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The Greatest Domestiques of All Time

By Martin Atanasov

With the Tour de France knocking on our door, it’s high time to take a look at the heroes that make this event the biggest spectacle in the two-wheeled world. While for most people, those are yellow jersey owners, the winners of the ŠKODA Green Jersey or the best climbers, there are also other heroes we have to speak about.

They remain in the shadows, always right there, next to the leader. They chase, they bring water and gels, and they make sure the leader is protected, well-rested and ready to take the win. These true heroes rarely win the stages but without them, the Tour de France and (any other race for that matter) would be completely unpredictable. These true heroes are the domestiques.

History

It’s not a secret to anyone that having less air resistance gives you better speed with less effort. Naturally, cyclists, especially pros, have known this for as long as there have been races. The tactics of hiding behind someone else created the peloton and the idea of sharing the lead in a breakaway. Cooperation and racing each other are not only the most thrilling part of the race but also the cornerstone of getting to the finish. Naturally, if you have someone who will create a slipstream just for you and get others away from your wheel, it will give you a huge advantage. That’s precisely what went through Henri Pepin’s mind when he hired Jean Dargassies and Henri Gauban to make sure he won the Tour in 1907. They became the first known domestiques, and while Pepin’s plan backfired and he quit the race at the fifth stage, the domestique role has been seen as the way to go ever since

Domestiques who went on to become leaders

It’s not hard to imagine that such powerful individuals won’t always stay in the shadows. Almost all of the greatest leaders of all time were at one point pacers before they had the chance to become the stage winners, the best sprinters or climbers. Some of them became even greater leaders and riders than the cyclist they have served. For example, Lucien Aimar won the Tour in 1966 after pacing Jacques Anquetil. Greg LeMond won his first Tour de France just a year after he was Bernard Hinault’s domestique and went on to become one of the biggest legends in cycling. Jan Ullrich and Chris Froome did the same in 1997 and 2013, respectively.

Powerful individuals never stay in someone else’s shadow. That’s why they become the true showstoppers, and no one remembers them for their servant years but rather for their immense glory afterwards. Today, we won’t stop on them but on those who made a career making others look good. It takes a lot of dedication to support others throughout your whole career, so without further ado, let’s take a quick look at the top 3 greatest s domestiques of all time.

3. Alain Vigneron

The third position in our small ranking list was the hardest to choose. There are so many great domestiques who supported the General Classification champion on 5 different occasions that in this position, we could have put just as easily legends like Pierre Everaert, Jean-François Bernard, Marino Alonso, Frans Mintjens, Victor Van Schil, and Jozef Spruyt. However, Alain Vigneron has done something none of these cyclists has ever done. He not only helped his team and his teammate to win the greatest cycling race in the world on five separate occasions, but he has done it with two different teams and pushed three different team leaders to become the General Classification winners.

Alain joined his first Tour in 1980 and in 1981, he managed to drag Hinault to the win. Vigneron was behind another two of Hinault’s wins in ‘82 and ‘85. In 1983 he supported Lаurent Fignon to end the Tour de France wearing the yellow shirt. In 1984 he switched teams along with Hinault and joined La Vie Claire, with whom Alain managed to get two team wins and helped Hinault (1985) and Greg LeMond (1986) to claim the yellow shirt.

He has won 4 stages during his career, but only one of them was on Tour de France – Stage 3 in 1985. Throughout his career, Vigneron was highly respected, and unsurprisingly all the great cyclists in the ‘80s were thrilled when he was in their team. Alain remains one of the strongest riders, though he was rarely in the spotlight.

2. Lucien Didier

The Luxembourgian rider had one short but highly memorable career. In the 12 years Didier spent on his bike as a pro-cyclist, he went to two Olympics in 1972 and 1976 where he didn’t make a name for himself. However, during his most active years between ’78 and ’84, Lucien Didier became one of the most memorable domestiques of all time. He went on six Tour de France races and managed to help his team win all six times. Didier made sure Bernard Hinault won the overall race four times and made the same for Laurent Fignon twice.

While he hadn’t had many individual wins during his career, Didier was the embodiment of what a true domestique should look like – strong, dedicated to his team and always ready to sacrifice his own glory for the team to win.

1. Jean Stablinski

Jean Stablinski
From left to right Michel Grain, Jean Stablinski, Jacques Anquetil at the Tour de France. © Profimedia

If you are looking for a true domestique legend, look no further than Jean Stablinski. The French rider of Polish descent is what any domestique should strive to become – reliable, robust and dedicated. Over his 16-year-long career, he managed to help Jacques Anquetil win all five of his Tour de France wins. After Anquetil stepped away from cycling, Stablinski went on to help Lucien Aimar and Roger Pingeon do the same.

Unlike other domestiques, Stablinski has some major wins as well. In six years, he won 4 national road championships and got second twice, a record unbeaten to this day. Over his career, he had over 105 individual wins among which are 5 stages at the Tour de France, two stages at the Giro d’ Italia, 1 General Classification on La Vuelta a Espana, 4 other individual stage wins, and many, many more.

Stablinski has become a true inspiration for cyclists around the world thanks to his dramatic and film-worthy history. He survived the horrors of the Second World War only to lose his father at the age of 14 in a mining accident. The future cycling genius had to work in his late father’s place in the mine just so he could provide for his family. Stablinski won his first bike in an accordion competition, and his mother tried to destroy it due to her disapproval of Jean’s new hobby. Despite all the turmoil, he became naturalized at age 16 and started racing. In the following two decades, he went on to become one of the most memorable riders of all time and the greatest domestique who ever rode at the Tour de France (or anywhere else). In 2007, Jean Stablinski passed away after a long illness and a long and happy life dedicated to cycling.

The yellow jersey is rarely won by the best on the field

These three prime examples of the domestiques’ important role show without a doubt that the Tour de France is not won because a rider is the best but because they have the greatest domestique of them all. Well, climbing Alpe d’Huez in half an hour surely helps but that’s a story for another time.