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Winter is the season for domestiques

Early season races in Australia and South America afford important opportunities for domestiques to win, and these results have a broader impact as well.

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More than a few familiar names have already been taking some early season wins. Among them are riders who are in contention to win all year long, including Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), and Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo).

Peel back the results sheet, however, and there are more than a few riders usually on worker-bee duty clocking some personal results.

Call it the season of the domestique.

Take Daryl Impey, for example. The South African all-rounder knows that come May or July, he will be at the beck and call of the team’s GC captains. So when he has a chance to race for his own results, he takes full advantage.

“When we sat down with the team last year, we were looking at some races that I could have a chance to win,” Impey said. “With the leaders we have on the team now, I know that I will be working for the others in the big races. So you have to take advantage of these opportunities and give something back to the team, but also try to get your own results.”

That philosophy works out perfect for everyone. Impey gets his chance to shine at races like the Santos Tour Down Under — which he won for the second time in a row last month — and slots back into domestique duty for the grand tours. And when a team like Mitchelton-Scott has a rider like Impey scoring points early in the season, it takes pressure off everyone in the organization.

“This race is big for us, but it’s also nice to get a few wins in early,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “We have our ambitions built around the grand tours, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to win the rest of the year. It’s about giving everyone opportunities.”

That type of strategy plays out across most of the major teams, but even more so with squads that have major GC champions on their roster.

Top stars need top support to win big races. That means everyone behind the GC captain sacrifices their chances for a singular victory. It’s cycling’s long-running contradiction: There is only one winner in a race that requires the combined effort of an entire team.

To share the wealth, most teams try to give their top helpers a chance to shine during selected periods of the season. And right now, with races across the globe, we’re in the sweet spot of “it’s-my-turn-to-win” portion of the racing calendar.

Look no further than Movistar. The Spanish WorldTour team packs a punch with the likes of Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa, and Alejandro Valverde. With those three, the team knows it can win just about any race it starts. With such prolific winners across a mix of one-day and stage races, there are not many opportunities for domestiques to even get a chance.

So riders cannot afford to be bashful when they get the green light to race.

For once, Nairo Quintana was looking after his faithful domestique Winner Anacona at Vuelta a San Juan. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Over the weekend, Winner Anacona did just that. He snagged a stage win and the overall at the Vuelta a San Juan, scoring just the second and third victories of his eight-year WorldTour career. The climbing specialist, who also won a stage during the 2014 Vuelta a España, is often the last man to help the likes of Quintana and Valverde in key moments at the Tour or Giro d’Italia.

Argentina was his payback.

Anacona will quickly slip back into his helper role for the Tour Colombia 2.1 (February 12-17), where Quintana will be among the favorites for overall victory.

“Ever since I signed with the team, Eusebio Unzué [team manager] always made it clear for me what my role was,” Anacona said. “I always kept some ambition inside for individual success. One always has to dream, and you must fight for those. Even if my job is to take care of the leaders at crucial races, I’ll always try to shine when a chance like this comes around.”

That kind of trade-off is normal for riders like Impey and Anacona. They get a few chances throughout the season to keep them fresh and motivated, and in turn, gladly put in the hard yards to help their respective captains in the season’s main highlights.

Most riders gladly accept their place in the peloton and many can build very successful careers by developing into super domestiques. Cycling is much like natural selection, and the road quickly puts everyone in their place.

A rider like Wout Poels at Team Sky said he happily works for someone of the caliber of Chris Froome at the Tour de France. Poels honestly recognizes that Froome is the superior rider in the Tour, yet he still has his personal ambitions at select points during the year.

“Chris is the best Tour rider in the peloton right now,” Poels said. “I wouldn’t want to be racing against him.”

A winner at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 2016, Poels, 31, knows he can count on having several opportunities during the season to race for his own results. Last year, for example, Poels won races in February, March, and September, and then helped pace Froome to victory in the Giro d’Italia and teammate Geraint Thomas to the yellow jersey at the Tour.

“These races are a nice chance to race for yourself,” Poels said in Australia. “We have meetings to set out the calendar, and you know if you’re going to the Tour, you are working for the team. It’s good to have a few races a year to ride for your own results.”

Liege-Bastogne-Liege 2016 was a rare opportunity for Wout Poels to shine, and he didn’t miss his chance. Photo: Tim De Waele | Getty Images

Sometimes things can go off the rails when super domestiques or top helper riders start believing they should be the leaders in the major races. That’s when riders need to change teams and look for their opportunities to lead.

Richie Porte, now a leader at Trek-Segafredo, made a successful transition from being a helper at Sky to being a leader at BMC Racing, winning such races as Tour de Suisse as well as leading a team at the Tour de France, something that would have never happened if he had stayed at Team Sky.

Teams that can successfully find the right mix of riders can score points and victories throughout an entire season. Astana has captains such as Jakob Fuglsang and Miguel Ángel López who can work and prepare to peak at the grand tours, then have veterans like Luis León Sánchez who can pull during the grand tours, but take the pressure off leadership in lesser races.

After a successful run in Australia, León Sánchez heads back to home roads in Spain where he will lead during the busy spring racing calendar in Spain before easing into helper duty by the Tour.

“These spring races are ideal for me. It’s my chance to race for results and to help the team when you can with some points,” León Sánchez said. “I know when the grand tours arrive, I will be at the service of the big captains. That’s normal. That’s what we get paid to do.”

Of course, there’s pressure on the big captains to deliver when an entire team is sacrificing its chances for success to help one singular leader. No one likes to work hard only to see their efforts dissolve without a fight.