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The domestique – Part 2

“It’s a new day. Let’s say it’s a mountain stage day after a few flat stages. The biggest fear of all riders which are not so good climbers. You might think that riders in grupetto (note: the last bigger group of riders on the race) are lazy or just want to rest. Well, sometimes that’s the case – you want to rest a little bit but that’s rare. Most of the riders in the back are fighting with themselves just to make it to the finish.

Let’s take a look at an example of a stage on the Grand Tour. 180 km and four difficult climbs, one of them starting right at the beginning. A lot of teams want to have a rider in the breakaway and that’s why the tempo is really high. Most of the team captains and good climbers use 70% of their power. Meanwhile, the rest – especially non-climbers are already using 110% of their power and it’s only the beginning. They are suffering and fighting to stay in the race. All those who are left behind on the first climb will have to make it to the finish with a grupetto. The effort they are putting in is as high for them as it is for leaders on the last climb, which means they have to go all out for the next 180 km. Sometimes I find myself in this group too. For example, after a few hard stages or if I was in a breakaway the day before. I can say it is mentally very tough because you never know when the time limit will hit you. You don’t want to go home. You fight with yourself for 180 km and hope that 35 min gap will be enough to stay in the race.

Luckily, I’m not so bad at climbing. I think I even improved in the last few years. I would like to make it clear that each rider, who starts a world tour race is a rider worth all the respect and admiration. A lot of people only see the winners, but we should also pay attention to the riders in the groups behind. These riders are domestiques, who gave it absolutely all in previous stages for their leaders, who brought them bidons, food, clothes, kept them safe from crosswinds, and generally just tried to keep the leaders as fresh as possible. Even though we all know that the next day can be one hell of a stage and we will be fucked, we all do it for the team. Here are also sprinters, lead-out guys, breakaway guys – we shouldn’t forget about them.

There also come days when everything is wrong. When you try to do your best, but you just can’t. You already did 14 stages and then you have a bad day. That is the last thing you want at that moment, especially if it’s a mountain stage. I’m having difficulties settling with the thought that it was just a bad day. I’m disappointed because I couldn’t help my team. I could just simply say “it wasn’t my day”, but I can’t. I feel like I let my team down. I usually feel ok with myself after a few hours when I realize I’m just a human being, who trains 100 hours per month to be ready for a Grand Tour (note: Giro d’Italia, Tour de France, Vuelta Espana). You have to be ok with the fact that sometimes your body has enough, and you just can’t push it over the limit. This isn’t a PlayStation. When those days come, you have to acknowledge it’s a “bad day”, still make it to the finish line in time, go on with the routine involving physiotherapies, dinner, maybe some team meeting, hope for a good sleep, and be ready to race again next day.

After a bad day comes a very difficult and long stage. For example, a 230 km long stage. You are nervous because you don’t know how you will feel. You have to set your alarm at 7:00 in the morning or even earlier. Wake up, still half asleep, your legs hurt, but you make it to the bathroom, where you hope you will be able to wake up more by washing your face with cold water. You roll the curtains and see it’s raining. However, the 230 km long stage is still on and unchanged.

You don’t realize when it happens but suddenly the Grand Tour is almost over and you’re counting the days down. Legs are hurting more and more every day and the tempo is the same or even higher. Each day same tasks, same stress, same fight for positions – 21 stages, each day 5h of full focus. Even just one small corner can cause your team leader a good result. Then there is the last stage. You can feel there is something special in the air. It’s a great relief when you cross the finish line. Then there is a podium ceremony for the first three riders and all the best in different classifications. I see all the riders who made it to the end as winners. I have great respect for all, for winners, climbers, sprinters, and those who are not so good at climbs because I know how hard it is just to be there. To cross the finish line in stage 21 is a great success. This means you made it through a lot of traps, cold weather, sometimes even snow, heat, difficult and narrow roads, corners, descents, and climbs.

