Flat or mountainous, wet or dry, long or short – all road races will invariably feature a long breakaway. They can be initiated by one or a large group of riders. Some form the moment the flag drops or it may take several failed attempts and an hour or more to make a break stick. The advantage they gain vary from a handful of minutes to 20 or more. No matter what, however, the rhythm of break-chase-(no) catch is embedded into the DNA of all road races as surely as the sun rises and sets.
Why do breakaways happen?
Why does the peloton allow breaks to get away, thereby committing themselves to a long pursuit? Simply because it is the least strenuous way to get from A to B.
Repeatedly chasing down every attack that occurs creates a quick-slow-quick tempo which is physically and mentally draining. Better to allow a small number to get away and then mount a controlled pursuit. It’s more efficient: think of it like running a marathon at a steady pace as opposed to a succession of short sprints separated by slower recovery runs.
Why do riders put themselves in breakaways?
The odds of a breakaway succeeding, particularly on a flat stage, are relatively small. Being in a break also uses up more energy than sheltering in the comfort of the peloton. So why bother?
For many riders who are not exceptional climbers or sprinters, a break may be their only chance of victory. Some riders – FDJ’s Jeremy Roy is a notable example – make their reputation as breakaway specialists. But there are also other reasons why a rider might want to get into a break, both commercial and tactical.
Spending most of the day in the break guarantees valuable air-time for teams, sponsors and the rider himself. It also offers the opportunity to secure intermediate sprint or mountain classification points, either on their own behalf or to protect the position of other riders within their team by preventing other rivals from doing so.
Breakaway attempts typically start the moment racing starts, but the first attack is often not the decisive one. The peloton will not let an escape go until it is happy with the size and composition of the group. So, for instance, it is extremely rare for an overall contender to attempt to join a breakaway, as the teams of their rivals will respond immediately, condemning the break to failure.
It may also take a long time for a successful break to establish itself for other tactical reasons, such as an early placement of an intermediate sprint which the fast men want to contest. A high average speed early on (up to 50kph) is generally indicative of a peloton which wants to keep everything together, at least initially.
No matter how strong or determined the members of a breakaway, simple physics counts against them. A small group enjoys less shelter from the wind, and each rider has to spend longer at the front where energy expenditure is greatest. Breaks which survive to the finish generally only do so with the tacit approval of the peloton, or because of a collective misjudgment or delaying crash.
How to gauge the likelihood of a breakaway succeeding
The golden rule for judging the chances of a breakaway succeeding is the simple formula: 10km equals one minute. If a break’s advantage is less than one minute for every 10km remaining, it is likely to be doomed. On a steep climb the peloton can make up much more than one minute per 10km, whereas on a descent the opposite is true, but nonetheless this is a good rule of thumb.
It is also worth considering the size of the break versus the number of riders driving the chase on the front of the peloton. Typically there are only one or two teams pulling on the front of the bunch – those of the race leader and the top sprinters/climbers (depending on whether the stage is flat or mountainous). So if the peloton is chasing a four-man break and two teams each put three men on the front they should be able to reel in the escapees comfortably. But if only one team commits three men, they will struggle to reduce the deficit. The bigger the break, the more teams will need to contribute to the chase.
Finally, the race situation also has an impact, particularly in the three-week Grand Tours. Early on the top contenders may be happy to let a lesser rider win, forcing his team to work to defend the overall lead on subsequent days. (This is how Thomas Voeckler has twice (2004 and 2011) enjoyed long stints in the yellow jersey at the Tour de France after getting into the right breaks.) Or at the end of a long, hard sequence of days – or the day before a big mountain stage or time trial – the contenders may call a truce to conserve energy, allowing a break to stay away.
However, the vast majority of breaks are doomed to failure. What may once have been a sizeable advantage is gradually whittled away, and the escapees are typically caught 5-15km from the finish. But every now and then the hare escapes the hounds – and that’s why opportunistic riders will keep trying day after day. Some chance is better than no chance at all.