Book Review: Domestique

Wegelius Domestique

Having covered Va Va Froome’s look at the rise of Chris Froome it’s now time to look at a rider who never once enjoyed a victory salute in his pro career. In Domestique Charly Wegelius tells the story of riding in the service of others and how he made a career out of it.

Domestique by Charly Wegelius
The book is written with Tom Southam, these days a writer but formerly a pro in Italy and both banned from the British team for life, more of which later.

Skinny little me had two of the managers of fucking Mapei stopping by for a chat. I was like a dog with two dicks.”

How much is Southam’s voice and how much is Wegelius isn’t clear but it’s well written, the prose has some swagger at times which brings things to life but isn’t for all. The prose is like smooth tarmac and you roll over the 300 pages with ease. There are some great observational details, for example the Vuelta’s field is likened to “the crew of a pirate ship“, full of weary and unmotivated riders looking to redeem a season, “either riders didn’t want to be there or they were desperate to perform.”

Domestique is French for servant or butler. Most of the 500 or so pros in the World Tour squads fulfil these duties but there are only a few who stand out for their regular service, able to pace their leader in the high mountains when almost everyone has been dropped or to start revving the engines in a crosswind. Think domestique de luxe or even lieutenant rather than pack fodder when it comes to Wegelius. Many fans can appreciate the jobs involved but the book gives a good introduction to the role although this is about Wegelius’s story and never a technical manual, don’t read it for tips on how to fit bottles in your jersey or the correct wattage to chase down a breakaway. Instead this is the story of riding in the service of others.

Despite the proximity to the stars there are few indiscretions. If he’s no longer riding in the service of Danilo Di Luca he remains loyal to his leaders. Di Luca is portrayed as a good leader, able to motivate the pack and attend to individuals. I can imagine you’re thinking “but he’s a doping so-and-so” right? But Wegelius is assessing the man and not the sportsman, the room mate and not the villain. We see the contrast to Cadel Evans who is portrayed as a prickly, almost Diva-like character who struggles to assume the burdens of leadership and gets anxious if things don’t go his way. But Wegelius is a steady character; if you want a wilder tale, try Racing Through the Dark by David Millar.

Some will find the subject of doping is omitted. When he fails a haematocrit test for natural reasons he goes from panic to depression, via a British journalist in a car chase. The spectre of doping is only issue for him when it’s an issue for him. He suggests the lawyers have been censoring parts but Wegelius is playing the role of footsoldier with team orders rather than a general or a politician, he didn’t have time to resent the war because he had a job to do.

Several pages are dedicated to the 2005 World Championships where Wegelius is riding in British kit but racing under Italian team orders. Since British leader Roger Hammond won’t win, Wegelius, based in Italy and riding for an Italian team, sees a chance to earn some Euros. If anything the book dwells too much on this point, labouring home the idea that a pro rides all year for a trade team and by implication the oddity of patriotism and “public service.” British Cycling was changing from being the “whipping boy” to the track-and-Sky operation it is today and Wegelius and Southam are, like the naval officers in Candide, made into examples pour encourager les autres. With hindsight you can see the scandal was as much a question of timing as anything else, had he done it before then nobody would mind and a few years later Britain was serious about being competitive in the sport. Indeed we only need to look to the Olympic when several foreign riders were working for Team GB in the London Olympics road race.

Wegelius starts far from pro cycling and wants to be in but the more central he becomes the more he starts to push away. At first the boy is buying Michelin maps to place himself in the Alps, “Bourg d’Oisans wasn’t… just something out of a Tolkien book” but the more fantasy becomes reality the less attractive it becomes. By the time he is an established pro with a valuable contract he’s becoming disillusioned, the shiny exterior is dull on the inside with inane team mates, cheap hotels and bad management. The Tour de France becomes a race to avoid. The more he becomes a domestique, the less he feels at home. But isn’t that like all jobs? Boyhood dreams of becoming an astronaut see exploration and adventure replaced with technical functions, the reality is not the same as the promise. Actually no, because for all the professionalism of pro cycling, the job is insecure, selfish and the peloton is canine-simple when it comes to values of loyalty, survival and acceptance. It’s this aspect that Wegelius conveys well. Behind every pro career there’s an elite CV of U23 success and Wegelius tells the tale of a rapid rise up the ranks but as ex-pro and TV pundit Paul Sherwen reminds him in a phone call when he signs his first contract, making it as a pro is all about getting a second contract, a state of permanent anxiety and inner tension that’s far from unique to Wegelius only it’s a tale that’s often ignored. For all his troubles Wegelius succeeded, he says there was no pressure to dope, often earned good money and had a career that lasted over a decade.

There’s a glut of British cycling books on the market, cashing a wave of popularity with Olympic success, Bradley Wiggins, Mark Cavendish and now Chris Froome. This story is the antithesis, there are no sequinned yellow jerseys and gold medals, in fact there’s little fame and recognition. Patriotism is overvalued for Wegelius too which only makes the book more universal for an American or Australian audience.

