Last week I wrote about an important feature of bike racing, The Breakaway. I got a bit carried away with that post, and there wasn't any space left to talk about other aspects, such as The Peloton. So here goes nothing...
For the casual observer of bike racing, there's probably nothing more confusing and intriguing than the peloton. Roaring down the road with all the characteristics of an independent organism, it's a beautiful site to behold, especially in the Tour de France where it weaves past fields of lavender, sunflowers, and stunning Chateaux.
But I'm waxing lyrical here. What exactly is the peloton? Well, a great comparison is that long-running British TV series Midsomer Murders. How is it possible for so much to happen in such a small village? The professional peloton is very similar. It's a dynamic, moving village full of intrigue, vendettas, temporary alliances, loyal friendships and a fair bit of good old-fashioned moaning and groaning.
Servicing the modern peloton is a case study in sophisticated logistics. They need to get fed, hydrated, mechanical issues need to be fixed and medical problems need to be sorted. For this, each team has a dedicated car that follows the pack. From the team car, riders called 'domestiques' collect hydration bottles and nutrition and distribute them to their teammates in the peloton. (Notice we don't call them water bottles. Many teams in the professional peloton are at the leading edge of modern nutrition and hydration strategies. Like with Precision Hydration's recommendations, it's rare that a hydration bottle won't contain a solution matched to the riders and their unique needs on the stage).
The team car also hosts one of the team mechanics, who's ready to jump out and help any team rider who might have a mechanical problem. In addition to team-specific vehicles, there are neutral support cars that host spare bikes and wheels, as well as medical support vehicles that host a dedicated doctor. When visiting the tour doctor is the only time riders can 'officially' hold onto a car whilst in the peloton.
Of course, you'll also see riders getting 'sticky bottles' (that's when the rider holds on to a bottle from the car window just long enough to get a little push forward) as they take feed from the cars. Although they're against the rules, these 'sticky bottles' are usually ignored as the rider is just carrying out 'domestique' duties and is behind the Peloton. Where it's more closely watched, and frowned upon, is if it's a single rider either in a breakaway or way off the back trying to get back on or up a hill.
Once the break has gone, within the peloton it's time to settle into a well-rehearsed routine; protecting your team's key rider from the wind and obstacles in the road, and maintaining nutrition and hydration levels. However, it's also a time to catch up with old friends from previous teams, get the latest news and gossip, and find out where contracts might be available next season.
Traditionally, within the peloton there has always been a 'Patron', a senior, experienced rider — often the leader of the race — who dictates things like collective stops for nature breaks, whether the peloton should slow down and wait for key riders who have fallen or had a mechanical incident. More recently — particularly in the post-Lance Armstrong era — this role has diminished as younger riders have come through and asserted their approach to professional riding. It's an issue of intense debate within the digerati whether this is a good thing or not.
This same change has occurred within the amateur peloton. As cycling has become increasingly popular, and as more athletes are coming into the sport later in life, they have bypassed the 'traditional' introduction to the sport where the 'Patron' would be the person literally dictating behaviour on the local Saturday club ride.
The peloton reflects the complexity of the sport of cycling. To the outsider, it's just a bunch of guys racing down the road at high speed. But to the trained eye it's a complex, fluid and highly structured community working for both collective and individual goals in tandem. It really is a unique entity in modern sport.