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Road Culture

Far from just lucky breaks, solo wins take wits and power

The drama of a breakaway can be enthralling, but the intricate tactics are difficult to pick out in TV coverage. Learn the nuances here from the peloton's best.

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There’s a tendency for breakaway wins to be regarded, fundamentally, as fortunate, as lacking the verve of leading in the bunch at a sprint finish or the class that is evident when a GC favorite outstrips all rivals at a mountain summit. In both cases, the bike-racing talent required for success is obvious. Breakaway winners, on the other hand, are cycling’s mayflies, emerging for a day then disappearing back into the pack, anonymous once more until fortune shines on them again.

Language does them few favors. In the Grand Tours, breakaways on the early stages are dismissed as “kamikaze,” undertaken for no other reason than to display the sponsor’s brands before the TV cameras with barely a consideration of victory. And there is the sense that the breakaway is passive rather than active, that it is attached to the main pack by an invisible thread, which the peloton can capture at any moment it chooses, like a cat pawing and pouncing on a ball of string. Occasionally, the thread snaps and the breakaway can take advantage, but for reasons that are beyond its control, because it got lucky. With language crucial in this area, they are breakaway artists rather than specialists, toiling, almost always in Sisyphean fashion, to create a quite remarkable feat, head and legs in perfect synergy.

Strength in (Smaller) Numbers

Before looking at the how of the breakaway, it is instructive to investigate the why. Essentially, it comes down to the immutable reason advocated by expert breakaway instigator Thomas De Gendt, that for riders like him there is no chance of winning unless he can escape most of the riders in the bunch. There are, though, other aspects to it, many of which emphasize the maverick nature of the best-known attackers.

“I won’t deny that I enjoy riding in the break. I can set my own pace,” says De Gendt. “If I’m in the peloton, there are always crashes, you’ve got guys getting in your way, blocking you on corners, or going too fast on the descents. When I’m on the front I don’t have any of that stress. I can ride as fast or as slow as I want, and I’ve got the team car just behind me, ready with food and water, which is a real advantage in a race like, for example, the Vuelta when it’s really warm. If you’re back in the bunch and you want a bottle, you’ve got to get eight because your teammates all want one too. It’s never easy in the bunch. It might look it, but you’ve got a lot to deal with. That’s why I prefer being in the breakaways.”

Predecessors and eventual contemporaries to De Gendt were escape experts Thomas Voeckler and Jens Voigt. Voeckler, stronger mentally than he was physically, reasoned, “There has never been any point in me waiting to attack; you’ve just got to go for it and sometimes it works and at other times you simply end up wasting your energy. That’s the only way I can succeed, and it’s the only way that I love to race.”

Voigt, who became a cult hero thanks to breakaway antics and his offbeat racing philosophy (encapsulated in the phrase “Shut up, legs” that became the title of his autobiography) says his first coach told him at the age of 12, “‘If you attack first you already have the psychological advantage, because the others are forced to react. They’re forced to play by your rules.’ He told me a few times and I tried it, and had success with it. Then you have a positive memory and it becomes almost automatic, like a reflex.”

De Gendt confesses he owes a debt to the German, who was very much an inspiration for him. Being in a breakaway during the 2011 edition of Paris–Nice with Voigt and Jérémy Roy, another regular in such moves, was the turning point for him. “I’d been in a couple of smaller breaks with Voigt the year before, but this was different. This was center stage. In the lead-up to the race, I’d actually told a Belgian newspaper that I wanted to be the next Jens Voigt, so there was a certain strangeness to be in the break with him,” he says. “Attacking is an obsession of mine. I’m crazy for an attack. I love it and I always will.”

Anna Van Der Breggen celebrates crossing the line in a solo win
Anna Van Der Breggen of The Netherlands and Boels-Dolmans Cycling Team takes a solo win in the 2018 Tour of Flanders. Photo: Luc Claessen / Getty Images

Part Luck, Part Strategy

What circumstances give a breakaway this “luck,” this chance of finding a run to the line? “On a flat stage, you can sometimes get away on the first attempt because most guys figure that there’s no chance of the break staying away so they won’t be interested, but often you’ve got to work an awful lot harder,” De Gendt explains. “If you really want to be in the break, you have to go full and you have to try a lot of times. Then it’s just a case of being lucky. Sometimes you have to attack on a climb, because if you go hard on a climb it’s a lot harder for riders to follow. I usually make my effort on a climb because it’s not so easy for the bunch to follow.”

