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The art of the breakaway

Life as a breakaway artist requires courage, commitment, strategy, luck, form, and more - but how do they succeed?

There is a breed of professional cyclist whose raison d’être is to defy the odds.

The peloton is no place for him. Mere survival is not enough. He refuses to mark time in anticipation of a bunch sprint or summit finish. The road ahead draws him like a magnet.

Seven of this Tour de France’s first 18 stages have been won from a breakaway. The winner’s exultation is more than the fleeting joy of the sprinter and offers some clue to the depth of effort required. The deeper satisfaction of having overturned the odds, of having carved out victory by his own efforts, is evident in the breakaway artist’s exhausted smile; often the only celebration he has the strength left to muster.

Picture Ilnur Zakarin almost collapsing from the bike at the climb to Finhaut-Emosson, or Jarlinson Pantano pointing at the sky in triumph in Culoz. And picture too Thomas de Gendt on the Ventoux, arms raised in triumph, the fingers of either hand raised in a victory salute.

Serial escape artist Thomas de Gendt celebrate victory from the break on stage 12 of the 2016 Tour de France (Pic: Sirotti)

“If I stay in the peloton, I can’t win,” De Gendt tells RoadCyclingUK, downplaying the titanic effort of his peculiar calling. “That’s the only way I can get victory. It’s almost the only way I can race.”

It is not only in cycling’s greatest race that the breakaway artist thrives. Consider Britain’s three major events – the Tours of Britain and Yorkshire, and RideLondon – and the home riders’ willingness to go up the road in defiance of the visiting WorldTour grandees.

The breakaway demands courage, commitment, strategy, luck, form, and more. So how is it done? What are its demands? And what makes those who have made the breakaway an art form continue to take on seemingly insuperable odds? De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Songezo Jim (Dimension Data) and Steve Lampier (JLT-Condor) are our guides.

The serial escape artist

Thomas De Gendt has built a reputation as the peloton’s premier breakaway rider, a reputation founded on victories atop the Passo dello Stelvio at the Giro d’Italia and Mont Ventoux at the Tour de France.

The 29-year-old Belgian seemed the ideal candidate to offer insight into the art of the breakaway, and 24-hours after we submitted our interview request, De Gendt won on the Giant of Provence, arguably the Tour’s most iconic climb. The breakaway artist is the master of perfect timing, after all.

“There was a good feeling in the break, and at the end I was one of the strongest and could finish it off,” he says, with a modesty at odds with the scale of his accomplishment.

“To win a stage of the Tour is one of the biggest achievements you can have as a cyclist, so I’m really happy with the victory.”

Thomas De Gendt: “You lose more than you win and the times you win are where you gather the mental strength”

If anything, De Gendt’s victory on the Ventoux was overdue. The gallant Belgian finished second to Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) on stage five after the pair broke clear of the peloton with Astana’s André Grivko.

Then, on stage 10, when a day of relentless climbing ending in a brutal rendezvous with a hailstorm at 2,240m in Andorra, De Gendt was again among the day’s protagonists.

So how does he plot his raids? Is it a matter of preparation, or of instinct?

“I look at the stage the day before and I think about if a break has a chance or not,” he says. “Sometimes, I do stupid breakaways because it’s better for the team tactics, but usually I look at the stage the day before, and if it has a chance, like [Ventoux], I think I would like to be in. [On Ventoux], it was not really the plan to go in the break, but I just had the feeling I had to be in.”

Steve Cummings, 2016 Tour de France (Pic: Sirotti)
Ilnur Zakarin, Katusha, salute, stage 17, Tour de France, 2016, Finhaut-Emosson, climb, pic - Sirotti
  • Tour de France 2016 breakaway victories

  • Stage five – Greg van Avermaet (BMC Racing)
  • Stage seven – Steve Cummings (Dimension Data)
  • Stage nine – Tom Dumoulin (Giant-Alpecin)
  • Stage ten – Michael Matthews (Orica-BikeExchange)
  • Stage 12 – Thomas de Gendt (Lotto-Soudal)
  • Stage 15 – Jarlinson Pantano (IAM Cycling)
  • Stage 17 – Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha)

The physical ability of a breakaway artist – to defy a seething peloton by riding alone or in a small group for hundreds of kilometres – is by itself hugely impressive. But consider the mental fortitude required, especially by the rider trying to shed his confederates, only to be caught and then go again.

