“Domestiques aren’t simply kindhearted folks who just want to help others; real domestiques are hired killers like everyone else.”
Nowadays a lot of biographies are like a Facebook page; a carefully filtered selection of stories and anecdotes chosen to paint the author in the most glamorous possible light. Fortunately every now and then one slips through that seems to be based far more on harsh reality than narcissistic ego stroking. For mine these are the glittering needles in today’s oversized non-fiction haystack and Domestique is one such book, co-written by Tom Southam, detailing the warts-and-all career of Charly Wegelius, a former British pro and current directeur sportif for Garmin-Sharp, who spent his entire adult riding career as, essentially, a professional sacrificial lamb.
This is not a tale of glorious victories, for despite riding at the highest level for 11 seasons and competing in 14 Grand Tours, Wegelius himself won virtually nothing in over a decade as a professional cyclist. Whilst an accomplished Junior and Under 23 rider, things were very different once Wegelius hit the senior ranks. Attempting to break into the European professional scene in the decade before British Cycling really got its act together, the career path for the York-raised son of a British mother and Finnish father was far from clear or certain. Riding for a pittance on small and typically grossly underfunded teams, staying in modest multi-share accommodation, driving himself to races, washing his own kit. That he ultimately landed himself a contract in Italy with the greatest team on the planet at the time, Mapei, is testimony as much to his sheer determination as his talent on the bike.
One of the true delights of this book is the candour of the language. Here’s just a small taste of what you can look forward to…
“Vendee U might have been the best team in France, but their accommodation was like a fucking terrorist cell.”
“I was like a dog with two dicks,” is how Wegelius described feeling when visited by two of Mapaei’s team managers before the 1999 U23 World Championship Time Trial in Verona.
“Never mind EPO, I could have gone much, much faster if I was just fed properly.”
“It was undeniable he was a champion cyclist, but he was also a fragile guy, with a huge ego and a coke habit,” is how Wegelius recalls the Italian legend, Marco Pantani.
“Being English in an Italian system meant he was due to eat a lot of shit in his career – and I knew just what that tasted like,” when referring to fellow Italian-based Brit and co-author of this book, Tom Southam.
Plenty of familiar names crop up during Wegelius’ journey from Vendee U in France, to Mapei, De Nardi and Liquigas in Italy and Silence-Lotto in Belgium, providing fascinating and often surprising insights into many of the key players and races in world cycling during first decade of the 21st Century. Di Luca. Zabel. Sassi. Cipollini. Brailsford. Wiggins. Evans. It isn’t all rosy, mind you. At times the book exudes an inescapable sense of frustration, ambivalence, even bitterness. But with no punches pulled it’s always interesting and, occasionally, laugh out loud funny.
Given the timing of Wegelius’ career, the dark arts of doping get a mention of course. Mostly it’s mentioned fleetingly in relation to other teams and riders. However there is a tense undercurrent provided by the fact that Wegelius himself ‘suffered’ from naturally high hematocrit levels – a major problem for a professional rider in the early 2000’s. This caused him trouble on more than one occasion, and nearly cost him his job (and possibly career) with Italian team, De Nardi, when he failed a hematocrit test prior to the 2003 Giro de Lombardia. Wegelius also offers a frank opinion on the so-called Omertà, suggesting the media built it up to be something far more sinister and Godfather-esque than it ever was in reality.
Like those in many different professions, Wegelius’ disillusionment with his chosen vocation grew with age. He fell out of love with the sport, and eventually, after more ups and downs than the Ardennes Classics, it forced him from the peloton entirely.
Domestique is a refreshingly candid account of the real world of professional cycling. But be warned. As Wegelius says himself, “it’s no fucking fairytale.”