I made peace with myself. I can’t win a Grand Tour because I’m not that type of a rider, and I don’t have the right genetics to do it. However, my qualities lie elsewhere. I can do a good time trial and I’m quick on shorter climbs like the ones on Belgium classics. I also know I can be a great domestique. That’s something you usually can’t see on TV, but it can be seen among us, riders. If I can help my team leader to be on the podium, then I’m extremely happy and proud. In the same way, captains are proud of us and grateful for our work. Even if we sometimes cross the finish line 45 minutes behind them, while they are already showered and ready for the next thing. In the end, we shake hands, thanks for your work, good job. I’m all ready and motivated for my work even more.

To conclude, I would like to point out – to make sure you don’t get the wrong impression – team leaders don’t have an easy job as well. They are the strongest in the race and have their own fights. I just wanted to introduce you to how it looks and feels like to be a domestique, behind the scenes, because that’s something I know best. In the end, leaders carry much more responsibility to deliver top results. We are just here to make it easier for them.”

Photo: Bettini Photos

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The domestique – Part 1

“I would like to introduce you to a role of a domestique in the peloton – the way I see it. We all know there can be only one winner in a race, but there is a lot of support from different people behind. I would first like to point out on mechanics – who make sure the bike is functioning well throughout the whole stage/race, soigneurs/physiotherapists – who keep our legs and bodies as fit as possible, medical doctors – who take care of us if we have some illness, chefs – who cook our pasta, nutritionists – who make sure our nutrition is well planned and our glycogen full, coaches – who plan our trainings and performance peaks, sports directors – who decide on tactics and roles in the team, and team management – who take care of all the logistics (quite a difficult job in my opinion), signing riders and staff, and deciding on the race calendar. Keep in mind that was just a brief description. The leader usually has one goal – to finish the race off with the best possible results, while domestiques have to make his job easier.

There are a few types of domestiques: for flat, hilly, or sprint stages. Each has a very important role. Leaders usually trust domestiques and they have to do everything they can so that the leader is as fresh as possible. A small mistake can cost the whole team a good result. Team spirit is very important too. We are all professionals, who know our roles in the team. There is no easy stage in cycling nowadays. A stage might seem easy on paper and you can think to yourself it’s a sprint day. However, real-life cycling is much more complicated than that. For example, in some flat stages, the fight for positions starts already 50 km to the finish. There are stages with nice, wide roads, without roundabouts or technical corners –one can say, without traps. Stages like this are relatively easy and without much stress. The problem is there are only 5% stages like this nowadays. More commonly, we are passing through narrow streets, corners, and roundabouts. The peloton stretches so much that there can be more than 500 m between the first and the last rider. Teams definitely don’t want their riders in the last positions.

If there is a crash or the peloton simply stretches too much, the team should do a lead-out to bring the leader back in the game. That’s not always possible to do because the peloton is racing at 60-65 km/h and you just can’t go faster than that. Therefore, rule number one: keep your leader in the first positions to avoid a crash, side wind troubles, etc. My role in such stages is to keep the leader out of the wind and my work can start as soon as 50 km to the finish line or even earlier. All of that just to keep the leader safe into the last 3 km. Usually, there is no success such as winning the stage in terms of GC contenders, but you have to see the big picture. The fight for positions is unbelievable. Each of the 180 riders in the race wants to be there and you don’t want to lose position, which means you have to ride even faster than they do. We ride very close, you can measure it in a couple of centimeters and there is a lot of contacts. Crashes are inevitable.

Comparing the peloton these days with the peloton a few years ago, I can say I see less respect among the riders. There is much more pressure from the team, sponsors and each wants to do their job 100%. I think we should use our heads more sometimes but with a heart rate over 180 is difficult to think clearly. These flat stages are the most stressful for me because I spend a lot of energy and I have to stay focused not to make any mistakes. In the end, I don’t gain personally, even if the leader is in front. I’m fully aware that if I make a mistake and my team stays behind, it’s my fault.

