it didn’t take anything away from the overall story. Watch it when you have some free time (ha!).

  13. Ten years ago we honeymooned in Europe. We missed the start of the Tour in Calais by 15 minutes. My husband and I still talk about how close we were to witnessing this event.
    I admit I did not know about the domestiques, but appreciate your analogy. I wonder if we all aren’t playing the part of a domestique at some point in our lives, whether it involves parenting, careers, or whenever we take a supporting role to really aid in furthering another person’s goal or a corporate entity. Very interesting post and equally insightful discussion.

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