Okay, there's something involving air and slipstreams or something. That much is clear. But how do you win, and what teamwork can there be when it comes down to what is left in a rider's legs?
And, so, a brief initiation:
Take yourself to four minutes and twenty seconds in the video above, which comes from the 2001 Paris-Roubaix. One of the famous "Spring Classics," the grueling Paris-Roubaix involves stretches of atrocious cobblestones which break up the pack and greatly complicate the race. A rider from the Domo team had been in the lead, several minutes up the road from the main group of riders (the peloton). George Hincapie, the tall man in the muddy blue kit, makes a strong effort to join the leaders, but two other men on the Domo team are with him. In order for Hincapie to reach the leader, he's got to ride fast. If he does, he pulls two Domo riders to the front as they conserve energy, riding in his slipstream. If they stay on his wheel without "taking a pull" - riding in the front, breaking the wind for the others - they are being dead weight, uncooperative opportunists. It sounds dishonorable in a sport where cooperation is the name of the game, but it's exactly the right strategy at this point in the race. If your teammate is in front, you mark the attacks but don't do the hard work. They put Hincapie in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation. He could hand the race to Domo by dropping back. Or he could hand the race to Domo by towing their riders to the front.
George Hincapie is a great rider but in this race, he got absolutely shelled. Being in the lead group against four riders on the same team is like being a football quarterback without an offensive line. And, in the way that a football player's performance can't be judged by the number of touchdowns scored, a cyclist's performance can't be judged just by whether or not she or he won the race. An article in the Wall Street Journal (of all places) about the Tour de France's top Lanterne Rouge - the last rider to finish any given stage - points out a somewhat counterintuitive characteristic of those at the back of the pack: [Wim] Vansevenant's team director, Marc Sergeant, credited his rider's low placing to a combination of physical prowess and race savvy.
An outsider to the sport wouldn't expect that one could praise the physical prowess and the race savvy of a rider who finishes dead last, but the curious role of the domestique in cycling means that winning isn't the goal for many members of a team. Their strategy is to set up their team leader for the touchdown, for the win. They do this by pushing the pace faster, by making a breakaway, by reeling in breakaways - whatever is necessary to create the race conditions that will favor their ringer. If their ringer is a top sprinter the domestiques will want to keep the pack together - chase down breakaways, control the pace in hilly terrain to prevent the field from being split, so that it will come down to a high-speed mass sprint to the finish, where speeds in the last 100 meters can hit well over 40 miles per hour.
It's a little bit more than "who can get on their bike and pedal the fastest," which is reassuring to folks like me at the lower levels of the sport. I don't need to feel pressure to win every race I enter - the possibilities for success are much broader than that. I can do well by leading out a teammate, by chasing down breakaways, or by controlling the pace if a teammate is in the breakaway. It's one of many reasons why I'll be glad to pull on the orange, white, and blue of the Kissena Cycling Club in 2009. Winning is nice, but since I'm rarely the fastest guy on the asphalt, I'll be glad to know that I can improve my own chances for being fulfilled by racing by getting involved in team tactics. And I'll automatically be racing at a higher level.