Getting in a breakaway is a triumph of hope over experience. Most of the time, it’s a doomed venture. You ride hard and burn all your matches, only to be swallowed up in the final miles by a bunch in which about three-quarters of the riders have hardly had to turn a pedal in the chase.
There’s something about attacking off the front that always feels like a Hail Mary. And then, once you’ve settled into the group, but you’re hurting from the effort, a sense of something like buyer’s remorse soon sets in: what was I thinking? There’s almost never a sweet spot in a break: if it feels too easy, it almost certainly means it’s going too slowly. If it’s going fast enough to have a chance of sticking, then you’re going to be well outside your comfort zone.
And for what? You might have a chance of getting on the podium. But you might just work like stink so that someone else does.
One analysis of breakaways in the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia found that to have any statistical chance of success, a group had to have at least three and a half riders in it (or two normal riders plus Tony Martin). That makes obvious intuitive sense: the more riders there are in a break, the more the work is shared; and the more teams that are represented in the break, the fewer there are behind in the peloton to organise a chase.
But what this study didn’t account for was that above a certain number — which I would guess would be around eight, depending on the length of the race — the co-operation that’s crucial for a break to function starts to break down: there will be too many people missing turns or soft-pedalling, suspicions that some riders are merely policing the break and not really riding for it.
Loss of co-operation is rapidly fatal for a break. There are then only two options: sit up and wait to be caught rather than waste energy, or attack the break itself and hope that you shed the freeloaders.
According to Chapatte’s Law — named for Robert Chapatte, a French pro cyclist of the 1940s and ’50s who became a sportswriter and commentator — the peloton will close a break’s advantage by one minute per 10km remaining. (On a long climb, the gap a break needs is greater still; a motivated chasing group with the climbers on the front can eat up the escapees’ time twice as fast.)
…and the art
That legendary solo breakaway specialist of the ’90s, Jacky Durand, who won the Tour’s Combativity award twice (and once, in the same year, finished as the Lanterne Rouge), knew the arithmetic of Chapatte’s Law well. So well that he would game it by trying to fool the peloton — easing up with 30-40km to go, so that the bunch saw the gap coming down fast and backed off, not wishing to recapture Durand too soon and have to think about a more complicated tactical battle with other teams instead.
Then, “Dudu” would get under the 25km banner, still with a couple of minutes in hand, and go full gas — hoping to upset the Chapatte calculus. Occasionally, it worked. Mostly, it didn’t. Perhaps his real goal was less winning stages than carving out a niche as the suicide break specialist: a brand that would endear him to the public, and thus his sponsors, and ensure a contract for the following year. In that, he was successful.
For most of us, success in a break is simply being there: there can still only be one winner, even if the odds are better than being in a bunch sprint.
The endgame of a breakaway is as psychological as it is physical. You will have had ample opportunity to assess the relative strength or weakness of your fellow escapees. This is both essential if you’re to play any tactical part in the finale, and a trap. You’re tired, you hurt, you want it to be over: just reach the end, you tell yourself, and hope that the break does not get caught. In other words, you tacitly agree with yourself to settle for a minor placing.
Witness Peter Sagan at the death of 2016’s E3 Harelbeke. Probably he knew that Michal Kwiatkowski was unbeatable. There would have been a dozen subtle signals over the closing miles as the pair two-up time-trialled away from their pursuers. They know each other so well, so simply registering the Pole’s breathing, his cadence, how much he rocked in the saddle when he was in front, how long his pulls were — it would all have told Sagan whether the Sky rider was simply on a good day or really on a super one.
So when you watch Sagan lead out the sprint and barely respond when Kwiatkowski jumps, you know that he’d already settled for second. Perhaps this was the objective truth of that day’s racing: that Kwiatkowski was physically stronger on the day. But perhaps, too, he was mentally stronger — even than such an indomitable competitor as Sagan.
Sometimes, the winner out of a breakaway is the smartest or most resourceful. Watch the late attack of Luca Paolini in the 2015 Gent-Wevelgem: countering his own attack, he rolled away stealthily — accelerating in the saddle and getting a gap before the others in the échappée royale realised he was gone. Sometimes, the winner out of a break is simply the luckiest, like Maurizio Fondriest, profiting after Claude Criquielion and Steve Bauer crashed each other out in the sprint for the 1988 Worlds.
But always, the winner from the break is the rider who won’t bargain for anything less. Even with himself.
This article is an extract from Rouleur #63