The breakaway. How does it work?

By Sean O'Mahony | 5 Minute Read

It’s July (or Tour de France month as it’s more commonly known around here) and as the ‘cyclist in residence’ at Precision Hydration it’s fallen to me to write a post on the weird and wonderful ways in which a bike race peloton works, for any of you who aren’t 100% sure on some of the nuances.

However, as I started writing away, I realised that I was spending an enormous amount just writing about one component — The Breakaway. So that’s what this post is all about. Next week I’ll follow up with something on the peloton in general.

The first question most unfamiliar observers of a big bike stage race ask is... Why on earth do these guys seem to go off the front every day and work their brains out only to be caught by the peloton with about 5km to go? Seemingly all for naught. Very rarely does a breakaway make it all the way to the line to contest for the win.

So why bother?

Well, as with everything in life, it depends. In the peloton, it depends, among many, many other things, on the stage, which day of the race they're on, what type of stage it is, whether a rider has a contract next year, whether a team has a sponsor next year and even occasionally which side of bed a rider got out of that morning! In the amateur ranks, it can be a bit simpler as a breakaway pretty much depends on what level of racing you participate, Cat 1/2, Cat 3 or Novice.

In a race like the ‘Le Tour’, the breakaway usually happens well before we get our first TV feed. After kilometre 0 those riders that have decided to go for it on that particular day put in their attacks. It's a frantic, aggressive period with multiple attempts going off the front until one eventually sticks. The peloton is actually ‘happy’ once the break has gone, everything settles down and for the next few hours or so they can ride tempo.

So who usually gets in the break? Well it's probably easier to talk about who doesn't at first. If you're riding for the General Classification or GC (i.e. trying to win the stage race), then you'll never get into a breakaway. The other teams will always chase you down. If you're within about 10 minutes of the GC, likewise you probably won't be allowed to go as you represent a threat to the GC. You’ll rarely see the top specialist sprinters in a break either – they’re the guys who only hit the front in the final 500m normally and are the ones who the peloton is effectively working for to catch a break, so they stay in the wheels most of the day conserving energy where they can.



Image: Quino Al via Unsplash (copyright free)

The type of rider who will almost definitely make the break are those from smaller, non pro-tour teams, who are anxious to a). Show off their sponsors' names by being on TV for most of the day, b). Show themselves off as potential candidates for some of the bigger teams. Other prime breakaway candidates are top riders who are a long way down in GC (by prior accident or design) whose best chance of getting some value from the race rests with a solo stage win and occasionally riders who are chasing prizes within the race like the Polka dot (KoM) jersey – with the view that they can sweep up some intermediary points in that competition more easily if they are away up the road.

Incidentally, the closest thing there is to a sure bet about breakaways in general is that you will probably see at least 1 Frenchman in a break on Bastille day in The Tour each year due to the kudos associated with a home win on that date. (Fun fact: almost 1/3 of the stages on Bastille day in the history of the Tour have been won by a Frenchman, although they’ve had a dry spell since 2005).

But why do breaks happen almost every stage? Because their ‘real’ purpose is to allow the peloton to ride in a settled manner for the majority of the stage race. Riding 21 days in a major stage race is a significant physical undertaking to say the least! If there were no breakaways then, within the peloton, there would be constant nervous energy. It would be a very stressful and demanding experience. Occasionally you'll see a stage where no breakaway manages to escape. Then watch the difference in the vibe from the peloton.

Why do breakaways only make it to the end and the win in relatively rare circumstances? As the main peloton come within 30-40 km of the finish line, they will increase their pace to bring their designated sprinter to the line and contest the stage win. A breakaway group of 5 riders will virtually never be able to outrun a group of 160+ riders in the professional peloton – it’s just an unfair contest. The peloton can almost calculate the 'catch' time to within a few kilometres of the finish line. Catch too early and it can be a manic ending, catch too late and the stage win is lost.

In fact recently Professor Van Maldeghem, a maths professor at Ghent University in Belgium created a formula to calculate the distance at which the peloton has to start its chase to catch the breakaway, or not!

Is there a formula to work out if the peloton is going to catch a breakaway?

X = distance at which the peloton should start chasing in kilometres
A = time gap between the breakaway group and the peloton in hours
p = speed of the peloton in kilometres an hour
v = speed of the breakaway group in kilometres an hour
c = 10-a
a = amount of riders in the breakaway group

Luckily for the breakaway, not all of the riders in the peloton have degrees in mathematics, so they do, on occasion, balls up their sums and the breakaway gets it’s 15 minutes of fame. And it’s this ‘slim but real’ chance of a stage win and the associated glory that certainly adds to the motivation and drama of the race, and definitely makes the flatter stages of the Tour more intriguing for most of us to watch on TV!  

So there you have it. A quick overview of the breakaway, who is usually in it and why it’s normally (if not quite always) doomed to failure.

At the start of this blog post I also mentioned the amateur ranks. How does the breakaway factor there? Well, that's the subject of another post in the future as the dynamics an amateur bike race pack can be an entirely different animal. However next week we’ll have a look at some things that go on inside the peloton in a professional road race….and it’s not all hugs and kisses I can tell you…

P.S. If you don't already, it's worth following the GoPro Tour highlights on Youtube.

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