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In praise of breakaways

Trevor Ward
2 Jul 2021

Foolhardy, punishing and usually doomed to failure, the breakaway is one of cycling’s most glorious enigmas

The peloton is a living, dynamic organism, with its own rules, etiquette and hierarchy. It adapts not only to external forces such as terrain and weather, but also to the whims of its member parts.

It offers shelter and camaraderie, support and sustenance. And yet a certain breed of rider can’t wait to get away from it as quickly as possible. Until recently, ‘the day’s breakaway’ was always firmly established by the time live TV coverage started.

The high-speed to-ing and fro-ing between the gravitational pull of the peloton and its maverick satellites remained a mystery until broadcasters started showing Grand Tour stages from start to finish.

And then the full, frantic hurly burly was at last revealed to all.

To escape the peloton is one of the toughest challenges in professional sport, requiring physical strength, mental resolve and a gambler’s nerve.

The lone rider – and it’s nearly always a lone rider who starts the ball rolling – who breaks free will have to bear the full force of the elements head on, hoping that a few other strong souls can manage to join them.

And when they do, a whole new dynamic comes into play, as breakaway master Thomas Voeckler once explained to an interviewer: ‘Once away in an escape, I think about the strength of those present, who is fast in the sprint, the parcours, who has interests in riding, perhaps who has been in a team with somebody else before, possible alliances – all of this is in my head.’

An individual or group will only escape if the peloton allows them to, and that decision will be a mix of the political and pragmatic.

In a stage race, a GC rider won’t be given the privilege, and neither will anyone who’s likely to upset the overall standings, but a lower-division team might be allowed some rope.

The riders at the head of the peloton have to keep tally of exactly who is jumping off the front, a job that would give them headaches in the days before live TV pictures and team radios.

Riding tempo

The right combination of riders will mean they can take their foot off the gas and ride tempo or wait for a rival team – typically a team that didn’t get a rider in the escape – to make all the running.

In the stressful environment of a three-week Grand Tour, it’s ultimately in the interests of the peloton to have a breakaway a few minutes ahead for the majority of the stage.

This exerts a ‘calming’ effect on the bunch, dissipating the nervous energy of the riders. No one is under any pressure to ‘race’ until the finish line approaches.

There’s even a formula, devised by a professor of mathematics at the University of Ghent, which calculates at which point the peloton must start its chase to successfully make the catch.

It takes into account the respective speeds of the breakaway and the chasing pack, the gap between them and the number of riders in the break.

The catch, though, is usually a foregone conclusion.

This existential sense of inevitability is another burden that the breakaway rider must carry. The fact is, ‘the day’s breakaway’ – as opposed to a late, opportunist attack from a rider such as Steve Cummings – rarely wins the stage or race.

This realisation can weigh as heavily on a rider’s heart as the lactic acid in their legs.

Of course, there are exceptions, most memorably José Luis Viejo in 1976 when he recorded the biggest winning margin by an individual rider on a stage of the Tour. He won Stage 11 by 22 minutes and 50 seconds after spending more than 160km on his own at the front.

Another winning breakaway worthy of the description ‘heroic’ was Bernard Hinault’s 80km solo escape in driving snow at Liège-Bastogne-Liège in 1980. But my personal favourite has to be the truly epic breakaway of Eros Poli.

The Italian rode solo over Ventoux, leading a pack that included Marco Pantani and Miguel Indurain, to win Stage 15 of the 1994 Tour in Carpentras.

What made his feat so spectacular – he was out in front for 160km – was his size. At 6ft 4in and 83 kilos he was more géant than grimpeur.

I shared a glass of wine with him at the top of the Passo Gardena during a recent Sella Ronda Bike Day in the Dolomites (when they close a mountainous 55km loop to all motorised traffic) and he was only too keen to show me the YouTube video of his victory on his phone.

Doing the sums

He told me how he had done the maths in his head – ‘I had a lot of time on my hands, plus we had no radios back then’ – and calculated he would need to extend his 10-minute advantage to 25 by the start of the climb.

‘I always got dropped in the mountains,’ he told me. ‘Even the tifosi couldn’t help me by pushing me. They would say, “Sorry Eros, you’re too heavy.” So for me to be first to the top was a dream.

‘And that’s the beauty of cycling. A mountain is bigger than any rider, but it is possible for you to beat it.’

By the finish in Carpentras, Pantani had reclaimed 22 minutes to finish second, but it was Poli’s breakaway that earned the headlines with its mix of daring, suffering and sheer courage.

Most breakaways eventually fade like a whisper in a crowd, but just occasionally they succeed.

The longest and loneliest – like Viejo’s or Poli’s – are a reminder that in a corporate age of marginal gains and technological advances, an audacious, stubborn gamble can sometimes still be enough to win a bicycle race.

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