Road captains set the tone for a team, providing the catalyst for victory but also representing the outfit’ s ethos. Pro cycling shin es the spotlight on the most influential riders in the peloton
James Witts takes a deep dive into the world of the road captain, who sets the tactics, but also the tone, for a cycling team.
Adversity can be a better stimulus than the good times. EF-Nippo’s Mitch Docker recalls when the 2019 Vuelta a España went badly wrong for the team on stage 5, and how they turned their race around.
“We had a big crash and lost Rigo Urán and Hugh Carthy. Tejay van Garderen pulled out the next day. We’d lost our GC men, it was a disaster. But I thought, ‘It’s time to step up. These boys need firing up and we need to think about our next goal.’
“I told Sergio Higuita to follow Lawson Craddock and Dani Martínez to follow me and Logan Owen. From that moment we became a five-man unit and made that Vuelta happen. Sergio won stage 18.”
Docker had to be positive and motivating – in that challenging race, the Australian exhibited the traits required of arguably the most important member of the team. The road captain protects the leader, reads the race and calls the shots. But their true value lies in setting a team’s culture.
The road captain is the in-race conduit between the DS in the team car and his or her team-mates, a rider who the team trusts to change strategy on the ground if the situation demands. At SD Worx you have Christine Majerus. On the men’s side, there’s Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Iljo Keisse and, of course, Luke Rowe at the Ineos Grenadiers.
Physically, the road captain has to be tough. They’re often uber-domestiques, resistant to mental and physical fatigue. “Not quite,” laughs Docker. “But how can I instruct the guys if I can’t make it over the hill? How can I give them feedback if they say, ‘Mitch, that’s all well and good but where the f*ck were you? You were dropped early on.’ So when I became a road captain at EF, I was like, f*ck, I need to be a better rider than I ever was, which inspired me to train harder.”
Physiologically, it’s about high aerobic capacities and maintaining a high level of that capacity to ride strongly in the wind. In cycling, that’s a given. What’s subtler but more specialised is tactical acumen. “Simon Clarke was a master,” says Docker. “He loved the technical aspects. He knew how far until the next climb, its average gradient and length. He knew the terrain and racing like the back of his hand. I’m a different road captain. I have a vague idea of what’s going on in a race but rely more on the DS for that. I see the road captain as someone who’s in tune with how the riders are feeling, of binding the team together, of helping to create a positive atmosphere.”
AN INFLUENTIAL FORCE
Listeners of The Cycling Podcast will be aware of Docker. His mullet, moustache, openness and ability to spin a good yarn make him stand out. Docker’s road-captain persona is one of confidenceboosting, squeezing out that extra watt or two from riders for whom falling energy levels are followed by falling morale. But, says Docker, his rise through the ranks didn’t come naturally.
“When I was at Mitchelton, one of the team doctors, Peter Barnes, asked me if I was aware of how much influence I had over the rest of the team. It was the end of a grand tour and I was exhausted and moping around. The doctor said, ‘Hey Mitch, I know you’re tired – everyone’s tired – but you have a massive impact on the team. You being tired at the dinner table brings the rest of the team down.’
“At that point, I started to see the responsibility of being the guy who brings the energy. When you don’t feel like bringing it, you still need to bring it. Everyone’s used to seeing you as that guy, so when you’re not, it’s a massive shift. That’s opposed to someone who’s not upbeat all the time. You don’t notice them that much.
“I started to see it as a burden. But those comments made me
happy. So, when I was like, f*ck this, I’m f*cking p*ssed off and came into the hotel all sad clown, I’d be like, what did Barnsey say? That helped me to become a better road captain.”
Docker’s outsized influence on a group has a name. According to Norwegian sports psychologist Willi Railo, the right-hand man of former England football manager Sven-Göran Eriksson, this kind of character is a ‘cultural architect’. After one particularly strenuous session, Railo noticed how Eriksson entrusted David Beckham to communicate his messages and methods to the rest of the squad, and the cultural architect was born, or at least named.
