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What do you bring to the race?

pelotonJuly is Tour de France time in my house. And you would think that after being married to an avid cyclist for 25 years I’d have a better handle on the rules and customs of this storied annual ritual.

But no, like many American viewers, I still end up scratching my head with confusion over a particular tactic or turn of events.

Nevertheless, I enjoy following the race because there is always more to learn, and I have at least mastered the most important truth about stage racing: Just as in life, the success of the team depends on a complex blend of individual strengths.

Whether surging with the collective energy of the peloton or breaking away in pursuit of a stage win, riders are always aware of the role they play in the overall system. The shape of their bodies, the structure of their muscles, and their psychological dispositions determine what special skills they can be counted on to deliver.

Domestiques. Supporting the team’s other specialists, these riders take the lead for a time to give the others a rest, scoot back to the team car to fetch water or nourishment, surrender a wheel or even their whole bike when another rider has technical problems. Domestiques are all about team.

Climbers. Pursuing the “King of the Mountains” jersey for the team, these typically lightweight riders specialize in attacking the inclines, riding hundreds of kilometers on consecutive days through brutal climbs in the Alps and the Pyrenees. With a very high threshold for pain, Climbers are all about endurance.

Time Trialists. Aiming to reduce the team’s collective overall time, these riders maximize their efficiency, using knowledge of the course and aerodynamic positioning to race against the clock. Time trialists are all about discipline.

Sprinters. Nailing down stage wins and the prestigious green jersey for the team, these riders are gifted with the kind of fast-twitch muscle fiber that allows them to achieve short bursts of extreme speed even at the end of a long day of racing. Sprinters are all about speed.

General Classification (G.C.) Contenders. Excelling in more than one specialty—often climbing and time trialing—these are the guys who end up with the yellow jersey at the end of the race. Accumulating the lowest individual time from start to finish, these riders benefit from the support of the other specialists while personally investing in the team’s success by contending in every aspect of the race. G.C. Contenders are paradoxically all about self and all about leadership at the same time.

In real life, of course, our roles aren’t always so clearly delineated. One day we’re a sprinter, the next a domestique. But isn’t it fun to think about which of the cycling archetypes feels most like the real you? Which one do you choose most often?

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