“You lose more than you win,” De Gendt says, matter-of-factly, “and the times you win are where you gather the mental strength.” De Gendt’s Ventoux victory was his second of the season from the breakaway and it is those successes which, he says, give him the strength to keep attacking.

The hundreds of kilometres that stretch before an early break offer ample time for the escape artist to lose focus, but De Gendt keep his mind constantly turning over.

“I’m always calculating the time gap and how many kilometres I still have to do and how many mountains points or intermediate sprints are left, and that way you have a better chance.

“Normally, if the stage is 200km with nothing between, it’s boring, but if you have a few sprints along the way you can set your mind on that. [On the Ventoux stage] it was the sprint and then the two climbs, you just try to calculate the time gap and how many points you can take.”

The African connection

Songezo Jim is one of the African stars of the WorldTour’s first African team, Dimension Data.

It’s a long way from Transkei to the towering peaks of the Dolomites and Andorra, but Jim has done more than merely survive the Giro and La Vuelta: he has been a protagonist.

The 2015 Vuelta a España was Jim’s first Grand Tour, but he wasted little time in getting up the road, riding in breakaways on stages nine and 18. He finished last season in similar style, escaping the bunch in the 40-degree heat of the first Abu Dhabi Tour, a performance that earned him the white jersey of best young rider.

Songezo Jim: “It looks very easy on TV once the breakaway is rolling along and the peloton are minutes behind them. But that is moments after a war took place”

For Jim, the great untold story of the breakaway is the effort required during its formation; the tactically complex and physically demanding process of making a move stick.

“That process is a very difficult and painful one,” he says. It looks very easy on TV once the breakaway is rolling along and the peloton are minutes behind them at a leisurely pace. But that is moments after a war took place.

“Getting into the breakaway is about following the right move at the right time and some luck. Attacking and going off the front takes a huge effort that takes you up to your limit. If the peloton isn’t happy with the composition of the break, it chases the move down which means you lose position when they catch you. You need time to recover to be ready for your next attempt.”

Songezo Jim (left) drives the breakaway – getting into an escape group is a “painful and difficult process,” he says  (Pic: Sirotti)

Recovery. Attack. Recovery. Attack. The demands of forming a breakaway can be relentless. Indeed, De Gendt’s Strava file from stage 12 shows his peak power output of 1,025 watts came during the formation of the break. If one move fails, there is a fresh group of riders ready to try their luck. Those from the original, captured effort must regroup, re-gather and prepare themselves to go again.

“In that time while you are recovering, three or four attempts are off the front while you are hoping they don’t get away while you make your way back to the front of the peloton to try another move,” Jim explains.

“If this is happening in a race like the Giro, you are usually going through narrow roads inside a big peloton with twists, turns and descents. It’s war. The worst is when you get a gap with a breakaway and you think this might be it, only for the peloton to chase you down 10 minutes later.”

Tour of Qatar breakaway (Pic: ASO)
Thomas de Gendt, 2016 Tour de France, win, victory, celebration, solo, attack, breakaway, break, climb, in the saddle (Pic: Sirotti)
Alaphilippe and Martin shared the combativity award for their efforts in the breakaway (pic: Sirotti)

The English warrior

For Jim’s African team, recent graduates to the WorldTour, the breakaway formed a central strategic plank towards a goal of top 10 finishes on the Giro’s demanding stages, while also propelling Steve Cummings to victory in this year’s Tour de France, but it is a vital tool too for domestic teams when the WorldTour squads come to visit for Britain’s three major international races.

