Tour de Teamwork

Don't forget the supporting riders who made victory possible.

Bogdan Cristel/Reuters
Astana rider and leader's yellow jersey Alberto Contador of Spain (r.) celebrates his overall victory on the podium with teammates after the final 21st stage of the 96th Tour de France cycling race between Montereau-Fault-Yonne and Paris on Sunday.

Alberto Contador proved he was the most talented rider in this year's Tour de France. And Lance Armstrong proved he still has the heart – and (almost) the legs – of a champion, finishing third in his comeback bid. But the real winner may be teamwork itself.

That's welcome news for a race that's fallen on hard times. The widespread use of illicit performance-enhancing drugs in recent years had turned the three-week endurance contest into a pharmaceutical competition. Critics started calling it the Tour de Farce. But the sport has cracked down and this year's Tour had not a single doping incident.

With chemicals no longer the deciding factor, team strategy and tactics took center stage.

It's not often apparent when watching the race on TV, but behind every great Tour cyclist are eight supporting teammates – not to mention mechanics, masseurs, chefs, and a director. Their job is to do whatever it takes to help the team leader excel.

That means riding in front, shielding the lead cyclist from the wind, and defending him from other teams' attacks.

Take British sprint specialist Mark Cavendish. If you watched only highlights on this year's Tour, you saw the man, nicknamed "the missile," outpedal his rivals in the final 200 meters of several stages. What you didn't see was a succession of his Columbia-HTC teammates pulling him toward the front of the peloton, or main pack, allowing Cavendish to conserve energy in their slipstream before rocketing to the finish line. "I always say that I'm put in the best position by the guys," he said.

So vital are the supporting riders, called domestiques, that the Tour winner traditionally shares his prize money with the team.

"Self-interest is isolating," Mr. Armstrong has written. "Teamwork is not only performance-enhancing, it's comforting.... The fact is, no one ascends alone."

Armstrong, a 7-time champion, was used to being the benefactor of team sacrifice. This year, he had to swallow pride and work on behalf of another man's triumph.

He and Contador rode for the same prestigious team, Astana. Early on, there were serious questions about which man was truly the lead rider. Intra-team tensions flared. But when Contador showed he was the best on Stage 15, Armstrong put the interests of the team first. "As far as I'm concerned, I'm happy to be a domestique," he said after Contador's performance that day. "I'm proud of him." Afterward, Armstrong proved true to his word, helping Contador claim his second yellow jersey.

Success is often seen as a product of talent. But as Malcolm Gladwell argues in his latest book, "Outliers," it's the result of hard labor – and favorable conditions. Authentic teamwork can seem like a lost art in professional sports today. So when you see the yellow jersey, think of the teammates who made the victory possible.

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