Spotting Tour de France winners? Look at the back of the pack.

The Tour de France is in its earliest stages, and now is the perfect time to teach kids about the importance of team players in the sport of cycling, and in life.

Jacky Naegelen/Reuters
Race leader's yellow jersey holder Astana team rider Vincenzo Nibali of Italy cycles in the pack during 155 km third stage of the Tour de France cycling race from Cambridge to London July 7.

While past Tour de France cycling events have given parents plenty of fodder to teach kids about behaviors to avoid, there are still enduring positive take-aways. Case in point, the role of the "domestique," the team player who’s not in it to win it.

It has always been difficult to explain the selfless nature of the domestique position to our four sons.

My husband, a former amateur cyclist, made sure all four of our sons were raised watching the annual cycling race, which covers 2,200 miles over the course of 21 days, between 20 and 22 teams, with nine riders on each team.

While our boys are immersed for those 21-days each summer watching the Tour de France, during the rest of the year they are watching American-based team sports and the TV analysis that goes with them.

That American sporting mindset, while giving a nod to team spirit, all too often focuses only on the leader, the winner, or athletes who are the face of commercial product lines.

My guess is that we are not going to see Gatorade or Nike with a dynamic new product named “Domestique” any time soon.

That’s because a domestique, while the key to success in the Tour, is a support rider who cycles to build an advantage for his team leader, not for his own personal win.

This rider reminds me of a parent giving his all to help a child succeed.

It is also in line with the “servant leadership” ideas of Robert Greenleaf who wrote an essay in 1970 stating, “A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong.”

While many traditionally view a leader as one who aspires to be at the top of the pyramid, the servant-leader is the one at the bottom of the pyramid, building the base by placing the needs of others first. Servant-leaders – the domestiques in our daily lives – help people develop and perform as highly as possible.

To put it in kid terms, the servant-leader is the unappreciated turtle named Max at the bottom of the turtle pile in the story "Yertle the Turtle" by Dr. Seuss. In the story, the king learns that he’d better show some appreciation for servant-leaders like Max, because if you pull that turtle from the bottom of the stack, the king will topple into the mud and stay there.

Each team has a team leader who is the person most likely to win the Tour, or claim stage victories. The prize money for the overall winner is roughly €2.2 million (approximately US$2.9 million), split among nine team members. Individual stage winners get €8,000 (approximately US$10,800) and it is also shared.

Also, domestiques are not always the junior riders, but can often be senior statesmen of the Tour whose job it is to bring water from the team cars, to help pace a team leader back after a break down, or to give up their bike so that the team leader can continue.

These supreme athletes work to deliver stage victories and protect their lead riders through crowded sprints, poor weather conditions, and even crazy fans who run alongside the course dressed in costumes.

Domestiques train just as hard as the leader and have a wealth of knowledge and experience to offer over the course of riding thousands of miles of the Tour de France.

My youngest son Quin was doing just fine with all the aspects of the domestique’s role until he learned that if the scenario came up wherein both the domestique and the team’s leader were coming to the finish with an equal chance of winning a stage, the domestique would throttle back and let the leader take it.

Also, if the leader’s bike were to get a flat, the domestique would hand over his bike to the leader.

“Whoa, best helper ever,” Quin marveled. “Obedient like a dog. I think I’d want to be the leader.”

My oldest son Zoltan used to say it was “unfair” that the domestique did all the work and went unsung.

Today, as an avid cyclist who is studying international relations with a minor in French at Virginia Commonwealth University, he has a completely different understanding of the dynamic.

“Les domestiques are an essential part of the Tour because most people don’t realize how hard it is to ride by yourself,” Zoltan explained in an email today.

“Each person in the team has a role. These guys train together every day. They decide before the race begins who is going for le maillot jeune (the yellow jersey of the leader). So if one guy says ‘screw you guys I’m going for the win’ it would be a Julius Caesar moment for the team.”

I don’t mind telling you it’s very satisfying to see a son grow into the understanding of this kind of team player role.

As much as we want our kids to be the leaders, it’s valuable to teach them that to be a winner in life you don’t have to be the one at the top of the podium. If you decide to tune in to the coverage of the Tour de France on over the next 18 days, see if you can help the kids spot these Tour winners as they cross the line at the back of the pack.

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