Steve Lampier (JLT-Condor) is an experienced attacker; a rider who already this season has been up the road against WorldTour opposition at the Tour de Yorkshire and the National Championships.

Lampier believes the breakaway is an essential arrow in the quiver of the domestic pro, allowing him to compete against the heavier firepower of the WorldTour squads.

JLT-Condor rider Steve Lampier has become a master of the escape (Pic: Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com)

“We have three major UK races. Essentially, they’re shop windows. Although the [talent] gap is getting smaller, realistically the only chance of success [for a domestic rider] is a breakaway, and they do succeed – look at Tom Stewart two years ago at the Tour of Britain.”

Lampier concedes that it is possible for a domestic rider to target a high position on GC by riding in the bunch, but the breakaway offers guaranteed exposure.

“The gap is narrowing, so we are more competitive,” he says, citing Owain Doull’s podium finish at last year’s Tour of Britain, “but to get your name out there, and the team’s name out there, it can be better to be in the breakaway.”

Local knowledge can also be a powerful tool. The domestic teams are likely to do their homework on recces of the key stages of Britain’s biggest races.

Steve Lampier: “To get your name out there, and the team’s name out there, it can be better to be in the breakaway”

“It can give you inside knowledge and/or nightmares,” Lampier chuckles.

While the course can offer some incentive for a breakaway, Lampier believes its success or failure depends largely on a rider’s form and the prevailing mood of the peloton. So which of the two is most important?

“It’s 50/50, from my experience,” Lampier says. “You’ve got to have the legs to be continually jumping around. There are races where the break won’t go for 40 or 50km, and that can mean an hour or an hour and 10 minutes of full gas intervals to put yourself into the position.”

“Other times, it goes straight away, if the leaders see that there’s no threat to their GC positions. If there isn’t a reaction straight away, you can tell they’ll let the break go, which can be less stressful for all concerned.”

Lampier flags up the differences between British and WorldTour racing. Here too the gap is narrowing, he says, but generally the domestic peloton is unlikely to sit up and allow a break to disappear up the road.

“From an English perspective, say, in an English Premier Calendar race, for example, it’s different again. It’s a race from the gun, flat out. Things are slowly changing to become more like European racing, but you need the legs to get away and stay away.

“In continental-style riding, generally, the bunch sits up, has a natural break, and slowly reels in a breakaway. In a UK race, guys will be flat out in front and flat out behind.”

Indeed, getting away can be harder than staying away. Lampier seconds Jim’s description of the early skirmishes as “a war”. Physically, the game of attack and counter attack, escape and capture, can be exhausting.

“It’s a constant battle,” he says. “If it doesn’t go for 40km or 50km, that’s a constant succession of sprints. Even if you’re not going for the breakaway, it can be horrific.

“The peloton is in a line, it bunches up, it’s in a line again. It’s like an accordion. It requires a lot more than brute strength to get in the break, although you need that too.”

The David and Goliath battle of the breakaway means the peloton always looms large on the escape group (Pic: Alex Whitehead/SWPix.com)

David and Goliath

Chris Froome’s dominance in the battle for the general classification has made the breakaway a key weapon in the arsenal of those hunting stages or jerseys at this year’s Tour. Rarely has it been used with such success.

The thrill for the watching public is almost the same as for the victor. There is something irresistible about the David and Goliath dynamic of the breakaway artist and the peloton. It is almost impossible not to be affected by the escapee’s bravery and to will him to victory.

De Gendt has come to symbolise all of those admirable qualities at this Tour. Dropped by compatriot Greg Van Avermaet en-route to what might have been a memorable victory on stage five, he got himself into almost every break of significance in the intervening days before reaping the reward with victory on Ventoux.

Now only two stages remain: one final crippling engagement in the Alps before the run in to Paris, and the inevitable attempts to defy the peloton on the Champs Élysées. The breakaway artists will again fancy their chances. It will be a privilege to watch them work.

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