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Domestique Duty in the Amgen Tour of California

May 18, 2012

The worker-bees of pro-cycling teams pull at the front of the field to toughen the race for one or more reasons: so rival leaders can’t attack or will suffer and drop off the group and lose time, to prevent other teams from moving their sprinters into favorable position to win, or to reach break-away riders to prevent them from winning.

When a pro-cyclist rides as a worker-bee he doesn’t savor the glory of winning – though he wouldn’t turn that down given the opportunity. Instead, he savors the glory of making it possible for a teammate to win.

Guys like Timmy Duggan (Liquigas Cannondale), Nathan Haas (Garmin-Barracuda), and Sam Johnson (Team Exergy) will ride their hearts out for these reasons in the mountains, on the approach to a finish that suits a sprinter, or in the break-away to force other teams to work to bring the break back so their leaders don’t have to work so hard. They share thoughts below about their roles in the first two stages of the Amgen Tour of California (AToC).

Timmy Duggan defends leader’s position

Timmy Duggan and Ted King of Liquigas Cannondale after Tour of California stage 4, celebrating Peter Sagan’s 4 wins

Duggan set the pace at the front of the peloton in the last part of stage 2 to position teammate and race leader Peter Sagan to win a sprint finish. He also helped to return Sagan back into the main group after Sagan went down on the side of the road with several riders on the first mountain of the day.

When asked what it was like to defend Sagan’s leader’s jersey today, Duggan said, “It’s always tough because everybody is hitting you up from every different direction…You put your manpower in the front, and we’re confident that we have the horsepower to do that whenever we need to, so it’s just a matter of believing in ourselves and the team and then Peter for the finish.”

Duggan appeared to take on the lion’s share of the work for the team going into the finish. “No use burning up four guys if it only takes one,” Duggan said, regarding his efforts.

Other teams can make a domestique’s job easier if their riders take some turns leading the group. Garmin-Barracuda set a hard pace for the peloton over the first climb of stage 2. “I think if we had to just have our team in front with the headwind all day we [maybe] would have blown over those climbs,” Duggan said. “But as it was Garmin helped us with some of the work, and then we were able to have a good chunk of our team in the end to help Peter.”

The team works together, and the team celebrates victories together. After Peter’s stage 1 win the Liquigas-Cannondale team enjoyed their day’s result over a beer. Duggan and Ted King choose a local IPA; the others preferred StellaArtois. After stage 2 it sounded like another round would be on order that evening. “Maybe it’s the secret potion,” Duggan said.

Nathan Haas helps GC and sprint teammates

Nathan Haas with Jonathan Vaughters

Haas rode a mean speed on the stage 2 climbs, he told Bicycling, in order to suss out which riders among the GC favorites would show weaknesses. Knowing who is riding well and not so well will help the Garmin-Barracuda leader(s) assess who’s a true threat as the race unfolds.

On stage 1 Haas looked after Garmin-Barracuda’s best sprinter in the race, Heinrich Haussler. “Yesterday I was driving back for 20 kilometers to get Heino back into contact, which put him in and he got second, but that put me out of the leadout,” Haas told Bicycling Magazine at the end of stage 2. “And then today I got told to ride the hill so I wasn’t going to see the finish. I’m a pretty fast finisher myself and I would really like to bomb Heino through one of the last corners and give it all and start it front of Sagan.”

Sam Johnson in stage 1 break-away

Sam Johnson, Team Exergy

Johnson’s account of his participation in an eight man break-away on stage 1 shows how a rider’s thinking changes as the race unfolds while still remembering his responsibility to his team.

“The break formed almost instantly and we all worked really hard for the first 15 or 20 minutes to establish that gap,” Johnson said. The riders continued to take turns in the front of their group.

“Things got a little blown apart over the first couple of climbs but it came right back together along the coast, and our cooperation was really solid until the top of the 4th KOM. After that some of the guys who had been fighting for that KOM jersey, I think they were a little fried, and the guy who won the KOM jersey was pretty much like, ‘I’m done. I don’t need to race.’ Some of the guys were resigned to going back to the field and some of the guys wanted to fight it out.”

Once the group established a lead of 11 minutes over the main pack, Johnson’s plans changed. “My goals changed throughout the course of the ride. At first I was thinking, this is a good way to get some publicity, it’s a way for me to maybe get an aggressive rider jersey or something like that. And then once the gap started going really high, I had to start reshaping how I rode because I wanted to potentially win the stage, at least get a result.

“Instead of thinking about being aggressive and trying to blow the break apart, it was all about make sure I don’t get dropped on those climbs and be able to try to fight it out to the finish, because if we stayed away, my team would if never forgive me if I got 11 minutes up the road and then got dropped on the fourth KOM and went drifting back to the field.”

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