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The Invisible Man: The life of a domestique

Joe Robinson
4 Mar 2019

Cyclist chatted to Tim Declercq about life as a domestique, not finishing races and being scared of descending

You know it's not all sunshine, rainbows and WorldTour victories at Deceuninck-Quick Step. Fair enough, they did win 77 times last year, over 20 times more than anyone else, but it doesn't come without the tireless work of a hidden few. 

Because for every singing race car there's a chugging diesel. For every Julian Alaphilippe or Elia Viviani dancing to yet another win, there is an Iljo Keisse or Rémi Cavagna churning along on the front, long before the television cameras have gone live. The peloton's invisible men.

One of those invisible men is Tim Declercq. An imposing man of 6ft 3in (190.5cm), born in the Flandrien city of Leuven with a reverberating voice that could fill a room.

Shuffling around the Deceuninck-Quick Step media day with a coffee and muffin in hand, he is first to greet the reporters, not that many want to hear his story.

Instead, he is shouldered past by reporter after reporter trying to get the word once young Remco, charismatic Julian or wise Philippe arrive.

So, Cyclist joined Declercq at the recent press day in enjoying a coffee and muffin away from the madding crowd to get the inside line on what it's like to be scared of descending, not finish one-day races and be expected to ride on the front for hour after hour after hour after hour.

Cyclist: Is the job of a domestique harder than that of a team leader?

Tim Declercq: No, it's just hard on another level. Every rider in the peloton has their own characteristics as to what they are good at. I am really good at maintaining a sub-maximal wattage for a very, very long time. 

I know I'm not the guy to make those three-minute sprints that win you races but I take what I am good at, improve on that and become the best at what I do. 

Cyc: Do you consider a victory for a teammate to also be yours?

TD: Yes, of course, it's nice if you do a day's worth of work and they win but what is actually better is the appreciation they give you after the race. 

Even if they don't win though, riding on the front is still my job, but the fact we win so much really does help to motivate me into riding that extra kilometre.

Cyc: Do you get nervous before a race?

TD: Oh yeh, I remember my first race for the team at the Vuelta a San Juan back in 2017. I was petrified at the start, I was sitting on the start line and my heart rate was already at 140bpm. 

Then they told me to ride on the front and control the race. I was jumping at every attack no matter how small because of the nerves.

And now at some races like the Tour of Flanders, you can just feel the tension.

We are an international team but the heart of cycling is Flanders and it is the home of the team and myself so you really feel the pressure then. The entire team is very nervous before this race. 

Cyc: San Juan is where you were given your nickname, right? 

TD: Yes, El Tractor. I was on the front for the entire race working for Fernando Gaviria, Tom Boonen and Max Richeze. All day, I was just pulling and pulling and the local press starting calling me El Tractor, the tractor. 

I really like that nickname. I'm no Ferrari engine but I know I am reliable and can pull the pack for a long time so it suits me.

Cyc: What's the hardest race you have ever had to control?

TD: Oh, easy, last year's Tour of Flanders [eventually won by teammate Niki Terpstra]. It was the hardest race I have ever controlled.

We knew that after the way we raced at E3 Harelbeke [also won by Terpstra], with the constant attacking, that every team would be looking at us to do the same thing. 

We didn't want a group going away too early because we knew that Iljo [Keisse] and I would be forced into chasing them alone all day so we just jumped at every single attack from the flag.

Eventually, a group did get away but we had done our job. We had managed to drop off Niki at the Kwaremont on the second ascent and I had done my best ever numbers that day.

Declercq, far right, in high spirits before the start of the Tour of Flanders 2018

Cyc: Your job in one-day races is usually done long before the finish. Do you ever try to finish or do you just step off?

TD: Depends how dead I am. Like at the Tour of Flanders, I just gave my everything for Niki to be at the front for the Kwaremont and then I pulled from the front and the adrenaline disappeared. For 2 minutes I just felt empty, close to death. 

I wanted to finish but in my head I think Kwaremont, Paterburg, Koppenburg Taaienberg, Kruisberg, Kwaremont, Paterberg. No, nope, I'm not doing that. So, instead, I just jumped off the course and took a short cut back to the team bus in Oudernaarde. 

I managed to finish Milan-San Remo early in the year, though, that was nice. I had pulled from the beginning for like five hours but I felt human when I pulled off the front so I rode to the end. [Declercq finished 16 minutes 32 seconds behind winner Vincenzo Nibali.]

Cyc: At stage races, you cannot just step off, you have to make the finish despite all that work. That must be tough?

TD: At the Tour de France last year, I rode on the front on each of the first nine stages. That's something you carry in your legs for the next two weeks for sure and it's probably why I got ill, I went too deep. 

I'm ok at climbing so luckily I'm never in the very last grupetto but one day, I was told to wait for Fernando, the day he eventually abandoned. He was struggling on the hardest stage and I dropped back to him in the last group to help.

We weren't going to make it with the time cut. We still had the Croix de Fer and Alpe d'Huez to go and we were 17 minutes behind with a time cut of 32 minutes. Team manager Davide Bramarti made the call for me to leave Gaviria and ride for myself.

Basically, I had to make up five minutes on the grupetto alone on the Croix de Fer. I reached them 500m from the top, I was suffering so bad. We then rode the descent like crazy horses before Alpe d'Huez. Eventually, we made the finish after the original cut but luckily they extended it. 

Declercq (second in line) reckons Thomas De Ghent is the hardest rider to chase

Cyc: What's it like riding in a grupetto to make a time cut? Is it true you are the peloton's best descenders?

TD: Nowadays, actually, there is a lot less collusion between sprinters, domestiques and lead-out men to ride together and reach the finish. Instead, sprinters are trying to outclimb and drop their rivals, if they can, to put them at risk of being disqualified. 

Although, we do still descend like crazy. I have hit 104kmh before but I like to descend alone if I can. I don't like to descend in a group because I'm constantly worried someone will make a mistake.

Riding 100kmh these days, you need to be on the toptube or you are getting dropped if you stay in the saddle. I did 100kmh in Oman. You think 'What if the bike starts to wobble?' on a set of 25mm tyres, f**k man, it's scary.