Be it the Tour de France or a spring classic, one truism remains: just one rider gets to stand on the top step of the podium when it’s time for the winner to crack open the Champagne.
How that rider takes that top step, ordinarily, is the fruit of the labour of team-mates and an army of backroom staff’s meticulous planning. Within the blink of an eye – or flick of the elbow – a race can be won, or lost. Occasionally a water carrier becomes a star, though not often.
In a career that spans an 18-year period – during which time Koen de Kort has started over 1,300 races – the Dutchman has crossed the line arms aloft just once, and that was as part of a two-up time trial. Not that he seems overly concerned with the lack of wins on his palmarès.
“Of course I won races when I was growing up, you don’t become a professional cyclist without winning races,” De Kort explains to Telegraph Sport. “I wish I had won more races throughout my career, it would be nice… of course.” De Kort smiles. De Kort smiles an awful lot.
The 36-year-old may not have experienced that winning feeling as an individual, but he has played his part in some highly memorable wins with Trek-Segafredo and his previous team – Giant-Alpecin and their various iterations. De Kort, you see, is the perfect team-mate. He’s a rider who dedicates himself to his team; the consummate domestique.
When Eric Cantona described Didier Deschamps as a ‘water carrier’ the former Manchester United forward was widely understood – on this side of the Channel, at least – to have done so with the intent of disparaging the midfielder. However, one imagines Cantona may have been misunderstood by the English football media. Deschamps, after all, captained France to their first World Cup triumph on home soil in 1998 before, in 2018, the former defensive midfielder became only the third man to win the trophy as both a player and a manager. Even in football ‘water carriers’ are key to a team’s success. In cycling, of course, they are crucial. And not just to carry the water.
In what is a team sport in which individual’s prevail, sacrificing your own ambitions for others is the very raison d'être of the domestique. To understand this is to understand cycling, something De Kort knows only too well. “I don’t race for myself, I’ve pretty much dedicated myself to working for others,” he explains.
“A rider needs to give their all for the team. Sometimes you have guys who are really strong, but are busy thinking about getting their own result or in their head are thinking: ‘maybe tomorrow I can get a result for myself, so I won’t give everything for the team’. That makes me really angry. If someone’s not good enough, but is trying and working hard then I think I’d much prefer them alongside me than someone who is probably stronger, but not 100 per cent committed to the team.
“My role within the team is very much to be a background worker – my role is actually to make sure everybody works well together. As road captain I have to ensure the right decisions are made during the race because very often you have to make split-second decisions. It’s hard to go back to the car and ask for instructions and then chase back on. That takes too long.
“When I was racing for Giant we had Roy Curvers there and he was pretty much always the road captain. Over time, more and more, he started coming to me to ask for my opinion when he needed to take decisions. From then, when Roy wasn’t around then I took up his role. When I later joined Trek-Segafredo, I became designated road captain.
“So I’m there to cover that, to make sure everybody knows what their job is on that particular day, and if need be make decisions and pass on instructions and make sure everybody knows the plan for that split-second moment. I need to be able to read a race – which comes from experience – and quickly relay that to my team-mates. I don’t want to be the guy shouting all the time, that’s not the way to do it. You need to earn the respect of the team first, then you can take these decisions.
“Other than that, within the race I’m also a worker – a domestique.
“I think I can do pretty well in a lot of different style of races – in the crosswinds, on the cobbles or in sprints. In the sprints very often I’m the last guy in front of the sprinter, or the second last guy, so I kind of control what the lead-out train does: so say when we have to go left or right or move up the field. This sort of stuff you can’t make a plan for – it depends on what is happening around you – if you have a sprint train where nobody takes decisions then you are never going to win a race.
“As a domestique you have to be a team-mate both on and off the bike. Generally you are not winning races – it can happen – you are there to work for the team. That’s how you earn respect from your team-mates. Do this and they will be happy to help when – if – your time comes.”
