The long, slow death of the break

A break­away rider last won a flat stage in the open­ing week of the Tour in 2009. Pro­cy­cling in­ves­ti­gates whether the ‘com­mer­cial break’ faces ex­tinc­tion

Dur­ing the open­ing four road stages of the Tour, it took less than 6km for the main break to form. Stage 1: three riders got away at kilo­me­tre zero; stage 2, three more got away in kilo­me­tre two. Stage 4, an­other four in kilo­me­tre four. On stage 5, seven got away, af­ter 6km. It was hardly the ac­tion­packed fight that the wall-to-wall TV cov­er­age pro­duc­ers hoped for.

On stages 7 and 8, the races fin­ished 2km/h and 3km/h slower than the stateliest speed pro­jec­tions. When, on stage 8, Bo­raHans­grohe’s Mar­cus Burghardt at­tacked but didn’t draw a re­sponse, he got off his bike and clapped the pelo­ton as it passed him. That just about summed up the at­ti­tude to the open­ing week break­away.

“I thought it was an hon­our to go in the break­away at the Tour de France,” As­tana’s Michael Valgren told Pro­cy­cling. “When I watched the Tour de France 10 years ago, I used to think how amaz­ing it would be to go in the break­away. Now, no­body wants to.”

The stage es­cape has al­ways been a con­trivance – a sop to the pelo­ton’s desperados and baroudeurs who agree to un­favourable terms in ex­change for two or three guar­an­teed hours on the box for their spon­sors. Ten years ago, the chance of a stage win was small, but at least it was there. On stage 3 in 2008, Sa­muel Du­moulin won in Nantes from a four-man es­cape that at­tacked at kilo­me­tre zero. A year later, Thomas Voeck­ler won alone into Per­pig­nan on stage 5. But that day nine years ago was the last time an early break beat the sprint teams in the open­ing week.

Now, even TV time seems barely worth the hassle. By the morn­ing of this year’s stage 7, a 231km Paris-Tours course in re­verse, Hi­laire Van der Schueren, Wan­tyGroupe Gobert’s can­tan­ker­ous team man­ager seemed grumpier than usual. His riders had been in breaks on stages 1, 2 and 4. He said: “To­day I told my riders it’s not nec­es­sary to go in the break. When there’s a big group, okay, we’re there but only when there are four or five riders. To­day is a long day, a day for the sprint­ers.” He didn’t hold out much hope that there’d be an ap­petite for an at­tack. Asked why he thought the prospect of a day in the break had be­come so unattrac­tive, he said: “That is the ques­tion you must ask the WorldTour teams, eh? Why are they not in the break? They don’t need the pub­lic­ity! For me it’s very im­por­tant we’re in the break to take pub­lic­ity for our spon­sors. I can­not un­der­stand that the WorldTour teams are not with us.” In the end, one of his most ag­gres­sive men, Yoann Of­fredo caved in and he went on a 108km solo sor­tie that fiz­zled out with 86km to race.

The rea­son why breaks have be­come ob­so­lete is plain: al­most every team has an over­ar­ch­ing ob­jec­tive: ei­ther a team has a top sprinter, a GC rider or both. Dmitry Kony­shev, Ka­tusha’s directeur sportif, said: “It doesn’t make sense for any­one to go in the break with five or six strong sprint­ers’ teams here to con­trol the race,” he said. “We don’t have peo­ple to send in the break. It’s half a team for the sprinter, and half for Zaka [Il­nur Zakarin] for GC.

Cedric Vasseur, who took the yel­low jersey af­ter a 150km solo break on stage 5 in 1997 and is now man­ager at Cofidis, agreed that the de­creas­ing chance of an es­cape

It’s a waste of en­ergy. There will al­ways be at least three teams who chase. You can do noth­ing - Dim­itri Kony­shev

suc­ceed­ing cre­ated a down­ward spi­ral. “It’s true for the break that it’s a lit­tle bit more com­pli­cated to find the way to suc­cess.

