When riders and team managers look at stages in the race bible, they can pretty quickly categorize them as good days for the sprinters, the climbers, the GC contenders, and the opportunists. On paper Stage 16 of the 2014 Tour de France looked like a great day for an opportunistic breakaway, but how do directors and riders arrive at that conclusion, and what do they then do about it?
The Breakaway Scenario
There are a few factors that favor a successful breakaway. One is the distance of the stage. Longer stages – and Stage 16 was the longest stage of the entire Tour at 237.5km – are exhausting for everyone, and the main peloton is happy to ride tempo for a good portion in the middle. During short stages it’s often full-gas from start to finish because riders have the energy for it.
The nature of the finale is a big factor. If the stage ends with a summit finish that offers opportunities for climbing specialists, yellow jersey contenders, and climbing jersey contenders, then the breakaway is likely to be given a short leash and reeled in on that final climb. If it’s a sprinter stage, same scenario, only with the sprinters’ teams leading the charge. But a day like Stage 16 finishes well after the summit of the final climb, meaning there’s a lot of time for dropped yellow jersey contenders to chase back before the finish. In that scenario, making a huge effort to split the yellow jersey group may not bear fruit. You could use a ton of energy and then see your rival come back on the descent.
It’s also important to note that we’re in the third week of the Tour de France. The peloton is tired and a large breakaway up the road reduces the pressure in the main group – even if just a little. The yellow jersey contenders and their teams have moved from a “full-court press” to a “man-on-man” strategy, too. In the early part of the Tour, every move was dangerous and teams threw their entire arsenal at every potential threat. Now that’s not feasible because riders are tired and some teams have been reduced in size because of abandons. This frees up some riders to go into breakaways, and it means the teams of the yellow jersey contenders are less concerned about letting a group ride up the road.
Creating the Perfect Breakaway
Sometimes it takes only a few seconds for the day’s long breakaway to form and ride away. Other times – like today – it can take an hour or more of racing before an acceptable group escapes. Creating a working breakaway is an imperfect science, but there are some parameters riders and directors look for.
The composition and size of a breakaway plays a big role in whether the group will be given the freedom to run and whether it has the horsepower to finish it off. On a 237-kilometer stage with big climbs you want a big group, because a small foursome won’t have the horsepower to go the distance. With 21 riders in the breakaway on Stage 16 there was a lot of opportunity to share the workload. This works in the favor of the breakaway but also makes for a somewhat risky situation for the peloton. A big breakaway has enough power to create and sustain a winning gap, but too much complacency in the peloton can lead to a disastrously-large winning margin. In the peloton and in the cars there was a careful check of the overall standings to make sure no one in the breakaway was high enough up in the GC to threaten the riders in the top 10. If there were, the GC teams would have chased the break down so a different composition could escape.
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In a large breakaway like today’s, it’s also important to have a wide representation of teams. If your team misses the big breakaway you’re forfeiting any chance to win the stage, and a stage win can make or break the Tour de France for a team and it’s sponsors. An early breakaway on Stage 16 had 12 riders and looked good, but Garmin-Sharp had missed out. They chased it down and eventually put Tom Slagter into the successful breakaway. In the end, the group of 21 included riders from 14 different teams.
Keeping the breakaway at a reasonable time gap was beneficial to pretty much everyone in the peloton, which is why we saw a variety of teams come to the front to set the pace, but didn’t see anyone stomp on the gas to cut the breakaway’s lead down by big chunks of time. Riders are tired and everyone knows there are two more really hard climbing days in the Pyrenees coming up.
Winning from the Breakaway
Up front, the battle for the stage win started heating up as the final climb to the finish approached. While a large breakaway group is beneficial for creating a big gap and sharing the workload, eventually it becomes too big for its own good. There are too many passengers, too many competing agendas. A smaller breakaway group tends to work cohesively until it is closer to the finish line, while the attacks and infighting start earlier in larger breaks. In the finale – once you know the stage winner will come from break – the smaller the group the higher your chance of winning. And if you’re one of the stronger riders in the break you want to jettison passengers sooner rather than later because the scent of a Tour de France stage win has been known to bring seemingly-dead riders back to winning form.
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The Hors Categorie Port de Bales climb was certain to explode the big breakaway, and Europcar went to the front to hasten the process. With about 5kilometers left to climb the lead group had been reduced to four riders, including both Thomas Voeckler and Cyril Gautier of Europcar, Michael Rogers of Tinkoff-Saxo, and Jose Serpa of Lampre-Merida. Attacks were made, but none were successful and by the summit Voeckler, Rogers, and Serpa were together with Gautier and a resurgent Vasili Kiryienka of Sky close behind.
Now that the selection had been made and it was certain that the stage victory would go to one of the five riders who came together with about 9 kilometers remaining, the only question was who had the strength and savvy to pull it off. Europcar had the numerical advantage, meaning they could have one rider attack and force the others to respond and drag their second rider up to the first. Rinse and repeat that move a few times and the opposition is too tired to chase and you win.
But Michael Rogers has ridden about 200 Tour de France stages and a ton more races than that in his career. He read the situation and knew the best tactic was to go it alone. He took some big risks on the descent and opened a gap in the turns, then used his time trial prowess (he was a 3-time time trial world champion early in his career) to hold off the charge from behind. Why couldn’t two Europcar teammates work together to chase him down? Teammates or not, it was still the finale of a 237-kilometer stage in the third week of the Tour de France. They used a lot of energy attacking on the climb and on the descent; Rogers saved something and put all his energy into one race-winning move.
Several minutes behind the battle for the stage win, the overall contenders were doing battle as well. Thibaut Pinot and Jeremy Roy of FDJ.com were really impressive, especially when you consider that Pinot abandoned the Tour last year, not because of crashes or injury, but because fear on the descents made him a danger to himself and the riders around him. He obviously did a lot of work to overcome those fears and gain the confidence necessary to not just survive the descents, but ride aggressively and maintain a gap earned on the preceding climb over rivals Roman Bardet and Tejay Van Garderen. Hats off to him and to the coaches and professionals he worked with between last year and this year, that’s an impressive turnaround! It paid off today, and Pinot moved up into third overall and took the Young Rider’s white jersey off the back of Bardet.
With today as an appetizer, tomorrow is going to be a phenomenal day of racing! Can Tejay bounce back from a bad day today? Can Pinot continue his ascendance and maybe challenge Alejandro Valverde? Can anyone challenge Vincenzo Nibali? With four classic and massive Pyrenees climbs in just 124 kilometers and a summit finish atop Plat d’Adet, this short stage will be explosive!
Enjoy Stage 17!