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Tour diaries: Trek domestique

James Witts
26 Jan 2016

For some the Tour offers little chance for glory. Cyclist shadows Trek's Markel Irizar to get inside the mind of a domestique.

It was meant as an innocent comment, but I now find myself blushing bright red as the room erupts with laughter.

It’s around 7.30pm on 23rd July 2015 in Le Corbier, south-east France. Trek Factory Racing’s 35-year-old domestique Markel Irizar is lying face down on the massage table in front of me, while soigneur Elvio Barcella attempts to squeeze the toxins out of Irizar’s limbs that have built up over the 186.5km of today’s stage of the Tour de France. Through the hotel windows I can see the mountains of the Alps bathed in evening sunlight.

‘Nice view,’ I say. Unfortunately, my comment comes at the exact same moment that Irizar rises from the table, does a 180° flip and lays back down, rearranging the towel to cover his nudity.

Markel Irizar

‘Er, I meant the mountain,’ I add hurriedly. The blast of laughter hits me like a shock wave. While I wish for the ground to swallow me up, I’m also happy to see the wide crease that spreads across Markel’s cheeks – facial not buttocks. It’s certainly a nice change from the grim countenance I’d witnessed earlier that afternoon.

The 18th stage of the Tour, from Gap to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne, featured one hors catégorie climb, a 21.7km ascent of the Col du Glandon – a tough challenge, but with an average gradient of ‘only’ 5.1%. 

The next day’s Queen stage includes another 4,000+ metres of climbing, followed by Stage 20’s ascents of the Galibier and Alpe d’Huez before the final day in Paris. With no pure climbers or sprinters left in the team, Stage 18 was Trek’s final chance to win a stage of the 2015 Tour de France. 

That meant Irizar was at full throttle from the off, with the aim of protecting Bob Jungels and delivering him for the win. But it wasn’t to be. AG2R’s Romain Bardet soloed away from the pack to take victory. Jungels finished fourth.

Harder every year

Markel Irizar

‘Today was crazy from the start,’ says Irizar, lifting his head off the massage table. ‘Giant [Alpecin] and us pushed hard before guys from Lotto-Jumbo took over. But that’s how it’s been this week. You know, this is my fourth Tour and the last seven days have been the hardest so far, although not because of the parcours. No, the speeds have been really high. Some days we’ve had 2,500m of climbing and were averaging 46kmh. Crazy.’ 

I’ve always wondered if, within their world-class sporting amphitheatre, elite cyclists are so highly trained that they are partially immune to the suffering involved in intense exertion, or whether they find riding a stage of a Grand Tour as lung-burstingly painful as recreational riders whose sedentary vocations generally mean each and every ride can be painful. 

But Irizar and his elite brethren’s collective gaunt, grey visages suggest they go into parts of the pain cave that recreational riders simply don’t know exist. Today that meant over four and a half hours of near redlining. This is suffering at speed. 

Markel Irizar

‘I guess you feed off the pain but the feelings aren’t good. For the GC guys, OK, things might not be as bad. But for us domestiques the pain is really bad,’ says Irizar, revealing things will get worse before they better. ‘Tomorrow you are scared
if you’re not a climber. Tomorrow for 100 guys it is all about survival. We have an uphill start for 15km so the stage will be smashed in pieces from the off. It will be a nightmare. A nightmare.’

Ever-increasing pain

The following day’s Queen Stage turns out to be as brutal as Irizar feared. His glycogen-depleted thousand-yard stare is as dark as the highest modulus of carbon. Directeur sportif Alain Gallopin spends half the race concerned that Irizar and his fellow domestique, Grégory Rast, won’t make the stage cut-off. (Calculating the cut-off involves an equation that includes the winner’s finishing time and the average speed of the stage.) At the finish line Irizar and Rast make the cut-off with just minutes to spare.

‘The racing’s definitely got harder over the years,’ says Irizar, who turned professional in 2004, racing for the now-disbanded Basque outfit Euskaltel-Euskadi. He stayed there for six seasons before moving to Radioshack, which has since morphed into Trek Factory Racing. ‘I compete for around 85 days a year and they’re nearly all tough. Very tough.’

