Minutes before the start of the race, Tom-Jelte Slagter is still fussing over his bicycle, adjusting the brake caliper on the rear wheel, searching for just the right setting.
The day ahead figures to be arduous, with many of the world’s top riders facing a hilly, 97-mile course that sweeps inland from Ventura and ultimately scales the mountains above Santa Barbara.
“There will be 40 or 45 minutes of climbing,” Slagter says of the finish. “If you go too fast in the beginning … maybe you kill yourself before you’re halfway.”
Short and wiry, the Dutch cyclist is well-suited for such grueling conditions. His years of experience on the international circuit should also help.
But as he fine-tunes his bike and joins the rest of Team Dimension Data — the seven professional cyclists dressed in white jerseys and bright green helmets — there is one thing missing from his strategy for this early stage of the 2018 Amgen Tour of California.
Slagter does not plan on crossing the finish line in first place.
“I understand my role,” he says.
The work of the “domestique” — French for “servant” — is cycling’s answer to the basketball forward who devotes himself to fighting for rebounds or the football lineman who does the dirty work of protecting the quarterback.
Once the race begins, domestiques must attend to their designated lead rider for the day, acting as a wind block and pacesetter, a cheerleader and butler who drops back to the team car for fresh bottles of water.
Such thankless duty often leaves them spent and trailing the pack at the end.
“On television you cannot always see that very well,” Slagter says. “But it’s a real team sport and you cannot win without every individual doing his part.”
Dimension Data leaves the starting line for Monday’s second stage with clear marching orders.
The day before, on a flat course in Long Beach, the team had focused on helping its star sprinter, Mark Cavendish, position himself for an all-out dash at the end.
Now the domestiques form a circle around the team’s best climber, Lachlan Morton. Slagter also gets preferential treatment because he is expected to pace Morton on the final, seven-mile climb on Gibraltar Road.
It is crucial to have helpers lead the way. By “drafting” or “slipstreaming” just behind, Morton and Slagter can save from 20% to 40% of their strength. When the route turns south, following the beach, domestiques form a wall to block the crosswind.
“Everything is to save energy,” says Cavendish, who has switched from lead to support this morning. “It’s kind of like saving pennies for the end.”
Dimension Data also keeps an eye on the competition. If rivals break away from the peloton, or pack, the domestiques will lead a “chase,” pulling Morton and Slagter along. If Dimension Data decides to surge ahead, a domestique might attempt to “block” the rest of the field by lingering behind and pedaling a little slower.
But there are no bold tactics this day, not with everyone mindful of the finish. Only a few individual riders break away — they can be chased down later — as the peloton maintains a conservative pace.
The course leads to Camarillo, then north through Santa Paula and Ojai. Dimension Data’s coach — in cycling, he’s called a sports director — follows closely in a line of support cars.
Roger Hammond keeps a radio microphone in one hand, a laptop propped against the steering wheel, a computer tablet on the dashboard and two cell phones nearby. Watching for race developments or changes in the wind, he relays information to his riders who listen through earbuds.
“We always have a plan,” Hammond says. “But 93 out of 100 times, something changes.”
Each half an hour or so, a domestique drops back to the team car for water, sticking six plastic bottles down the front and back of his jersey, then rejoining the pack to supply his teammates.
This inevitably leads to another sort of chore as riders pause to urinate beside the road. If a leader requires a “nature break,” a domestique might tag along, then guide him back.
But there is no more time for stopping as the peloton reaches the outskirts of Santa Barbara. The pace quickens and Hammond barks commands over the radio.
With a series of hills and turns preceding the final climb, Dimension Data jockeys for position, eager to be near the front when Gibraltar Road comes along.
“Once it gets twisty, it’s quite difficult to move,” the director reminds his riders. “We need to get Lachlan in position.”
And Slagter needs to be with him.
Some riders, especially younger ones, always find themselves in a support role. Others — sometimes called “superdomestiques” — rotate between helper and leader, depending on their specialty and the event.
It’s all part of the career path for an elite cyclist.
High-level teams such as Dimension Data, sponsored by its namesake South African technology company, offer lucrative contracts to only those riders who have excelled as amateurs.
Says Hammond: “They start off as winners and you have to change them into professionals.”
That often means serving an apprenticeship under veteran teammates. Domestiques may be called upon for the ultimate sacrifice — surrendering their bicycle midrace if the leader suffers a major equipment failure.
Occasionally, a domestique will break ranks and try to win a race or stage. If he succeeds, it could boost his standing. But if he doesn’t?
“The worst-possible scenario,” says Jens Voigt, a former cyclist who is an NBC Sports analyst. “You mess up the plan … that could result in a quick ticket to fly home the day after.”
Known as a superdomestique in his time, Voigt believes support riders should work their way up the ranks.
“You cannot have six or seven prima donnas,” he says, insisting that a careful hierarchy is “the backbone of the team.”
At the 2004 Tour of Denmark, Voigt held a slim lead over teammate Kurt Asle Arvesen entering the final stage. He recalls wanting to reward Arvesen.
“I had enough wins already,” he says. “I told the team director, ‘You know what? Give it to him.’”
Arvesen won the title the next day. The problem is, domestiques can grow impatient if they are almost as talented as their leaders or worry about getting pigeonholed in their roles.
Friction among riders can sink a team.
“There’s quite a lot of managing personalities and expectations,” Hammond says.
Before this season, Slagter left his team for what he saw as an opportunity at Dimension Data.
His resume includes an overall title at the 2013 Tour Down Under and stage victories at Paris-Nice and the Tour of Austria. People in the cycling world regard the 28-year-old as a versatile rider who is likeable and conscientious.
Dimension Data’s managers promised Slagter that, if he served a supporting role in big tours, they would feature him in one-day classics and smaller stage events.
“It’s a good mix for me,” he says. “I can do my own thing in races that suit me and in other races I help the team out.
Despite all the careful planning, things begin to fall apart for Dimension Data just before Gibraltar Road. The team fails to push close enough to the front and gets caught in a logjam where the course narrows.
“It was a big fight,” Slagter says. “We had to brake hard and lost position.”
At the start of the final climb, Slagter and Morton are 30 or so riders back, which puts extra pressure on them when Team BMC mounts an early attack up front.
“Normally, there’s a bit of a lull in the pace where you can recover but that didn’t come,” Morton says. “On a climb like that, you have to be honest with yourself … when you aim at the front, there is a chance of blowing up completely.”
The pace wears on Slagter, who struggles to pull his teammate through the crowd.
“C’mon, Tom,” Hammond urges over the radio. “Keep fighting.”
Barely a mile into the climb, Slagter falls behind. Left to himself, Morton doesn’t last much longer, on his way to a 20th-place finish.
Meanwhile, a Team Sky domestique sets a furious pace, leading the pack for about 20 minutes before pulling aside so his leader, Egan Bernal, can churn the final mile to victory.
“I’m so happy to be in this great team,” Bernal tells NBCSN.
The mood among Dimension Data is somber. Says Slagter: “Obviously, there were a lot of very good climbers out there.”
Things go better the next day when management decides to give him the freedom to do his best on a Stage 3 course that stretches across smaller hills from King City to Laguna Seca. Taking advantage, Slagter crosses the line in eighth place.
But, with Dimension Data standing 15th after Wednesday’s time trial, the remainder of the tour will bring more domestique work, supporting Cavendish on flat, sprinting courses.