“Essentially, a cultural architect is someone who has the ability to impact the mindset of a group,” explains sports psychologist Tom Young, author of The Making of the Leader. “They represent the culture of the team. What do we aspire to? What are the values? What are the standards? What is this team about?”
Railo suggested that these individuals shouldn’t number more than five in a squad. Any more and the messages can become confused and inconsistent. In the case of cycling, they don’t necessarily all need to be ‘official’ road captains – just individuals who forge a positive team spirit between a group of people.
“We have several leaders in our team,” says 36-year-old Daryl Impey, road captain at Israel Start-Up Nation. “Michael Woods always has a super-positive attitude. Then you have Sep Vanmarcke. He’s the classics road captain and brings the group together. When things turn bad, like the weather or equipment not working properly, he’s always, ‘Okay, we can’t change things now but if we don’t race in a positive way, we might as well just go home.’ Chris Froome is a strong presence, too.”
Physically and emotionally Froome doesn’t necessarily fit the road-captain mould, though it’s a role he played at the Tour de France this summer. While he’s racked up seven grand tour victories, as Philippa York assessed on Cyclingnews, “He’s not the rider who’s had to give his all for the team early on, get dropped 100km from the finish and struggle to make the time cut day after day. Froome has been a winner, one of those riders that dominates and crushes the other leaders, not someone used to going back for bottles or giving up his food. That’s why he’s been a champion, and history tells us those types rarely flourish in the guiding role that a road captain needs.”
LEAVING EGO AT THE DOOR
American journalist Sam Walker unpicked the characteristics of captains in his book The Captain Class. Walker concluded that a good captain was representative of the group and rarely the most talented. They were willing to bend or even break the rules. They put in the hard work and let others shine.
“Road captains are masters of forging strong relationships,” says Young. “This is at the forefront of leadership. We tend to associate leadership with
“I SEE THE ROAD CAPTAIN AS SOMEONE WHO’S IN TUNE WITH HOW THE RIDERS ARE FEELING, OF BINDING THE TEAM TOGETHER, OF HELPING TO CREATE A POSITIVE ATMOSPHERE”
charismatic individuals who give big speeches. That isn’t necessarily the case. You must know how to build relationships with a range of personalities. It’s about trust and that’s hard as everyone builds trust differently. For example, an extroverted style might motivate you but it might turn me off. So, it’s having the ability to know that and awareness to flex your style. For me, relationships are at the heart of being a good road captain.”
Empathy is key, explains Docker: “When I was involved in the leadout train, I was the last rider before the sprinter but never felt my role had much to do with the sprint. Instead, it was important that the guy following me was confident, was feeling awesome. These guys need to be told how good they are and how the other riders aren’t as strong as them. All of a sudden you have a guy on your wheel who’s pumped and ready to go. That’s how I’d want to feel.”
Docker’s positive reflections have psychobiological foundations. It’s proven that positive behaviour releases testosterone. That affects physiological output that again feeds back to more positive behaviour. In other words, you put a physically capable rider in a loop where they generate increasing levels of energy-fuelling testosterone for increasing power output.
VALUE OF EXPERIENCE
Young highlights that the likes of Docker and Impey have emotional intelligence: an unmeasurable mix of nature and nurture. It’s no coincidence that they became road captains deep into their careers. They’re domestiques whose sacrifice has earned respect. “Experience helps as younger riders know you’ve been to these races numerous times,” says Impey. “Over time, you learn from others, too. Listening is vital. When I was racing with Woodsy in the Ardennes, I’d ask him, what do you want to hear? What don’t you want to hear? He’d say he doesn’t want to be constantly asked by the other riders how he’s feeling! He might not want to say it to them because we’re supporting him, so I’ll pass it onto the guys. You also need a certain presence. Just look at Luke Rowe. He’s road captain for a reason – he will not be moved.”