I can’t think of a leader who wouldn’t say thank you at the end. I think each team leader says it and not just once and not just to the riders, also to the staff. After the stage, if we did everything as was planned, we are happy and excited for a new day. We forget about the struggle and enjoy the hours we have left till sleep time. That is probably around two hours in a bus, driving to the next hotel, followed by a massage, physiotherapy, sometimes even a session with an osteopath. That’s in total approximately two hours of therapies. Dinner is usually around 22:00 in the evening. We never eat alone, always together as a team. We then go to our rooms and try to fall asleep as soon as possible, which is usually very difficult after such late dinner.«

(to be continued)

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Home of cycling: the Flanders

The 100th anniversary World Championship took place this weekend in Belgium. It was marked by an extraordinary atmosphere, which you can only experience in Belgium, they say. Elite men, ITT was won by Filippo Ganna (Italy), while the Slovenians – Tadej Pogačar and Jan Tratnik took 10th and 15th place, respectively. The time trial was mostly flat and relatively long, 43.4 km). The spectacular road race from Antwerp to Leuven (a total of 268.3 km) was designed as a Belgium classic and was won by Julian Alaphilippe (France). The best Slovenian was Matej Mohorič, who took 14th place.

“World Championship was my last race of this season. I rode a really good ITT, especially considering my characteristics. I’m still haunted by those 10 seconds that made me miss the top 10. Nevertheless, it also gives me extra motivation to work even harder for the upcoming time trials.

As for the road race, I can say it was total chaos. Our team raced excellently, but the route was so difficult that you simply shouldn’t make any mistakes. You had to ride in front all the time because of all the crashes, corners, accelerations, and narrow roads. If you stayed behind, you spent way more energy than the guys in front. It was necessary to race smart. I’m happy with how I raced. You could see that no team wanted to control the race, and that is why attacks started already 180 km to the finish. There was a very strong breakaway, including me and Primož. Unfortunately, the Italians missed it and then chased us down. I’m still wondering how it would be if some of them were there with us. I was still very active in the race after they caught us. I tried to control the race and help Matej save as much energy as possible for the finals.

Then I was again part of a small breakaway, but I spent all my energy there. I’m still very happy with how I raced, how we raced as a team and the atmosphere. We really get along with the guys. Matej was 14th at the end, which is a nice result, but we all probably hoped for more. However, sport is not PlayStation. All guys at the start are really strong, and small things at the end make the difference. We should be all happy and proud because each one of us gave his all, and that’s the most important. We will keep fighting, and I believe, one day, we will get this medal.

The season is over now, and I will take a month-long break. I will go on the bike, MTB but no pressure – I will listen to myself and my motivation to ride. Also, I hope I will be able to go on holidays somewhere to completely relax and come back fresh and ready to start training for next season.”

Photo: Personal archive, Jonathan Rich, Bettini Photos

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La Vuelta: done and dusted

La Vuleta, which started in Burgos, now finished in Santiago de Compostela after three weeks of racing was won by Primož Roglič (Team Jumbo-Visma), followed by Enric Mas (Movistar Team) and Jack Haig (Team Bahrain-Victorious). Team Bahrain-Victorious was very successful as they also won the young rider classification by Gino Mäder and best team classification. They beat Team Jumbo-Visma for more than 7 minutes. Tratnik’s best result is third place in the prologue in Burgos. His role was to help his team leaders and he did that with excellence.

“This Vuelta was one of the hardest grand tours I ever did, especially because of the way we raced, the intensity, the heat, and long transfers between stages. Last week was super difficult because we had lots of mountain stages and the tempo was really high. However, it was great to see spectators, who came to cheer for us even in this Covid period.

We made some progress in the last week as a team because Jack then finished third in the general classification and Gino won the best young rider jersey. My role was to help both team leaders. It was a critical moment in stage 20 when Jack got a puncture and I had to drove him back to the peloton. If we failed to do that, the final general classification could be different. It was a moment in which you can see the great importance of teamwork. I also gave it all in the last ITT but I could feel the fatigue from all three weeks and the legs didn’t feel as strong as they should.

I will take a few days off now. After that, I still have the World Championship Road race at the end of September before the off-season starts.”

