What is a domestique in triathlon?
A domestique, or pilot, as they are often called, is a triathlete that assists their teammates by allowing them to follow in their slipstream to reduce their drag and effort levels, so they they enter the run as fresh as possible.
Following in someone's slipstream is called drafting, and by allowing their teammates to draft them a domestique, or pilot, can help reduce drag in both the swim and the bike leg significantly, if all goes to plan...
THE ROLE OF THE DOMESTIQUE IN THE SWIM
Research suggests that a swimmer can save as much as 38% of the metabolic energy required to swim at a given speed when drafting off another swimmer – or swimmers – swimming at that same speed. This sounds great on paper but tactically it’s difficult to ensure a good draft around an entire 1,500m swim leg.
Given that the top triathletes in the world now have very little difference between them in terms of swim speed over 1,500m (men = ~17mins and women = ~18mins), it’s often much more savvy to remain towards the front of the lead group than be leading it or even to attempt a solo breakaway. Having a strong swimmer on your team, who’s assigned specifically to safeguard you during the swim in order to limit knocks and to ensure you remain within contention at the front of the lead group is a big advantage, though theory is often better than practice for a number of reasons.
THE ROLE OF THE DOMESTIQUE IN THE BIKE LEG
As evidenced in the history of the Tour de France (see Jose Luis Arrieta and Miguel Indurain, George Hincapie and Lance Armstrong), the use of team tactics and drafting to reduce aerodynamics are paramount in draft-legal racing. Studies have shown that a trailing rider at 40km/h can consume 33% less power output than the lead rider, witness an aerodynamic improvement of 38% and reduce oxygen consumption by 27%.
By positioning himself in the lead bike group immediately after T1, Hayes – whose attacking prowess is evident in his success in non-drafting races stateside and his solo breakaway to win Kitzbühel in 2010 – displayed excellent skills at controlling the pace of the lead cycle pack while Alistair and Jonathan escaped. When this break was swallowed up, Stuart then prevented any further attacks going, thus allowing the Brothers to recuperate from their earlier efforts and then both produce run splits to claim the first and second places on the podium.
However if the domestique finds themselves in the chase group attempting a solo bridge to the lead group would be suicidal and risk dragging other medal contenders into the game that wouldn't otherwise be there. Therefore, great cycling tactical awareness and experience of what certain actions could have on the outcome of the race are essential attributes of any domestique.
THE TRAINING OF THE DOMESTIQUE
Given that no tactical advantage would be had by the domestique being in great run shape, the type of training they will focus on the swimming and biking, and limit run training (probably to zero) to ensure that they’re swimming and riding physically and tactically as well as they possibly can.
In the swim this’ll mean ensuring great 1,500m threshold speed, but with the ability to react accordingly to any sudden jumps in speed that might result in a split in the swim group. The athletes need to be careful about doing too much top-end speed work, though, and in doing so sacrificing their threshold speed work, as pushing their lactate levels too high in the water with too many high-powered surges could render them ineffective on the bike leg; getting this balance correct isn’t easy, but they’re experienced swimmers who have great baseline ability to be able to get this right.
With respect to bike training, criterium style racing would be the ideal preparation to hone bike skills and tactical nuances f but, of course, this brings with it high risk of crashing before the Games and as such the athletes will need to balance this in the pros/cons discussion with their coaches. What's not under question is that watching out for these tactics being played out between all the athletes will add an extra dimension of intrigue to the Olympic races as the nations hedge their bets for Olympic glory.
Depending on the pontoon draws for the Olympics (see Pontoon Problems), team members could find themselves separated at the start of the event with the domestique having the unenviable position of trying to seek out their leader amongst the melée once the gun goes off.
If it were me in that domestique role, I would go to bed every week for the next month memorising the numbers of my leader(s) and any distinguishing stroke technique elements to ensure that I became very good at quickly ascertaining who was who. Even then, how much protection/assistance one could truly offer without compromising the race of the other athletes in the event is up for debate.