A Significant Other

Matt Rendell

Read November 2004

Few sports have the equivalent of road cycling's domestique. While every team sport has more and less talented players, hardly anywhere else is one player explicitly required to sacrifice himself for another. A domestique is, therefore, someone who is at the pinnacle of their profession, one of the two hundred or so very best exponents of their craft in the world, and yet virtually forever required to abstain from seeking personal glory. Matt Rendell set out to write the story of these truly unsung heroes.

Rendell has followed Colombian cycling for some years. In 2002, he decided to write a book that focused on the life of a domestique, as told through the story of one rider, Colombian Victor Hugo Peña of US Postal-Berry Floors. This is Peña's story of the 2003 Tour de France, leavened with several sections about the Tour itself.

In one sense, Rendell could hardly have picked a better year. Peña had a dramatic prelude to the 2003 Tour, living through a burglary. He went on to win the yellow jersey after the team time trial, on account of his performance in the prologue. In doing so, he became the first Colombian ever to don that jersey. He had other good performances in the Tour, and thus should have given the author much to write about.

Rendell focuses the book on the epic stage 15 from Bagnères-de-Bigorre to Luz-Ardiden, the stage when Lance Armstrong eventually stamped his authority over that Tour. In a sense, it is a terrible choice. Peña was hardly a contributor on that stage; it's ironic that a book that was meant to highlight the role of a domestique would focus on the one stage when that domestique contributed virtually nothing. More broadly, it suggests that Rendell is unfaithful to his mission, seizing on the most dramatic moment of the Tour and thereby focusing the book on the team leader's glory. (In fact, Lance benefited enormously from having his climbing domestique, José Luis Rubiera, calm him down and bring him back into the lead pack after his fall. Sadly, Rendell dedicates only one sentence to this magnificent bit of shepherding by a domestique.)

More broadly, Rendell fails to take us into Peña's mind. He alternates the authorship of sections between himself and Peña, which hardly accomplishes the same thing. This device also makes for a somewhat jarring read, because Rendell's prose can sometimes get carried away, while Peña's is uniformly bland. The book also suffers from poor editing (both Rendell and Peña tell the same story, at one point), and while Rendell devotes some of the book to cycling strategy, it's not clear there's enough to really teach a beginner to the sport—while there's too much detail for someone who already understands it.

The sorry footnote to Rendell's book is that, despite his 2003 successes, Peña was left out of the US Postal team during Lance Armstrong's historic sixth Tour win in 2004. That may say more about the domestique than this entire book does.