Paolo was never a superstar on the bike, but he was valued by those he worked with. He enjoyed a long career with some of the sport's top teams, and didn't retire until he was 37, despite having just a single professional win to his name. A support rider, then, a gregario… but not a domestique.
Having met him, you could never call him a domestique. Imperfect synonyms are horrible things, especially when they've been adopted into English from different languages. In this case, both ostensibly signify the same kind of cyclist, of course, but both mean an awful lot more. One is pejorative, the other gushingly positive. The same thing, and nothing alike.
It's ironic that the more popular appellation wasn't meant to stick – it was just one of several slurs flung at Maurice Brocco during the 1911 Tour de France by Henri Desgrange. (Trust the French to coin a term from an insult.) The Italian, meanwhile, is quite the opposite. A gregario is convivial, an easy companion. Whereas the French team leader gets a servant, his Mediterranean neighbour gets a pal. It's hard to imagine ever being particularly happy at being referred to as a domestique, but gregario is the kind of thing you could get used to. It's got an honest, proletarian ring to it. You have to work yourself to the bone either way, but in Italy, at least you sound popular.
Gelato Excellent, featuring ice cream world champion Paolo Fornaciari, appears in Rouleur issue 45, coming soon.