By Chris Carmichael
Live television coverage of the Tour de France has been a huge benefit for cycling fans around the world, and fans in the US are extremely fortunate to have three+ hours of live coverage each day on Versus. Fans get to see exactly how the race unfolds and all the challenges and events along the way. But the one thing cycling fans miss is the action in the first hour of racing. By the time the live coverage begins, there’s a breakaway several minutes ahead of the peloton and the rest of the pack seems to be riding at a moderate tempo under the guidance of one or two teams who are setting the pace at the front. If you didn’t know any better, you might not realize that some of the hardest racing of the entire day has already happened.
There’s a fierce battle to establish the long breakaway of the day, and that battle gets even more brutal on stages where the finale could tip the balance in favor of the breakaway successfully reaching the finish line first. Both the terrain and the weather for Stage 6 combined to make the battle for a position in the breakaway very intense. The roads in Normandy are narrow and undulating, and the forecast for the day was for intermittent rain showers and cool temperatures. These conditions favor the breakaway because the peloton sometimes has trouble maintaining the organization required for a high chasing speed on slick, sinuous roads.
Each stage of the Tour de France begins with a brief neutral zone, typically a few kilometers to allow the riders to get out of the start town. Once on more open roads, the race commissar drops the flag and the attacks begin. Riders immediately surge off the front of the field in a bid to be one of the riders who will spend most of the day riding in the breakaway. But getting into the breakaway isn’t merely a matter of accelerating away from the field, it’s kind of like a “Goldilocks and the 3 Little Bears” scenario. There are a few conditions that need to be met before the peloton will turn off the chase and let the group gain time.
Thus far in the 2011 Tour de France, the breakaways have been: Stage 1 – 3 riders; Stage 2 – no break (TTT); Stage 3 – 5 riders; Stage 4 – 5 riders; Stage 5 – 4 riders; and Stage 6 – 5 riders. This isn’t a matter of coincidence. The size of the breakaway is important because it determines their collective strength, which in turn determines the amount of work it will take to reel them back in. A breakaway up to about 8 riders is manageable, especially on long stages like today’s 226.5km jaunt through Normandy. If the lead group gets too much bigger than that, they can share the workload so effectively that they can build a gap over the peloton that can be too great to close down before the finish.
Back in 2001, Stage 8 to Colmar was a cold and rainy day, and a breakaway group of 14 riders rode away after 5 kilometers. By the time the day was through, the breakaway had gained nearly 36 minutes over the peloton, and it took until Stage 13 – all the way through the Alps and into the Pyrenees – for Lance Armstrong to wrest the yellow jersey away from Stage 8 breakaway rider Francois Simon. That’s the extreme of what can happen if you let a break that’s too big get away, especially on a rainy day. But when there are a limited number of stages that are well-suited for the sprinters, their teams will chase down any breakaway groups larger than about 6 riders before they gain any ground.
Too small can be a problem, too. The peloton doesn’t want to catch the breakaway too soon, which means the breakaway group needs to be large enough to share the workload and maintain a pace of nearly 40km an hour on flat to rolling terrain. In the mountains, you can sometimes see small breakaways of 1-2 riders, but on flat or rolling stages the group needs a minimum of three riders to be effective.
Composition is crucial
Just as the peloton is careful about the number of riders in the breakaway, they are also careful about which riders – and which teams – are in the day’s long move. When you have riders in the breakaway, there’s no reason for your team to contribute to the chase. You have a rider in a position to win the stage if the breakaway succeeds, so why would you work to bring them back? That means you’ll almost never see a sprinter’s team put a man in the breakaway. Doing so would reduce the number of support riders the team has to help their sprinter, but it would also let them off the hook for their portion of the pace setting and chasing. That doesn’t suit the other sprinters’ teams, so they’ll shut down breakaway attempts that contain riders from rival sprinters’ teams.
You also have to be careful not to let riders who are potential yellow jersey contenders into the breakaway. Even if a rider is not considered a true favorite for the overall victory at the Tour de France, gaining several minutes by being in the right breakaway can transform a top-15 rider into a podium contender. For that reason you won’t see riders like Ryder Hesjedal, Frank Schleck, or Christian Vande Velde in a breakaway during this first week of the race. You won’t even see contenders for the other jersey competitions – the green points jersey or the white young riders’ jersey – allowed into the breakaways.
The representation of teams is a consideration as well. It’s rare that you’ll see a breakaway containing more than one rider from any particular team get away from the peloton. There’s strength in numbers, and with two or more riders from one team working together in the breakaway group, the other riders in the group are at a disadvantage.
So who makes it?
As we’ve seen thus far in the 2011 Tour de France, the successful formula for a breakaway is 4-5 riders who are not seen as threats in the overall race for the yellow jersey. They typically represent teams that do not have strong contenders for any of the jersey competitions. Think about the teams that have featured heavily in the breakaways thus far: Vacansoleil-DCM, FDJ, Movistar, Euskaltel-Euskadi, and Europcar. Now name their yellow jersey contenders? Stumped? That’s because these teams came to the Tour de France to hunt for stage wins. Movistar is having some success with Joaquin Rojas in the green jersey competition, and Euskaltel-Euskadi is always a factor in the mountains, but other than that stage wins are the number one priority for these teams. As a result, they are very motivated to get riders into the breakaways, and there’s no real risk of depleting resources that might be needed later to support a yellow jersey contender in the mountains.
Today, like most days, the breakaway was reeled in before the finish; and despite the rain and a small but significant hill in the final kilometers, the sprinters ruled supreme again. But tomorrow another batch of opportunists will strike out from the pack early in stage, hoping against the odds that they’ll gain just enough time to foil the plans of the peloton bearing down on them. The chances of success are slim, but unless your last name is Cavendish, Hushovd, Rojas, Farrar, Gilbert, or Boasson Hagen tomorrow; the breakaway is just about your only chance.
Chris Carmichael rode the Tour de France in 1986 with 7-Eleven and has been writing Tour de France commentary for the past 11 years. He is CEO and Head Coach of Carmichael Training Systems, the premier destination for coaching, training camps, and performance testing since 2000; and Official Coaching and Camps Partner of Ironman. Follow Chris on Twitter at www.twitter.com/trainright, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carmichaeltrainingsystems, orwww.trainright.com.