The contrast with Va Va Froome is worth noting. Whilst I grew frustrated reading the phonebook list of Froome’s race results, Domestique zooms in on just a few performances, sometimes only one a year. It’s the experience and the story that matters more than the actual result. Perhaps some will find frustration with his account of the 2005 worlds or the way doping is an afterthought but perhaps that’s the point, Wegelius is giving his view from a decade inside the peloton. You’ll learn plenty from this book and hopefully enjoy it too.

37 thoughts on “Book Review: Domestique”

  1. Will be purchasing as soon as. Glad its not a list of wins, wins and more wins which I always find tedious in (sports) books. Wouldn’t it be great to have the talent of a pro without being a pro.

  2. Thank you for the review INRNG. I for one have little interested in spending my hard earned cash, to purchase a book which choses to omit much of the reality of this period. Hope Wegelius makes a few Euros for his effort.

    • I think you’ll be missing out somewhat then. To be fair, on the first page of the book doping is mentioned, acknowledged but the author says it’s not the theme of the book. Fair enough.

      I’ve been reading cycling books for a quarter of a century now and I felt I learnt quite a lot from it, which is a nice feeling.

      And it’s got a beautiful ending

  3. Definitely a book I look forward to reading when I get the time for a couple a reasons. Firstly, because the role of domestiques is still overlooked and secondly to try a get to know Charly a bit more. He always seemed like the outsider in British Cycling due to the incident at the World Championships and his Finish heritage.
    Does he give any reasons in the book for his decision to retire at a relatively young age?

    Also, the reasons why the book doesn’t include a long list of results is because although Charly was a well respected rider he never won a race as a professional.

    • The retirement? He’s getting less pleasure from the sport, is left with an offer from United Healthcare and wants to end. He’s had a decade in the sport, it’s not too early.

      As for the long list of results, having read the Froome book the other day it’s still fresh in the mind how you get “Froome finished 87th in this race, 93rd in that race” and so on. Rather than describing every bottle he carried in each race, Wegelius picks a few key moments.

      Also why are there so many British riders with a foot outside the country? Millar, Wiggins, Froome, Wegelius and more are all born abroad or have some foreign links. A few would be coincidence… but is there a pattern here?

      • Is there a pattern?
        I just popped in here tonight from reading a cricket blog, asking similar questions about the England team. I guess there is a tendancy for well-off middle-class Brit families to travel around, and emigrate for work, but keep a British feel in the house, or for the kids – we don’t integrate well!

        Cycling (and cricket) are more followed by the better-off – though that may be changing a bit now. Time will tell. Of course, Wiggins’ story is different. His dad wasn’t middle-class, or English, but was cycling for a Belgian team, I think.

      • Interesting question, though it’s perhaps remembering that there are many British riders who are born and bred in the country and also that the example of Dan Martin (born in Britain but representing Ireland) shows it happens in the other direction as well.

        I’m not sure this trend is limited to either Britain or cycling and it’s just a fact of modern life that more and more people are going to be eligible to represent more than one country. We are going to have get used to people having allegiances to more than one country or even no country at all; unless we are going to have some sort of cultural test before a rider can switch nationality we are going to have to accept the rules of eligibility that are in place. After all no-one can really know how British Chris Froome feels or how Irish Dan Martin feels but is it really that important.

        And I don’t know if it’s a class thing or not but roughly a third of the English rugby and cricket teams were born abroad but I don’t think any of the football team were!

      • There probably is a pattern, as it’s characteristic of the British in lots of sports and other walks of life. We still have the remnants of an Empire in the various military bases dotted around the world, a network of Commonwealth countries where immigration has been historically recent and family ties to the UK remain, and a capital which is one of the more “global” cities in the world. It’s quite easy to bump into Brits abroad (and there seems to be a Welsh flag at almost every sporting or cultural event), and not a huge surprise when Brits have foreign connections.

  4. So there was never any pressure to dope. But did he probably did it anyway. He was – after all – a pipe cleaner skinny Pro amongst dopers galore

  5. Thanks for the review – bought this book with a couple of others, it’s been sitting on a bookshelf while I read the others. Had almost forgotten i had it but you’ve whet my appetite so it’s definitely coming out tomorrow.

  6. “Professional cycling is no fucking fairytale,” he snarls. “I started looking at the fans lining the route, cheering us like heroes. The passion for cycling oozed off them, but they couldn’t know what it was really like. They didn’t see the terrible hotels, the crazy egos or all the shit that goes with great expectations.” – [excerpt from Charly’s book] – The Independent, 07 July 2013

    There’s surely nothing surprising about this quote to most of us, but to have an inside account that focuses on his experience (his decade in the peloton), omitting talk of “the elephant in the room,” should be refreshing. We can read about doping everywhere else.