“Yes, the qual­ity of rider is go­ing down,” he agreed. “I also think the teams are dif­fer­ently or­gan­ised now be­cause each team comes with a sin­gle goal.”

Maybe, Pro­cy­cling sug­gested, the pres­tige of get­ting in a break had less­ened too? “It’s still an hon­our, but what is more im­por­tant is the team and the fi­nal re­sults,” he said.

And by re­sults he means wins. Yet by the end of stage 8 only Fer­nando Gaviria, Peter Sa­gan and Dy­lan Groe­newe­gen had won sprint stages. So shouldn’t teams who looked un­likely to win a bunch sprint not re­vise their tac­tics – try some­thing new and put the best sprint­ers’ teams un­der pres­sure by go­ing in breaks? Vasseur said: “It’s dif­fi­cult. If it’s go­ing to be a bunch sprint, you have to use the bunch sprint strat­egy. I think in the­ory yes, you can try to an­tic­i­pate the sprint, but it’s go­ing so fast it’s re­ally dif­fi­cult.”

Kony­shev was more pes­simistic: “If you go in the break as the rea­son to kill the sprint­ers teams it’s a waste of en­ergy. There will al­ways be at least three teams who chase. You can do noth­ing.”

The sprint­ers’ teams also ruth­lessly po­lice the qual­ity of rider in the break. Last year, BMC’s pow­er­ful rouleur, Ste­fan Küng was told he was “too strong” to go in a break in the Dor­dogne and that any group he joined would be chased down. He was san­guine about the ex­pe­ri­ence and ac­knowl­edged it was long­stand­ing good prac­tice on be­half of the sprint teams. This year at Quick-Step, the chief po­lice­man was the burly Tim De­clercq, who spent hun­dreds of kilo­me­tres at the head of the pelo­ton. He de­scribed the per­fect break as one that “must not be too nu­mer­ous, and they should not ride for good teams.” Good race craft it may be, but it’s deadly to watch.


Valgren pointed out an is­sue with the bonus struc­tures. “Maybe there’s not enough to pedal for out there,” he said. A decade ago, the first two stages had 14 primes for the polka dot and points com­pe­ti­tions. In 2018, there were just four (plus two new, but largely ir­rel­e­vant time bonus sprints). “Maybe they should put in more small sprints so peo­ple have some­thing to aim for,” con­tin­ued Valgren. “One point in the moun­tains clas­si­fi­ca­tion isn’t go­ing to change much in the end.”

Valgren pointed to stage 2 where Wan­tyGroupe Gobert’s Dion Smith dropped out of the es­cape once he had taken the soli­tary KoM point on of­fer af­ter 28km. All Smith had to do to take the jersey was fin­ish ahead of the pre­vi­ous in­cum­bent, Kevin Lé­danois, who had lost three min­utes in the pre­vi­ous day’s fi­nale. There was no point get­ting tired for the next 150km.

Küng said a mod­ern, cleaner pelo­ton also ac­counted for go-slows in the open­ing week. “I don’t know what peo­ple are used to see­ing. Ev­ery­one said the first week was bor­ing, I still spent more than 30 hours on a bike and I still had to do it, no mat­ter what pace you go at.”

He added: “The Tour is 21 stages. You can­not race full gas for 21 stages, it’s just not pos­si­ble. Es­pe­cially nowa­days when cy­cling has changed a lot and we’re all rac­ing clean – you can­not do that any more. At one point ev­ery­one has tired legs and a peace agree­ment hap­pens to fall in place. Be­cause at one point you can­not go and go and go when there is noth­ing to fight for.”

Is the first week break dead, Pro­cy­cling asked Kony­shev. He pulled a face and paused. “You could say that.”

“Some peo­ple con­cluded that I wasn’t able to win a Tour stage. I’m glad I made the legs do the talk­ing to­day ” S t age win­ner Dy la n Groe­newe­gen

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