Monday’s 198-kilometer 3rd Stage of the Tour de France, from Olonne-sur-Mer to Redon, France was a long, flat stage that saw a 5-man break jump away from the peloton after just 1-½ kms and stay away all day, entertaining – for more than 4 hours – the hope of winning one of the biggest prizes the sport of cycling has to offer, a stage win at the Tour de France. Alas, as is often the case, it would not be their day. Teams with experienced leadout men and big powerful sprinters with names like: Cavendish, Farrar, Petacchi, Hushovd, Griepel, Goss, Renshaw, and Swift (love that name!) kept them on a relatively short leash, reeling them in, in the final moments of the stage to let these tire-blister boys have their bunch sprint fun.
It looked like the invincible freight train of HTC-Highroad’s Tony Martin, Matt Goss, and Mark Renshaw would easily deliver the Manx Missile, Mark Cavendish to the promise land as has happened so many times in the past. Mark’s won 15 stages at the TdF with this strategy. But it appeared they couldn’t hold their speed and control things like they normally do, perhaps starting the leadout effort too early. In any case, they were caught and passed by Vacansoleil and then all hell broke lose, with the unusual sight of the yellow jersey coming to the front in a leadout role for Garmin-Cervélo’s sprint caravan. With Julian Dean on Thòr Hushovd’s heals, they vacuumed American Tyler Farrar to within about 200 meters of the line, where he kicked with perfect timing to cross the line first, in a 4th of July victory salute, holding his hands together in the form of a ‘W’ for his recently departed cycling comrade Wouter Weylandt. Getting his first victory here, Farrar has now won stages in every grand tour.
Team RadioShack stayed safe, had no drama, and our four contenders: Levi Leipheimer, Chris Horner, Andreas Klöden, and Janez Brajkovic are sitting comfortably, still just 10 seconds behind the yellow jersey.
As exciting as any bunch sprint usually is, one could say that Monday’s was quite a predictable finish on a stage that had ‘sprinter’ written all over it from the day months ago, when it was unveiled for this year’s Tour. With the power and security of a massive peloton propelling nearly 200 riders at about 50 km/h down the road with ease, hungry to provide a launching platform for their sprinters on a stage that could not have been designed better for them, the question quickly arises, who in their right mind would attempt to sneak away from the pack and steal a victory? Who would attempt a breakaway?
Well, to name names, on Monday it was: FDJ’s Mickael Delage, Movistar’s José Gutierrez, AG2R La Mondiale’s Maxime Bouet, Quickstep’s Niki Terpstra and Euskaltel’s Ruben Perez. They were out in front all day, for nearly 190 kms, getting some 8 minutes on the pack at one point, before eventually getting swallowed up by the peloton at about the 7-km mark. But that was just Monday’s break. You’ll likely see one or more every day. On almost every stage a breakaway is formed and has a go at it, hoping, often against all hope, that the peloton will on that day be forgiving. Often doesn’t work out, but with so much at stake and so much to gain, almost every professional rider does it, has done it, or soon will. Here’s some of the reasons why and some of the factors involved, in no particular order:
Chance of a Lifetime: A stage win in any pro race now is a big deal, but a win at a Grand Tour is a career highlight. So what if your chances are slim? No Guts, No Glory. Leopard Trek’s super domestique Jens Voigt put it well once saying that in a break, you may have, at best about a 5% chance of winning the stage. So many factors are against you. But he went on to say, that if you stay tucked into the relative safety of the peloton, your chances of success are zero, unless you’re one of the few blister-boys (see above).
Sponsor Exposure: While this is probably the least of the issues involving breakaways, it’s a real one. Sponsors pay million of dollars to get their brand names out in public view. RadioShack, Nissan, Trek, Sram, Nike, Giro, to name just a few do a lot of paid advertising in publications, in TV and radio spots, online, you name the media. The better ones among them can calculate with some precision the value of their investment in terms of the positive exposure it gives their brand. For many, this is a business as well as a wonderful sport. Ask anyone of the sponsors of the 5 teams yesterday, if they thought the breakaway was pointless. And, by the way, congrats to RadioShack, Nissan and Trek for signing on for another 2 years to this wonderful team. Now THERE are some intelligent marketing professionals!
