What’s the deal with a breakaway anyway?
With every metre of all 21 stages of the Tour de France televised this year, we fans are able to watch the beautiful battle of attrition between the peloton and those adventurous men that risk potential loneliness, aka the breakaway, just so viewers around the world can be exposed to the obscure hardware companies, random kitchen products and even shampoo manufacturers that sponsor the kits of our pedalling heroes.
There are a few reasons why riders pursue this unlikely route to a possible stage victory and each is brilliant in its own right. Nevertheless, there’s at least one stage on every Tour where those reasons combine and result in a truly tremendous stage.
They pay the bills
Sponsorship money is a very scarce resource in professional cycling with only a few teams, such as Sky and Movistar, having a sole title sponsor.
The majority of teams have to get by with more than one title sponsor. These commercial partners demand publicity as often as possible and, for those smaller teams with roster’s that lack potential stage winners, the breakaway is their best option to guarantee sponsor exposure.
A great example was Guillaume Van Keirsbulck of Wanty Groupe-Gobert at last year’s Tour who attacked from the start of Stage four in order to maximise television time for his team’s sponsors, a hardware company. Van Keirsbulck sacrificed an easy ride in the peloton for some the chance to show off his team’s sponsors through the exclusive company of a television motorbike.
This is the typical breakaway of a flat stage. The sprinters’ teams make mental calculations as to how far to allow the elastic to stretch before reeling them in like a helpless fish on a rod. However demoralising this may be during the race, the tactic is most definitely outweighed by the security of sponsor’s money and the increased chance of a wildcard place in the Grand Tours.
Climbs help them succeed
Breakaways are always more successful when the road heads upwards, particularly on undulating stages littered with Category 2 and 3 climbs.
These stages are difficult for teams to control because of the ample opportunities to attack with the chasing peloton not as effective as it is on the flat roads. These are the sort of stages where Tommy Voeckler sticks his tongue out and joins Thomas De Gendt on mission impossible.
Conquer the climbs, gain a lead of about 10 minutes on the peloton and then have a kilometre long drag race to the line. All in all this tends to lead to simply superb bike racing.
They can be a well coordinated gambit
As Team Sky have built one of the most dominant teams of all time, teams have had to come up with different strategies to give them a chance in the closing stretches of mountain stages.
The strategy of choice is to send as many riders in the breakaway as possible so they can drop back to help their team leader when they might not have the support of climbing specialists to set the pace throughout the stage.
It also relieves the pressure on your team to ride on the front and control the race. Not even the most eccentric of team managers order their riders to chase after their team mate.
Putting riders in a breakaway on hilly stages can also be a gambit if their team leader does manage to get away. By having extra riders up the road they will have solid support to work with and further any attack but peloton riders will be acutely aware of who is in any breakaway.
Some use them as training
Training? What do you mean? Well let’s take a look at the curious case of Tony Martin in the 2013 edition of the Vuelta a España.
Martin came agonisingly close to holding off the entire peloton while doing what he cheekily referred to as “time trial training” using the race to check his condition ahead of that year’s World Championships. Legend!