For Michael Barry, a childhood love of cycling became a career culminating in rides for pro cycling teams including US Postal and Team Sky. He played the part of domestique, the unsung rider in the peloton whose job is to steer the star man – an Armstrong or a Cavendish – to the yellow jersey. But what began for Barry as an idealistic pursuit of sporting excellence would become tainted by team politics and the use – legal or otherwise – of performance enhancing drugs. Barry retired from the sport in 2012 and weeks later testified against his former team-mate Lance Armstrong as part of the USADA investigation.
Being a domestique seems like a very self-sacrificing role, is that a fair description?
Cycling is a unique sport because it’s a team sport but only one rider crosses the line with his arms in the air. Everybody has a distinct role in making that one rider win. It was something that I found from a young age to be very attractive and unique. When I watched races on television when I was growing up I was amazed how these riders would just bury themselves for the leader and completely empty themselves physically. And then the leader would race off to the finish.
It requires an incredible amount of sacrifice. A good number of the domestiques may never win races in their entire career. It’s something we all become accustomed to and accept. It was something I accepted from a young age. It was a role I was happy to fulfil, especially when I was working for some of the best riders in the sport who went on to win some of the biggest races. To have an integral role in that was satisfying.
What makes a good domestique?
There are the technical aspects: where to ride in the peleton; how to protect the leader; always putting your individual success second to the team and the team’s goals. Being able to accept that you’re not number one and not in the headlines, but taking satisfaction from a job well done.
Some of the best domestiques are really good leaders, in that they lead by example, they lead on the bus, they bring the whole group together and they get the most out of everybody. Some of the first races I did with US Postal when Lance [Armstrong] was there and George Hincapie was there, the director said ‘you just stay by them all the time, you don’t leave them until they attack in the finale and you have to keep them in position all the time’. If they have a flat tyre you give them your wheel.
I think there are fewer and fewer really good domestiques in the peleton. It used to be an honour to be the domestique of a champion. It seems increasingly – and I’m not sure if it’s due to the live coverage of every race and then all of the social networks and the rest of it – but riders are more out to grasp their moment of fame a lot of the time. That changed I think during my career. There are fewer riders that are willing to completely devote themselves to the team cause and the key rider’s victory.
Which do you enjoy riding more – the Olympics or the Tour de France?
They are completely different on a lot of levels. The tour is the biggest event in cycling, and of course the Olympics is the biggest event in sport. The Olympics is fantastic to participate in, because there are so many other sports. You’re not in the kind of bubble that professional cyclists move in the whole season. Obviously the structure of the race is completely different as well, when you compare a three-week race to a one-day race. But overall they are two of the greatest sporting events.
To have participated in both of them was certainly a goal and it was an honour to do that. To cyclists I think having an Olympic medal is important on a national level. But to the actual pro cycling team it wouldn’t be as important as a Tour victory. In cycling terms the Tour de France is a bigger event. And it’s certainly a lot harder event. Just the demands of the race and the distance.
Growing up the Olympics was something I thought about but my goal was to race in the Tour de France and to win the Tour de France.
When you think back across your career, are there riders that you particularly bonded with?
I made a lot of good friends along the way who I still speak with often. [Mark] Cavendish was extremely good at motivating the team, getting everyone behind him, giving them confidence in themselves that they could do the best to help him win, and those qualities are really unique and not a lot of riders have that. He was also hard on himself as well, when you could see his disappointment after losing, that also made the team stronger and want to work harder for him.
Towards the end of my career I started to get along with the riders of my generation, men who are fathers, and that probably had more to do with shared experiences. I enjoyed in the last couple of years rooming with Luke Rowe, one of the younger riders on the team. He’s a really nice guy with a good understanding of the sport. He also embraced the role of a domestique really well.
When you room with riders you quickly see what their personalities are like. The one thing that’s unique about cycling is that we spend 24 hours a day with our teammates. It’s unlike most other jobs where you’re with someone 9 to 5. So you can see the best and worst in people pretty quickly. Rooming with Cav, for example, he was extremely thoughtful of his roommate, and of his teammates, and that’s not necessarily something that the public sees.
Given all of the drug controversies around Armstrong, how do you think historians of the sport should look back upon that period in cycling history?
This story is not over yet. I think the public and those within the sport are starting more clearly to understand how toxic the culture within cycling was, how it has changed, and how it needs to continue to change. So that the athletes’ health is prioritized over their performance.
As far as Lance goes people are understanding his personality a lot better. He is a ruthless competitor, he was really talented as a cyclist and as an athlete but at the same time through the investigations it’s quite clear that he was not the only one who was cheating and doping and that this was a problem that was pervasive throughout the sport.
As the story continues to develop and the investigations are ongoing – and I imagine they will be for years to come – what I think is most important in all of this is that the future, not just of cycling but of sport in general, is a better, healthier place for young athletes coming up. And that overall we’re more considerate of their health.
In my retirement I’ve become more aware having spoken to athletes from other sports that it is a big problem, and I’m not just talking about doping, but the general health of athletes. A lot of athletes did not get the best advice throughout their careers, as you can see in the concussion problems in the NFL in American Football. A lot of sports have their problems and a lot of athletes are coming out the other end damaged.
Overall, whether it’s doping or whether it’s the crashes in cycling, the governing bodies have to be far more thoughtful and protect the athletes’ health better. My kids are both keen athletes and it’s something I’m very conscious of for them.
Are you optimistic about the future of cycling?
There was a distinct change in 2006-08 where suddenly there were teams that popped up in the peloton that had anti-doping stances and individuals who knew the sport had to change from within. That has made a big, big difference in cycling. Now I’m confident that cyclists can win without using drugs, and win the biggest races. There are many teams that riders can go to without feeling the pressure from doctors and coaches and management to use performance-enhancing drugs.
That wasn’t the case 15 years ago, so the sport has changed on many levels. There’s a clear line in pro sport of drugs that are banned and those that are allowed, and there are drugs that are permitted that are not at all healthy at all for the athlete. We need to be more aware. Also when you look at the crashes in cycling, which are on the increase, and nothing is being done to protect the cyclists. Some of the crashes are just horrific.
Who in Team Sky do you think could be the next star?
Sky has done a great job of nurturing the talent they have. Chris Froome is a great example of that. Physically a talented rider, tactically not that good at all, and they were able to nurture his physical talents and teach him how to race properly. Pete Kennaugh is a young rider who is extremely talented. For the classics, Luke Rowe is a talented rider. He’s really strong as well, and is willing to listen and learn. As far as the young riders who have joined the team Sky have done a great job of picking physically talented guys, it’s now just a job of seeing how they develop in the structure of the team.
And, finally, do you feel connected to the average cyclist, be they weekend road explorers or weekday commuters, or does that all feel very distant to what you did?
Very much. Sky’s key mandate was to get people on bikes. I do feel that I was a part of that. Commuting has always been a key part of my life. I rode my bike to school every day, around town every day. I had no desire to drive at all, and still don’t. I love being on my bike and I hate being stuck in traffic. It’s something I’ve always tried to promote, to encourage people, to do.
Cycling exploded in North America when Lance began to win all his races, and exploded in the UK in the last ten years with the success of British cycling and now Team Sky. Professional cycling does have a role in just getting people out on their bikes and cycling to work and the rest of it. One thing you’ve seen in the UK and we’ve seen in North America is that the infrastructure just can’t cope with the cars any more.