Cycling is at once an individual sport and a team sport; only one rider can cross the line in first place but they can rarely get there alone.
Even in this emerging generation of impulsive superstars, who sometimes don’t look like they need much of a helping hand, the role of the domestique remains a vital and respected one.
Whether it’s a climber dragging their leader up a final mountain, a lead-out rider piloting their sprinter through a final kilometre, or the more prosaic tasks of fetching bottles and acting as human windshield, there have been several stand-out examples of servitude and self-sacrifice this year.
Looking across the men’s and women’s peloton’s, we’ve picked out eight of the best.
The Colombian was responsible for one of the most enduring images of the 2021 season – turning to urge on Egan Bernal in his moment of crisis at the Giro d’Italia. It was stage 17, the summit finish at Sega di Ala, and Bernal – so dominant up to that point – began to crack, watching Simon Yates disappear up the road as he slowed to a near standstill. Martínez, when he realised his lead couldn’t hold his wheel, had the presence of mind to encourage his leader in a way we rarely see. The pair crossed the line 53 seconds down on Yates, limiting the damage before steadying the ship in the final days.
It wasn’t just that moment, though. Martínez was so good at the Giro that he even finished fifth overall himself. He was with Bernal at the key moments of every mountain stage and capped a stunning third week with third at Alpe Motta. Ineos Grenadiers – or Team Sky, as they were formerly known – have a rich history of domestiques so super they could themselves stake a claim to leadership, and Martínez carried on that tradition in his first season with the team.
He didn’t do much at all either side of the Giro – he only went on to DNF at Clásica San Sebastián and Vuelta a Burgos – but there was enough in those three weeks to make a success of his signing, and to put in him in line for next year’s Tour de France squad, if not a co-leadership role elsewhere.
An honourable mention also goes to Jonathan Castroviejo, whose climbing was outstanding at the Giro, and whose work arguably allowed Martínez to go so far with Bernal.
British rider Anna Henderson was a relative newcomer to the pro peloton when she signed with Marianne Vos’ Jumbo-Visma team for the 2021 season but by the end of the year, the 22-year-old was racing like a seasoned pro and helping Vos to a fine second place in the first women’s Paris-Roubaix.
Henderson might have started off the year as a domestique but by midseason, she had more than proved herself worthy of a leadership role.
From her solo move in Gent-Wevelgem to her attacks in Flèche Wallonne, where she escaped with Lucinda Brand (Trek-Segafredo) and Elise Chabbey (Canyon-SRAM) in a move that lasted until the final circuit, and in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Henderson’s time trialing prowess made her a dangerous rider to let go and allowed Vos to save energy for the finale.
Those moves helped Henderson win the support of her team for the Baloise Ladies Tour, where she finished third overall, before going on to win the overall Tour de Belle Isle en Terre – Kreiz Breizh Elites Dames and both stages. Henderson was due to lead Jumbo-Visma at the Ladies Tour of Norway before she crashed out of the race.
Her impressive season and selfless riding in the Classics earned respect ahead of the UCI Road World Championships women’s road race from British teammate Lizzie Deignan, who said: “Anna Henderson has hugely impressed me. She’s at Jumbo-Visma and you can see her talent developing, and the move to that team was good for her. You can see that she’s developing faster and has grown confidence.”
Henderson launched numerous attacks at Worlds and was ever-present at the head of the race to help Deignan and, though she was not technically a domestique all season, her riding earned her a spot on the list of top helpers of the season.
Tiffany Cromwell’s strength as an on-road captain and domestique at Canyon-SRAM during the Spring Classics helped her net a somewhat surprise ticket to the Tokyo Olympic Games.
The Australian veteran pro had her best season in a long time and attributed much of that success to feeling settled, handling pressure well, incorporating gravel racing into her calendar and feeling valued at her team.
The 33-year-old was handpicked by Canyon-SRAM’s leader Kasia Niewiadoma as a support rider during major targets, which saw Cromwell perform at her best well into the finals during the one-day races like Strade Bianche, Trofeo Alfredo Binda, Gent-Wevelgem, Tour of Flanders, Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. She transferred that strength into the mid-season stage races Thüringen Ladies Tour, Giro d’Italia, and into the women’s road race at the Olympic Games.
Cromwell has been a long-standing member of the Australian National Team, supporting her compatriots to their best performances at the last eleven Road World Championships, which is a testament to her selfless nature on the bike.
In fact, her renewed motivation and love of racing in her role as a successful domestique has led to another two-year contract with Canyon-SRAM.
The veteran Dane has become so good at his job that the fastest sprinter in the world is often said to be the one on his wheel. After this season, it’s hardly a joke anymore. Mørkøv won with Sam Bennett in the first part of the season, he won with Mark Cavendish at that heady Tour de France, and he put one on a plate for Alvaro Hodeg at the end of the season for good measure.
At 36, he has honed his craft to near-perfection and has established himself as the best in the business beyond all reasonable doubt. We already knew he could read a finish, engineer space out of thin air, and inject enough speed to take a sprinter to 200 metres, but what stood out this year was that versatility across those various figures in his slipstream.
When they won two stages apiece at the UAE Tour, Paris-Nice, and Volta ao Algarve, with De Panne thrown in between, it looked like we were witnessing one of the best partnerships in recent memory, continuing on from a strong start together in 2020. However, that was all thrown up in the air with Bennett’s knee injury and the somewhat controversial circumstances that led him to miss the Tour and effectively the rest of the season. In came Cavendish and it was like they’d been working together for years. There was a small hiccup at the start but in their second sprint, Cavendish won, and was in for the Tour, and we all know the rest.
