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.
A BREAK WITHOUT PURPOSE
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