It is one of the fundamental laws of professional cycling. For most riders not possessed with Mark Cavendish-esque finishing speed, you must attack to win.
On every stage of the Tour of Britain, hardy riders will make early bids for freedom, hoping to hold off the peloton. They will be given a few minutes lead, but in this game of cat and mouse, the odds are stacked in the favour of the many chasers behind.
They will rarely win the stage, but they might just take the Combativity Prize, awarded to valiant underdog who spends 100 miles in front of the bunch only to be caught within sight of the finish line.
Every now and then, the breakaway does make it. Alex Dowsett knows all about that. He was part of one of the most famous breakaways in Tour of Britain history. In last year’s edition, he went on a sensational breakaway between Bath and Hemel Hempstead. He started the race came away with the race lead, as well as
So, what is the secret to winning the Rouleur Combativity Award? “You’ve got to put yourself out there. It’s one for the triers,” Dowsett says.
To do that, you need free rein from your team-mates. “Normally in a race, I’d have a job; every stage of the Tour de France, for example, it was to look after the leader Nairo Quintana, so there’s no way I could think of going for a stage win or the combativity prize,” he adds.
“Normally, it is given it to someone in a breakaway. So you’ve got to be good at sniffing it out and getting in that escape. There is an art to picking the right one – and I definitely don’t have it!”
“It’s a case of reading the bunch, how tired everyone is, how willing they are to let something go.”
Some days, it can be straight from the start of the race; other times, it is a succession of attacks over the first 60 kilometres of racing. Eleven may go, and the twelfth will succeed.
That’s what happened for Dowsett on the road to Hemel Hampstead, as his fellow riders made constant acceleration, sensing this was a good day to make a bold bid.
“I was just about to give up trying because I was on my hands and knees. Matthias Brandle went to me ‘I think now’s a good time to go.’ I had one last attack, charged down the outside and then we were away.”
Then, is it just a case of the open road and suffering to hold off the bunch for 100 kilometres? Not quite.
“A clever break will play with the bunch. Because it’s always the bunch that decides which break goes and they don’t want to catch you too early, say with 30 kilometres left. That would open them up to fresh attackers making like hard for leadout trains.”
In Dowsett’s case, they didn’t manage to catch them at all. The breakaway receives occasional time gaps, and the advantage kept soaring to the point that Dowsett and his fellow breakaway companions Matthias Brandle and Tom Stewart (above) were saying: “What are they doing back there?”
“When it went up to nine minutes, my team manager said: ‘You could take yellow here. Put the hammer down.' Then I rode flat out for the rest of the day… I got to the end and I was completely done."
Brandle won, but all Dowsett cared about was getting as much time as possible to take over the race lead. Job done. He started the day a distant 90 seconds in arrears. He ended it as leader of the Tour of Britain.
“It was a great feeling to have pulled that off and got into yellow when I’d felt sure I was out of it after The Tumble.”
Although, still feeling the efforts, Dowsett lost the race lead on a hilly stage to Brighton 24-hours later, his escapade lives long in the memory. He emerged as the overall Combativity prize winner after his stirring ride, winning fetching red numbers for the mantelpiece (above).
Keep your eyes peeled for another dynamic break from Dowsett in 2015, where he will lead the Movistar team. “With that mountain top finish and no time-trial, pretty sure I’ll have to do something,” he says.
The prize given to the daily Rouleur Combativity Award winner is one of the stranger ones on professional cycling’s circuit: cheese. From Stilton to Bermondsey, regional dairy delights await; great for replacing those spent calories.
Surprisingly, it’s not the most peculiar award that Alex Dowsett has received, though. “I remember a Tour of Utah stage when [team-mate] Taylor Phinney won and I was second: he got a pair of skis. The next day, I was second again and took all the jerseys except one, and they gave me some hospital scrubs and some nursing kit!”
Rouleur Combativity Award Explained
Rouleur Combativity Award is awarded by the race jury for the most aggressive rider in every Tour of Britain stage. It is usually in recognition of many kilometres spent at the head of the race or racing with certain flair. The previous day’s winner is denoted by wearing red race numbers.
The Overall Rouleur Combativity Award is awarded at the race’s conclusion by a panel of judges, in recognition of the most attacking or prominent rider during the race.
Dowsett received his Aeroad CF SLX the day before the Tour de Suisse. One of the first of the new model to leave Koblenz, it served briefly as the Movistar rider’s training bike (“It was quite novel travelling to races with a bike,” he remembers), but gained its first outing in a competitive fixture: a minor event called the Tour de Suisse. “The first ride on this was at the Tour of Switzerland. I hit 118kph on it in one of the passes. I was very confident in it. I was at home on it straight away.”