    Charly’s decade in the peloton was during the height of doping, and viewing it as an “afterthought” seems like an appropriate noun given that doping was so rampant (and accepted); numerous pros and ex-pros freely talk about PEDs during those years as a necessary part of the pressure to perform/win. We already know from many accounts that the majority of the peloton was doped for many, many years.

    Now we can hear another part of the story, which I find most interesting.

  7. Excellent review. I’ll order as soon as available on Kindle. Charly is usually an interesting guest for RAI TV during the Giro each season, I look forward to reading this book.

  8. I read it in a couple days on holiday earlier this year. A gripping ,if slightly depressing, tale but well constructed by Tom Southam and frankly I was glad to read a book about cycling that DIDN”T mention drugs. It’s not as if it hasn’t been well documented elsewhere. The ending is very poignant and I hear through the grapevine that the stuff that got lawyered out would make a riveting read in it’s own right.There are so many books where everything is tinged with success and accolades that’s insightful to hear about life at the shitty end of the stick>

  9. I liked Wegelius the rider, but I’m getting a little tired of these blow-by-blow accounts (just finished reading Sean Kelly’s Hunger, which also falls into this category). In all, they don’t tell us much more than we knew already from the press. The odd anecdote here and there, but they’re not really all that enlightening about getting under the skin of life as professional cyclist. My enduring favourite (and exception to this trend) remains Michael Barry’s Le Métier. Worth noting, too, that Barry is a fine writer and doesn’t need a ghost writer to enliven his prose…

  10. He spoke about competing with riders that were doped and ignoring such thoughts to focus on his own performance but I could not understand how he did not address the fact that he rode clean in the service of team leaders who were obviously not clean – ultimately he profited from their doping. Steering clear of the doping details there is a moral issue here I would have liked to seen some insight on. Maybe his rationale was in a clean sport he would have more reward anyway so to hell with it but like to know if & how he every reconciled this fact with himself. By the end of the book I felt maybe Mercenary would be a better title than Domestique.

    • Interesting and I did think it was a bit like being the getaway driver for an armed robbery crew. You might not run into the bank, you might not point the weapon at the terrified staff… but you’re still helping out the crew even if you drive within the speed limits. So I can see why the omission is unsatisfying. But then again what is he going to say or do in the book?

      • Isn’t it more like doped riders are taking advantage or profiting from clean rider’s efforts?

        You both frame cycling as a sin to begin with [a reference to criminal activity]. The sport is being corrupted, it is not corrupted to begin with. Clean riders do not need to defend nor reconcile with doping.

  11. Sounds interesting especially since I’m a Garmin fangirl, and I naturally gravitate toward the domestique side of things rather that the star side. I just ordered The Cycling Anthology, and I’ll need to put this one on my list.

  12. I found it interesting how Millar and Wegelius both start out as British outsiders in a French amateur squad – beating the French at their own game (where everybody doped, but these two guys were just so much more driven…) – and then head in opposite directions only to be reunited as authors at Garmin Sharp.

    Where Millar seek fame and fortune, Wegelius is just pleased to make a living. For me this is best symbolized in how they describe their apartments; Millar with his designer furniture and Wegelius in what sounds like a cheap room on the wrong side of the tracks. Had I been more cynically inclined I’d suggest Wegelius read ‘Racing through the dark’ and deliberately painted himself as Millar’s opposite here.

    Both men seem to have been deeply unhappy with themselves and the sport for long periods of their careers and both books are attempts at resurrecting tainted images with the British fan base. For their sins both men are tainted in the UK and were ineligible for Sky, luckily JV at Garmin is always there to pick up the reformed sinners.

    Also, I thought Millar’s book was self-righteous s**t, at least I felt some sympathy for Wegelius and hope Brailsford at least has the vertebrae to shake his hand and admit that he too has bought plenty of foreign service over the last years.

    Finally, in a sport that has such a depth of writers most of these recent biographies, be they Merckx, Simpson or Millar are rather poor compared to some of the magazine and online journalism available.

  13. random, silly question…but does anyone know where I can find a copy of this in the U.S.? Tried looking on Barnes and Noble and it seems they don’t carry it….really wanting to read this

  14. Great book, the very last tale in the story was well told, in that I knew how shit it would end but somehow I held on to a bit of hope that it wouldnt. Classic

  15. About a 1/3 into the book. It could be just me or my national form of English, but I found an odd pace to the sentences due to the absence of commas when I felt there should be. A bit frustrating at times.

    Regardless, I don’t read books often – my last book was Le Metier, which isn’t so much a book, rather a collection of glossy candids and short memoirs of a cyclist providing similar duties as Mr. Wegelius.

    I found this book to be more honest in revealing emotions and the anecdotes providing richer slices of reality. Is it due to the fact that one author was avoiding the truth, while the other was more at arm’s length to all the doping? Can you tell the truth while living the lie? Can you write a book about it? I dunno – Zabriskie’s recent revelations frame Barry as an instigator to his entrance to EPO.

    Buy this book. Read it. Keep the dream alive.

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