But it’s off the bike where the captain’s role becomes even more important. Pro cyclists can be away from home for up to 250 days a year, at training camps and races. That’s 250 days and nights often with the same individuals. At breakfast together. Wandering around the same soulless hotel foyer together. Throw in fatigue and homesickness and you have a recipe for team disharmony.
“When you’re racing, you focus on the task at hand and everyone knows their job,” says Young. “It’s different off the bike. There’s time to kill, boredom’s rife and that’s when stress rises. That’s when a road captain earns their money. A rider might want to talk a lot and they’ll listen. Or a rider might want to read and relax, and they know to let them.”
Or, in the case of Docker, knowing when to shuffle the cards. “A few years ago, instead of heading back to our rooms after dinner and bitching about teammates, I said let’s sit down and play Uno. I completely underestimated the impact
it had. It was a selection camp for the Tour de France and everyone was stressed out. But that simple activity lightened the mood, stopped us focusing on cycling and has stuck ever since.”
BE HONEST, NOT EMOTIONAL
Easing stress should be a cultural pillar for every team. As should telling the truth. At Team BikeExchange, they have the ‘honesty hour’ where the team openly feeds back after every stage. “Whatever was said on the bus stayed on the bus,” says Impey. It’s something he’s since brought to the Israel set-up. “It’s good for the culture of a team. It’s about being honest and removing the emotion from the situation. It’s all about knowing the main goal and working towards it.”
Or goal harmony, as Young terms it. “That’s important, especially as it’s impossible to have team harmony all the time. In fact, some of the most successful sporting teams in the world feature an assortment of characters. We call it ‘cognitive diversity’ – the ability to think differently. This is embraced by a team and nurtured by the captain. They’ll identify those differences either intuitively or by something more formulaic like profiling. Sometimes, there’ll be personality clashes. But a team must always have goal harmony.”
It’s a simplistic philosophy that can often lose its way. Where UAE Team Emirates’ Tour target was simple – support Tadej Pogacar – the Ineos Grenadiers’ objectives looked muddled. Was it all about Geraint Thomas? Or Richard Carapaz? Would Tao Geoghegan Hart, another recent grand tour winner, really be happy in a supporting role? The nadir came on stage 11 when road captain Rowe failed to make the time cut for the first time in his career. Movistar’s blunt trident of 2019 - Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde - is another example of the whole being less than the sum of its parts.
ALL ABOUT THE TEAM
Ego is a stumbling block to progression and suppressing it isn’t natural for pro cyclists. There were 184 riders lined up for this year’s Tour de France. Every single one of them would have spent their junior years winning. In France, just 13 of them won a stage. That’s not unusual – even the best sprinters lose far more races than they win.
“There’s definitely a mindset shift from winning on your own to becoming a relatively small fish in a team,” says Young. “Making the transition from junior to senior is a challenge for younger athletes. And the team as a whole. How do you get the rider to ride for someone else, apart from being paid?
The ones who progress are the ones who maintain personal motivation and objectives but in a team environment.”
That, both Docker and Impey say, is what being road captain has given back to them – another challenge late in their careers to work for. For now anyway when it comes to the Australian. This season is the last of his professional career, one that started in 2006 with Drapac-Porsche. Docker is the embodiment of a domestique and road captain, flogging himself for the good of his team. He’s accrued the knowledge to forge strong views where he feels the sport should head.
“Some of our best results happen at the Vuelta a España. That’s not because it’s the easiest grand tour but because it’s a more balanced squad. At the Tour de France, every team throws their biggest riders at it. But what happens when you put together a team of winners? They don’t work that well. At the Vuelta, you have guys who can work on the flat, a couple climbers, rouleurs, great leaders. You’re not relying on rock stars; instead, you have a team that gels, which gives every rider that few per cent extra. At WorldTour level, everyone’s on a pretty level physiological footing, so teamwork can make a huge difference. If I was to become a DS or team owner, that’s how I’d build a team. The results would follow.”