QuickStep’s entire lead-out train was strong and dedicated but Mørkøv’s last-man duties were key and it was telling that when Cavendish won his fourth stage to equal Eddy Merckx’s record of 34, Mørkøv finished second.
The Belgian powerhouse won Cyclingnews’ ‘Best Domestique in the world’ accolade last year in a vote by fellow WorldTour professionals, and he has once again proved himself as the most reliable and fuss-free pair of hands in the peloton.
Several of the riders on this list stray into super-domestique territory, channeling world-class talents in a very specific way so as to tee up victory for others. What Declercq does is different and arguably more in line with the traditional definition of a domestique. He is aware of his own athletic limitations – relatively speaking, of course – but has carved out a vital role thanks to his tirelessness and selflessness. A stranger to the sharper end of races, he nevertheless lays the foundations time and again, pulling pelotons for hours on end with the steady tempo and broad shoulders that have earned him the nickname of ‘tractor’.
Perhaps the best indication of Declercq’s value lies in his race programme. In a team as stacked as Deceuninck-QuickStep, especially in the Classics, he has ridden Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix in each of the last four seasons, as well as the last two editions of the Tour de France. He was even included in Belgium’s team for this year’s World Championships, at the expense of the likes of Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert, and Tim Wellens.
He’s no leader, but he’s almost the first name on the teamsheet.
The reigning French time trial champion has been a staple domestique at her team Trek-Segafredo for the last three years, as she was with Wiggle High5 for the four preceding seasons. She is a selfless rider who understands the value of being a team player and how crucial such riders are to the team’s overall success.
When given the opportunity, Cordon-Ragot can create her own opportunities for success, which she has proven on multiple occasions at the French National Championships and other events.
At Trek-Segafredo this year she was part of the team’s victories that saw Elisa Longo Borghini win Trofeo Alfredo Binda and GP Plouay, Lucinda Brand win Thüringen Ladies Tour, Chloe Hosking’s stage win at Ladies Tour of Norway, and Lizzie Deignan’s win at the Tour de Suisse and the inaugural Paris-Roubaix Femmes.
Cordon-Ragot also plays an important role behind the scenes in creating progress for the women’s peloton as the co-vice-president of the Association Française des Coureures Cyclistes (AFCC), a national women’s association founded in 2019 to campaign for the professional recognition of female cyclists.
This year, Cordon-Ragot’s and the AFCC’s efforts led to the French Cycling Federation (FCF) issuing professional racing licences to top-tier female road cyclists for the first time in 2021.
It sometimes seems like Van der Poel doesn’t need any outside assistance at all. His jaw-dropping talent paired with his spontaneous mind-set means he sort of does what he wants, when he wants. Gianni Vermeersch, then, hasn’t been the puppyish kind of domestique that never leaves your side, but he has become a valuable Classics asset for Alpecin-Fenix.
“Compare him with ex-striker Erwin Vandenbergh,” said team boss Christoph Roodhooft in a niche footballing analogy earlier this year. “You didn’t see him much during the game, but he was always in the right place at the right time. Gianni is race smart. You don’t have to explain to him how the race works. When you give him an order, he always fulfills it. Even if a hurricane passes, he will still be at the appointment.”
He helped Van der Poel to victory at Strade Bianche, and went on to play a prominent role throughout the spring, even helping to set up a sprint win for Tim Merlier at the Giro d’Italia. You’d actually look at his Classics results and be forgiven for thinking they belonged to a team leader: 9th at E3, 10th at Gent-Wevelgem, 7th at Tour of Flanders, 15th at Paris-Roubaix. That’s the sign of a rider who can assist Van der Poel deep into the world’s biggest races.
It’s also worth remembering that Vermeersch has always been more of a cycle-cross rider, only focusing properly on the road in the past couple of years. In that respect, even at 28, it seems like there’s significant room for improvement, and if he can take another step next year, he could add an even more important tactical element to Van der Poel’s armoury.
American Leah Thomas arrived at the Movistar Team along with Annemiek van Vleuten and Emma Norsgaard, after her Equipe Paulé Ka team imploded late in 2020. The 32-year-old’s diesel engine and her never-say-die attitude proved to be one of the most important forces in propelling the Spanish WorldTeam to third overall in the UCI World Rankings. Team manager Eusebio Unzué said after signing her “Leah is the final piece we were missing to create a balanced, strong group” and “having her aboard will allow us to support Annemiek even better, while also aiming at great results over the course of the season.”
Thomas was the last teammate with Van Vleuten in Strade Bianche and again at the Tour of Flanders, where she softened up the field with attacks then controlled the chase after Van Vleuten launched her winning solo move. She was a key teammate for Van Vleuten in the rest of the Classics, too – including for Van Vleuten’s podiums at the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège – and at the Ladies Tour of Norway and Ceratizit Challenge by La Vuelta, both of which Van Vleuten won.
Toward the end of the season, Thomas showed her own abilities with the overall win at the Tour de l’Ardèche, where she won stage 2 from a breakaway that gained more than seven minutes on most of the peloton.
Movistar may regret not offering Thomas more than a one-year deal, because the Trek-Segafredo squad were quick to recognize her talents and snap her up on a contract that runs through 2023, with director Ina Teutenberg calling her a “solid teammate who takes her chances in small breaks and by herself is a strong time-triallist” and saying “with Leah, we know that she is a reliable worker for her leaders and is good at taking the opportunities which come her way. I think she will be a great addition to the team”.