DomestiqueThe Real Life Ups and Downs of a Tour Pro
by Charly Wegelius
Reviewed by Lawrence Bywater
Pro road cycling is feted for its heroes, its superhuman efforts, its panache filled endeavours and mainly its winners. Yet perhaps what is most captivating about this sport in terms of its individual personalities are the efforts of a band of self-sacrificing, selfless riders who perform the tasks unseen by the uneducated cycling fan. Domestiques. They serve their glorified leaders day in day out; they perform the often thankless tasks of sheltering lead riders from the wind, becoming their waiters with food and bidons and generally being at the beck and call of others. Ultimately they make cycling the team sport that it is so often not credited for. Charles Wegelius was one such domestique who carved out a (successful) career in this role.
His book Domestique: The Real Life Ups and Downs of a Tour Pro, co-written with his partner in ‘crime’ from the 2005 World Championship in Madrid, Tom Southam, is an eye watering expose into the professional peloton in which he inhabited through the 2000’s. The starkest tones of his story show just how much he was willing to sacrifice in order to make it as first an amateur and then a pro. Arguably it was this mentality that made him such a cherished domestique by teams in Europe.
From the first enquiry to his mother to ask whether she could write a letter to his headmaster to allow him to train during sports afternoons at school, to leaving York to join Vendee U in France as an amateur, Wegelius’ passion and drive for the sport jumps from the text on the page and virtually smacks you in the face. His mentality and feelings are laid bare for all to see and arguably what makes this different from the standard Bradley Wiggins or Mark Cavendish story. Ultimately, no other recent cycling autobiography is more revealing. Perhaps only David Millar’s Racing Through The Dark (read our review here) and Tyler Hamilton’s The Secret Race come close to revealing what it is really like inside professional road cycling and both of those almost entirely focus on the doping aspect of the support. His constant unhappiness and lack of contentment despite success is a telling thread which runs throughout the book. Indeed, insecurities are never far from the forefront of Wegelius’ mind.
Before British Cycling’s track success was replicated on the road with the BC Academy/Team Sky etc, Wegelius had to do what all other British road riders had had to do over the previous few decades to be successful – make a go of it in Europe. The classic stories emerge of ramshackle houses provided by teams, the culture shock of European life, but also the young Wegelius showing how passionate he was about success. A classic example: He asked his then manager Jean-Rene Bernaudeau to allow him to race (his French racing license was currently in limbo at the time) at an event – he drove to the event in a team camper, set the bike up himself and travelled without a masseur. To his teammates incredulity he duly won the race. Yet again insecurities arise. Wegelius writes that on winning the Under-23 national Road Race and coming second in the European Time Trial Championships as an amateur he felt “victory wasn’t something special that I felt I should sit back and enjoy.” He actually felt that, “a win was simply another box ticked in what was turning out to be an infinite list of boxes I had to tick to be content.”
His meticulous approach to life as an amateur transcended from keeping his bike clean after every ride, washing it with diesel, to competing with another amateur on who could spend the less on everyday essentials. Yet, Wegelius comes to recognise that, “society’s admiration for athletes is based entirely on the achievement of an ideal.” He realises that the sacrifices he has made to become the athlete he so desperately wanted to be, has made him a difficult person to be around.
Throwing all the personal anecdotes aside the book still fantastically illustrates the idiosyncrasies of the pro peloton. Obviously given his career with Italian teams, Mapei, De Nardi and Liquigas the majority of incites have a distinct flavour to them. Old riders tales such as wearing as much clothing whilst training are very enjoyable and occasions such as the 2005 Vuelta, where temperatures were heading into the 40°C Spanish riders were seen warming up on rollers with woollen hats, leggings and arm warmers are a delight to read. The book finishes with a wonderfully poignant tale which is topped by a realisation that Wegelius had found the truth about being inside the professional peloton: “it’s no f***king fairytale.” Overall, a delight from start to finish; perhaps the only thing missing is a further insight into life on the Giro d’Italia in which Wegelius was so well versed.
CyclingShorts Rating: Star Buy! – 90%
Paperback Price: £8.99