Just Pure Luck: When you peel off the front with your fingers crossed, you’re hoping you will be strong, have stamina, and, more importantly, that the peloton will misread and/or mishandle your effort at some point. Like Pac-Man if the bunch has the presence of mind to swallow you whole, there’s no question they have the ability. But a team or several teams have to expend energy to amp the pace of the peloton to snatch back the interlopers. First rule of a big Tour, use as little energy as possible each day and let others do the work. Team Directors sometimes don’t play well together in the sand box, have competing agendas, or simply misread each other’s intentions, and in the confusion, a break gets a gap that either can’t be closed in time or has so little meaning to the overall scheme of things, it’s allowed to prevail.
Make Your Mark: Because no one can win here unless they are a great rider, it immediately catapults an up-and-comer or relatively unknown rider into a new light, another class of cyclists that have accomplished something important. Lets not forget, these guys are pros. This is their job. They have agents and contracts and salaries all based on performance and potential. When it’s money in your pocket and bread on your table you want to highlight your skills. A breakaway requires guts and confidence in your strength, endurance, riding intelligence and often, sprinting ability. You’re out there exposed for the world to see, often for hours. If you can’t hang, cant’ take your turns at the front of the break pack, or wimp out early, many will chalk it up to an inability, inexperience, overconfidence, or all three. Look good out there, even in an ultimately failed effort, you’ve just promoted your own brand. And let’s not forget this holds true for whole teams as well.
Disrupt Others: Some riders go into a breaking group with the sole aim of obstructing the effort. They’re usually instructed by their Team Director to spoil the harmony of small group by refusing to take their turn at the front, or going to the front and slowing down, or creating gaps in the breakaway speeding up or slowing down, etc. Sounds odd, but one rider can do a lot of damage if not totally committed to the effort. Tons of reasons for this, but mostly to protect an overall GC or jersey placement.
Playing With Your Enemies: Weird thing about breakaways as compared to other sports, it’s the one time you see fierce competitors working together like the best of friends for hours on end, trying to help each other speed down the road to the finish. Well, not exactly to the finish. Within about 1 kilometer, sometimes earlier, they return to being absolute enemies again hoping to pedal each other’s heads off.
Hoping For Help: We know a pack of riders can go fast; in fact the fastest full-length stage at the Tour averaged over 50 km/h! We know an individual rider can’t maintain that over such long distances. So often when you jump, you hope that several other like-minded riders will jump with you to share in the adventure. If you can muster about 5 to 9 good riders, and get a reasonable gap, you can get down the road pretty quickly. Look at the speeds of Sunday’s TTT. There have been some go-it-alone efforts that have been successful, but for long stages, you want some help. Speaking of long ones, a little history; there have been 7 successful breakaways longer than 200 kms in the Tour de France. The longest was in 1912, when France’s Eugene Christophe soloed for whopping 315 kilometers to win one of 3 stages! The most recent was in 1991 when Thierry Marie was out in front for 234 kms and got the win.
Those Infernal Radios: Love them (I do), or hate them they play a big factor in this endeavor. Team managers can talk to their riders, initiating breaks, cancelling them, disrupting them, but most importantly, reeling them back in. The managers have TVs, radios, phones, as well as rider stats and placements in the car with them, also the benefit of conversations with the rest of the team who themselves are assessing the situation and providing feedback, so the breakers aren’t flying blindly up the road waiting for the sometimes not too reliable motorcycle chalkboard, to tell them how far ahead they are, like the old days. Many traditionalists don’t like these advancements, of course some thought having more than 3 gears was an abomination too.
No Ranked Riders Allowed: In any breaking bunch with a chance you’ll find riders from different teams, with different skills, maybe with different motivations, but they’ll all have one thing in common –absolutely no aspirations or hope of a high placement in the overall general classification. The biggest death knell for a breakaway is for a big name, with a chance at GC placement deciding to run with the hounds. Like an old western movie, the posse ain’t gonna let em get away.
Dangling On A String: It’s often not good to gobble up a break too soon in a race. Many teams are quite comfortable to let a group hang out in front for as long as possible so tactics can be masked till the last moment. Also, staying a minute or two behind a break for a good while lets everyone relax, and not work too hard, with a reasonable expectation of a predictable outcome. The riders in the break can’t dwell on the nasty thought of simply being ‘managed,’ they have to be totally committed to pedaling as hard as possible praying for divine intervention in their effort.
It’s great theatre watching a relative unknown roll the dice for his improbable day in the sun. Sometimes it’s sad to watch these valiant efforts come to nothing. But then again, sometimes prayers get answered!
By George Hurst, staff writer