Photo: Chris Auld, Miwa Iijima, Bettini Photos    

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La Vuelta after the first rest day

The last grand tour of the season takes place in Spain this year from August 14 till September 5. We are talking about La Vuelta. Primož Roglič (Team Jumbo Visma) is leading the race after the first rest day. Damiano Caruso (Team Bahrain Victorious) won the ninth stage. This is Jan’s first Vuelta and he described it as:

“First “week” of racing was though. I started great, taking third place on the prologue. I really wanted to seize my opportunity, but two guys were stronger. Anyway, I gave it all that day, and it was my maximum.

I knew what I had to do the following days – help my team leaders. Only me and Arashiro are here to take care of the guys in flat sections of the stages. We have a lot of responsibility and already had a lot of work to do in the first week. Each stage is very stressful because basically, each day is a chance of echelons. However, the wind is never strong enough to break the peloton. That’s what makes racing really difficult. Each team has the same agenda. As if this is not enough, there is extreme heat. I usually don’t have problems with heat but racing nine consecutive days at 40 degrees Celsius does some damage to the body. We have to make sure the riders have fresh bottles ready all the time because the liquid heats up after 15 minutes.

Up until now, everything is going as planned. Caruso won yesterday, and Haig is in fourth place in the general classification. Regarding my performance, I think I’m not in my best shape compared to previous races, but I also think that is quite normal. I kept a high level of performance throughout the whole season. We can start the second week relaxed and ready to take some new opportunities.”

Photo: Chris Auld, Miwa IIJIMA         

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The Olympic experience

Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates) came third to the finish line after 234 kilometers of racing on the Olympic Road race. Jan Tratnik contributed a lot to this bronze medal as he was pulling the peloton for more than 100 kilometers and helped the team’s leaders save their energy for the finale.

“I’m very happy to be part of this bronze medal. I felt great during the whole race, and it was an honor to work for two leaders such as Primož and Tadej. I know I can’t win on such a hilly route, but if there is a chance for me to contribute to the team’s success, I will give it my all. I’m also very happy that we got what we came for. Of course, it would be better if we won, but since other teams were racing against us, we got the maximum out of it. I’m proud to be part of this story, especially because it was my first Olympics.

Our trip to Tokyo was long and exhausting. We didn’t have much time to adapt to the new environment and time zone. Also, it’s very hot here, and the humidity is extreme. It wasn’t easy, and I had some problems on training for the first two days, but then I started to feel better.

Too bad we can’t experience the Olympics as we should in non-Covid times. To make It easier, logistics-wise, cyclists slept separately, not in the Olympic village. We also didn’t participate in the opening ceremony. At least spectators were allowed to cheer for us by the road and in the finish zone. We are coming back to Slovenia on Monday, so we don’t have the option to go around and enjoy ourselves as tourists for a couple of days.

When I come home, I will take a day or two easier, but then I have to continue with preparation for La Vuelta, which starts on August 14.”

Photo: Personal archive & Bettini Photos

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Road to Tokyo

Jan took a few days off after the first part of the season, but not for long. He is already on an altitude training camp with the team, preparing for the second part of the season. The main goals will be the Olympics and La Vuelta.

“I took some time for myself after the Nationals. I only rode my bike to wake my body up a little bit, no longer than one hour. I spend most of the time at home, with my girlfriend and friends. It was a short but sweet break.

Now I’m at an altitude training camp in Livigno. After a week of holidays, I feel recharged and motivated for the second part of the season. This altitude training camp is an important part of the preparation to get me in my best shape. I started with easier and shorter training just to get used to the altitude. In the next week, I will start with more intense and longer trainings.

The first goal of the second part of the season is the Olympic Games in Tokyo. I’m very happy and proud to be a part of the Slovenian national team. I’m sure it will be an exciting experience, also because it will be the first Olympics in my career. I want to thank the sports director Hauptman for giving me this opportunity. I will do my best to come to Tokyo in the best shape possible. I still have some training to do, but there is enough time.

After Tokyo, I will focus on Vuelta and World Championship. I will probably race on some other races in between, but that is something we still have to decide with the team.”