One gets the impression, too, that De Kort cherishes those rare opportunities when he gets to put his nose into the wind at the pointy end of the race rather than doing so on behalf of a team-mate.
“I rode for myself at the  Dutch national championships and then at the Japan Cup [towards the end of the season in Oct 2018] where I was probably the best rider from the team with two laps to go so I went for it,” De Kort says while chuckling away like a naughty schoolboy.
“But the only time I really go into a race thinking about myself is at the Dutch national road championships. I basically get one race a year to go for it, for myself. I’ve not won one yet”, he shrugs.
Whether shielding team leaders from the wind, pulling hard on the front while controlling a race or delivering a sprinter to the finish line, dropping back to the team car for bottles, or giving up a wheel or bike for a team leader as your own ambitions dissipate in an instant are daily occurrences. Few, though, get the recognition they so richly deserve.
“I remember when the Tour de France started in 's-Hertogenbosch [in Holland] in 1996 and the first stage came past my parents’ house. I watched that and immediately said I wanted to be a professional bike rider and win the Tour de France. My hero was Erik Breukink, I always watched him on TV – he was the guy I looked out for. I dreamed to win the Tour just like every little kid, but pretty soon I found out that that wasn’t going to happen, it wasn’t within my capabilities but instead I learned to develop what I was actually good at.
“I’d say the worst thing about being a domestique is that, despite being responsible for the team, only the winner gets to stand on the podium. Getting him there is very much a team effort, but we find it is normal in cycling that only the winner – the rider that crosses the line first – gets to stand on the top step of the podium. If you think about it, that doesn’t quite feel right: we give our all to get him there.
“Of course, there are good things and bad things about the job, and sometimes they are the same things. It’s nice when I see the attention that John [Degenkolb, team-mate and 2015 Paris-Roubaix winner] gets, or the attention a rider gets when he steps onto the podium. But I’m sometimes glad I don’t have to deal with the stress that brings.
“Being a part of John’s two monument wins [Milan-Sanremo and Paris-Roubaix] in 2015 were, so far, my proudest achievements on the bike. I was there in both of the races and think I really made a difference there for him. Before then we already had good relationship. John puts a lot of trust in me and lets me talk about what I think will be good for him, and he trusts me. Winning those races was the absolute pinnacle.”
Having ridden alongside Degenkolb for over a year straight – as of the end of 2018 the pair had started 365 race days together, including all 11 of the German’s grand tour stage wins – it is little wonder that the pair are close. De Kort is confident enough in himself to reveal a conversation the pair have had on more than one occasion, one that some may consider a criticism of the Dutchman.
“I’ve spoken to him a few times about this and John says: ‘you’ve forgotten how to win races’. Maybe I have.”
De Kort, however, has few regrets. “I’ve been part of a lot of victories for both John and [former Giant team-mate] Marcel Kittel when I have sat up with 200 metres to go having delivered them to the finishing line. Some people later asked me: ‘Why didn’t you carry on sprinting? You could have won’. Of course, it doesn’t quite work like that. It is part of cycling, and I think I’ve achieved this much as a professional bike rider because I’m really good at helping others. If throughout my career I had ridden for myself and, perhaps, won a few races then my career may be over by now. I’m 36 now, so I’ve had a good innings, as you say in England.
“For sure, of course I wish I had won more races, but I am so focused on working for others that it is hard – impossible, really – to keep saving energy for yourself to give everything at the end to contest for the win. It’s just not the way I race any more. John's right, I probably have lost that feeling and when I find myself in a situation – in the Japan Cup I made a stupid mistake and I should have at least finished in the top five rather than ninth. I made a stupid mistake because I was so focused on working for others that I just forgot. I forgot about myself.”
One imagines Trek-Segafredo will delight in hearing these words from De Kort as will Degenkolb who will hope the Dutchman can help him to a second Paris-Roubaix title on Sunday. Now that would be domestique bliss.