Markel Irizar

Hailing from the Basque region of Spain, Irizar has the Basque trait of repetition to express intensity – very hot is ‘bero bero’. Basques are also known for their sincerity and honesty. When Irizar says racing has got harder, you believe him. 

‘We’re nearly in Paris and my legs are very painful,’ he says. ‘You’re also tired, and when you’re so tired you can’t keep your heart rate so high. From the prologue in Utrecht to now, my maximum heart rate has dropped from 175bpm to 157bpm. Your heart muscle is tired like your skeletal muscles.

‘I’m also at my lowest weight of the race,’ he adds. ‘I started at 80kg and am down to 78kg. We have scales in the bus and check our weight before and after every stage, and aim to keep the same weight. So if I finish a stage 2kg lighter than before, I need to drink three litres, as much of that loss is water. I also drank four or five litres on the bike today, which isn’t too bad. When Ruben [Plaza] won Stage 16 it was sweltering and I drank 13 litres of fluid. It was unbelievable. Unbelievable.’

Markel Irizar

On the toughest Alpine or Pyrenean stages, a Tour rider can burn up to 8,500 calories. ‘That’s probably why I’m craving a burger,’ says Irizar. ‘Next week I will head home but I’m soon off to San Sebastian for more racing. After that I’ll come home
again for a couple weeks before the Vuelta and have a huge burger. And an ice cream too.’

Basque blood in the veins

Home is, and always has been, the small town of Onati in the Basque ‘country’ of northern Spain. Irizar was born in 1980. Like his teammate Haimar Zubeldia, he has a Basque first name, a novelty in post-Franco Spain. 

He’s married to Alaitz and they have three sons under 10 – Xabat, Aimar and Unai. Irizar’s mother and grandma live close by. For Irizar, like most Basques, family is at the heart of everything. ‘I’m away for up to 160 days each year so, of course, I miss them,’ he says. They visited Irizar at both rest days – Pau and Gap – and clearly he’d like to see more of them. 

Markel Irizar

‘Then again, when I’m at home for longer periods, I miss the guys and racing,’ he adds. ‘It was my dream to be a professional rider and you can’t have everything in life. When you chase for something, you also lose something.’

So would Irizar wish the regimented lifestyle, stretches of fatherhood by Skype and the physical pain for his three boys when they grow up? ‘You suffer a lot and some guys wouldn’t want that, but it would be a dream to drive to the mountains in our camper van and support my kids racing the Tour. It’s a privilege to race professionally.’

You don’t need to dig deep to find the source of his sense of perspective. Growing up, his parents ran a travel agency. For many, self-employment liberates, but for Irizar’s father it imprisoned. He drank heavily. The business suffered. Markel was 18 when his father committed suicide. Irizar has gone public as saying, ‘It was an act of love. He knew he was the cause of our difficulties, and by taking himself out of the equation we would be better off.’ Seventeen years later, his father’s name remains on the doorbell of his mother’s apartment.

Markel Irizar

Irizar wrapped his father’s ashes in a Basque flag and scattered them over the nearby Alona Mountain. He tempered his grief by burying himself in cycling in and around Onati – easily done in a town whose name roughly translates as ‘place of many hills’. But his battles continued four years later when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He’d dated Alaitz for a year and the doctors warned he might never have kids. Irizar beat cancer and proved the medics wrong. ‘We all have battles in life, whether you’re a professional cyclist or not, and we all have good days and bad. But you must carry on. You must.’

The story of the domestique has been well documented – the tale of sacrifice in support of the team leader – but it is about more than faceless servitude. Markel Irizar has exposed as false the claim by three-time Tour podium finisher Claudio Chiappucci that Sagan is the only rider with ‘character and charisma’. 

Of course, against the Alpine backdrop of stage 18 of the 2015 Tour de France, that wasn’t the only thing he exposed.

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