Photo: Personal archive, Slovenian Olympic Team,

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National champion ITT!

Jan Tratnik is national champion in individual time trial! He was the fastest on the 30 kilometers long route coming to the finish line in front of Jan Polanc and Tadej Pogačar (both UAE-Team Emirates) for 9 and 34 seconds, respectively.

“I’m very happy with the result I achieved on the nationals, but I didn’t feel 100%. The heat made it very difficult to ride our bikes and it was a problem for me too. After half of the race, I didn’t believe I can win because my legs were burning, and I was losing good rhythm. When they told me from the car that I was winning, I got extra motivation to hold up for the next 10 minutes, and then it will be over. It was a good fight with Polanc and Pogačar. I succeeded and got my third national champion title in the time trial. I can’t wait for the next time trial to wear a new jersey.”

Photo:, Chris Alud

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Racing on home roads

June is a cycling month in Slovenia. It started with the Tour of Slovenia, which was won by Tadej Pogačar (UAE-Team Emirates). Also, the national championship will take place at the end of the month. We will watch individual time trial and road race, both in Koper and nearby.

“Tour of Slovenia is in the books. It was great to race here again after three years. The atmosphere was fantastic! All the fans at the road cheering for us and how they decorated the cities we passed – amazing. Slovenia is becoming a cycling nation, which is even more obvious after each race here. Also, it’s the best feeling knowing that my girlfriend, my closest friends, and family are there to support me. It gives me extra energy and motivation.

We raced very good as a team. We took two stage wins with Bauhaus, and Matej won the red jersey for points classifications. My role was to help the team. I felt surprisingly strong if we consider I finished Giro not so long ago. There are usually two potential scenarios after a Grand Tour. You either feel super strong or you feel extreme fatigue. Luckily, it was the first scenario for me, so I’m very excited for the next race on home roads – nationals. I will fight for the win on a time trial, while the road race will be a lottery, as it is every year. We will have to be careful of breakaways, which would include some key riders.

After the nationals, I will have a few days off, which I’m looking forward to. The first part of the season was very tough. I was at home for two weeks in the last four months. After a short break, I will continue my preparation on altitude. Then I hope to race the Olympics with the national team. The most important race in the second part of this season will be la Vuelta.”

Photo: osebni arhiv & Aljaž Markič & Sportida

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Giro after the second rest day

The second week of racing didn’t go by without crashes. Bahrain Victorious is now left with only 5 riders because Matej Mohorič and Gino Mader crashed out of the race. The team had to change its strategy and is now racing on Damiano Caruso, who is currently second in the general classification. Jan is doing amazing work for him. We also saw an outstanding performance on Monte Zoncolan, where he finished second, just 26 seconds behind Lorenzo Fortunato (EOLO-Kometa). Egan Bernal (INEOS Grenadiers) is still leading in the general classification.

»The second week flew by very quickly. All stages were very stressful and difficult, except for stage 13, which was flat (as a pancake ;)) and didn’t cause us any trouble. I recovered well after the first rest day and my legs were much better then. It was very important for us to do everything we could to keep Damiano as high as possible in the general classification.

I seized the opportunity in stage 14, in which I climbed second to the Monte Zoncolan. Winning such a stage would be a cherry on top, but even though I’m extremely happy with my performance. Especially if you take into consideration characteristics I have as a rider. I gave it all and there is nothing to feel bad about.

Riding in Slovenia the next day filled me with a lot of new energy and motivation, even if I didn’t fight for more visible results due to an early crash. It didn’t look as bad as it was from the beginning, but when the race was stopped my knee started to swell and hurt. I rode with quite some pain that day. However, the knee condition is getting better, and I think everything will be ok.

Yesterday’s stage was really tough. Currently, Damiano is second in the general classification, which is pretty amazing if we consider all the bad luck we had as a team. Today’s rest day is well deserved. We have four very difficult stages coming up in the next few days and we will try to defend Damiano’s second place. That’s why my personal goal now is to help Damiano and perform well on a time trial in Milan.”

Photo: Chris Auld & Giovanni Crea