Writing in his autobiography The Racer, now retired British pro David Millar explains that he used to study stage profiles to identify which looked best for a group staying clear and especially those where a break would likely be able to get a gap in the opening hour of racing. “I look for a small climb, a pinch point or a testing section where a peloton moving at full speed will be close to its breaking point,” says Millar. “It needs to be hard for the peloton so they are urged to sit up. Then, when the peloton is at its breaking point, I make my move. I often wait until I am completely at my maximum output, then attack, going deep to get away. If you are not at your maximum then the peloton will have the ability to chase you down. You need to attack while others are on the absolute limit, so that they look at each other and are not wanting to chase you.” The Scot describes this effort as “the hardest thing you will do in the stage and possibly all of cycling,” but makes the point that breaks that gain an advantage without much effort tend to occur on stages when there is little chance of staying away until the finish.

When the elastic is at the snapping point, it is crucial to be well placed to take advantage. Obviously, the prospective breakaway riders need to be up toward the front of the peloton, but not in the front rank, otherwise any attempt to go clear will be telegraphed to every rider behind, who will be primed to react. Ideally, the canny baroudeur needs to be on one side of the bunch, making it easier to assess the situation around them. Often, they’ll find other breakaway hopefuls in a similar position, ready to make the same move when the moment is judged to be right.

Work Together to Stay Away, Then. . .

Cooperation within a break is often crucial to its success, but the group dynamics can take on different forms. De Gendt explains that there is often not much chat exchanged between the members of the breakaway, that everyone knows the job they have to do and gets on with it.

“Especially when it’s a big group, there’s not a lot of talking. I just tend to focus on myself,” he says. “When it’s down to four or five guys, then you tend to talk a little bit about what the tactics should be. If there’s 20-odd guys and everyone does his share of the work then it’s really easy, but if you’re only with four other guys it’s a bit more difficult to get a gap and to stay fresh until the finish. It’s a bit more tactical. In that case, you might be saying to each other, ‘What’s your take on what we should do? Should we go full? If we go full should we do it from 50 kilometers?’

“When it’s a big break, I just let everyone else do what they want to do and keep my opinion to myself. The only time that would change is if I had a teammate or two in the break with me and then you have to decide on what’s the best tactic for your team. There are other aspects you have to factor in too over the final 50 kilometers. What’s the profile like? Is it all flat? Are there any hills? Is it into a headwind? A headwind is always the worst thing to deal with because the bunch will always go much faster than the break when you’re racing into the wind. Of course, you also need to be looking at the strengths of the riders you’ve been with all day, assessing where they might attack or where you might have an edge on them.”

This sizing-up of their fellow escapees is an ongoing and essential process to find where a collaborator’s weakness might lie. Do they pull a little softer on the hills? Hold their head in a funny way when struggling? Look over one shoulder to check on their rivals and not the other? Watching how fast a rider accelerates out of a corner late in a stage might give an idea of how strong they will be in a sprint. Do they open a slight gap or is it easy to stay on their wheel? Could they be bluffing? The permutations are endless. It is chess on wheels.

De Gendt selects his win on the opening stage of the 2017 Critérium du Dauphiné as his best breakaway victory. “If I had to pick out one win that I really liked from a tactical perspective, that would be it. I got into the break with six other riders that day purely with the aim of getting into the mountains jersey. I went at my own speed on every climb, picking up the points I was after,” he recalls. “At the end, we had to do three laps of a finishing circuit in Saint-Étienne with the climb of Col de Rochetaillée on it. We did a lap, which meant I knew precisely what lay ahead, and our lead was still more than three minutes with two more circuits to go. I pushed hard the second time up the climb and Axel Domont was the only rider who could stay with me. We shared the work until the last climb, then I went hard again about a kilometer from the top. Everything that I planned to do worked out perfectly—well, almost. I’d planned to end the stage in the polka-dot jersey but instead pulled on the yellow.”

Republished from How the Race Was Won: Cycling’s Top Minds Reveal the Road to Victory by Peter Cossins with permission of VeloPress.

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