Everything about a breakaway says freedom, liberty and space. But as well as a hard physical effort it’s also a tricky game of poker with bluff and counter-bluff and the bigger the race, the greater the tactics.
The race starts and some riders jump away to establish a lead. The fugitives are identified, either on sight by riders or via race radio and once the composition of the breakaway is decided the bunch can decide whether to let them go or try a chase.
For a move to have a chance of making it to the finish there are several ingredients are suggested. None are sufficient but they’re often necessary:
- strong riders: it’s not enough to see names nobody has heard of going up the road, you need some big engines. It sounds obvious when you read it but it’s still helpful to spell out
- strength in numbers: a large group is able to share the work. Also the more riders up the road, the fewer the teams in the bunch who need chase. The reverse is true, a solo breakaway is always a challenge.
- the course: a hilly or awkward route makes an organised chase harder
- the finish: a flat finish for the sprinters or a large summit finish have something in common as there are specialist riders backed by dedicated workers to set up their team leader for these kind of finishes which means a concerted chase
- GC standing: riders who pose no threat to the race leadership are given their day; to a lesser extent the team prize can also come into play, if three riders from one team go up the road other teams won’t be happy.
All these factors in establishing the breakaway and gauging its chances of success. But next comes the tactical component which is harder to view from the outside. For simplicity’s sake let’s talk of the bunch and the breakaway, even if “the bunch” is split between a few teams with an interest in chasing and many who are content to sit tight.
The breakaway knows the bunch is stronger and that typically any lead given away can be reclaimed later on. A group of six riders left to marinate for half the day are going to be easy to pull back once several teams start working, the numbers toiling on the front of the bunch will exceed those working in the breakaway. Think of it as two time trials with one squad of 15 riders versus another of six.
But like all fugitives trying to outrun the law, the breakaway knows they’re outnumbered so they have to resort to tactics. Ideally as they enter the last 50km they’ll begin to soft-pedal. The bunch then gets the information that the time gap is falling. This has two consequences:
- the bunch will judge its pacing knowing the gap is coming down and you don’t want to catch a group too soon otherwise another will surge up the road
- the breakaway are not pacing themselves in a linear effort to the finish instead the slight reduction in pace means they can keep a little in reserve for the finish so that just when the break thinks it can reel them in with 10km to go, the breakaway riders can up the pace and ruin the chasers’ calculations to stay away
Both groups know very well what the other is doing, creating a tactical contest that students of Game Theory might like to model but it’s not easy to analyse. The bunch knows very well the breakaway might ease up a bit only to accelerate. But it’s never so obvious, after all the break is not a team time trial of riders with aligned interests. Some might be soft-pedalling for private reasons to save energy over their companions for day and the group might not be able to conspire to adjust their pace.
At the pro level when information is constantly transmitted. There is the moto blackboard which relays the time gaps but also race radio communicates information to the teams who then relay the updates via their radios. There are two more sources of time gap info, first the TV as many team cars have TV screens and can get the GPS time gap. In addition a team with car behind the breakaway and another behind the bunch can also take private time checks.
It’s this constant supply of information communication that makes a breakaway in a pro race very different from other events. For example in an U23 event it can be common for the strongest riders to club together and simply ride off knowing that a chase can be hard to organise and measure.
Today’s Dauphiné stage win by Yuri Trofimov is a good case study. It worked thanks to a powerful group of riders and because there were no sprinters teams chasing to set up the rider, they were deterred by the Col de Manse.
The breakaway contained Andriy Grivko (Astana), Christian Meier (Orica-GreenEdge), Imanol Erviti (Movistar), Maxime Bouet (AG2R), Romain Sicard (Europcar), Pim Lightart (Lotto), Gustav Larsson (IAM), Damiano Caruso (Cannondale), Bob Jungels (Trek), Peter Velits (BMC), Yuri Trofimov (Katusha), Jan Bakelants (OPQS) and Lars-Petter Nordhaug (Belkin). All are strong riders and there were some big engines in there.
The chances of a breakaway making it to the finish are often low but many still want to try. The odds increase substantially given the right circumstances. But even on those days when the break looks to have no chance there are tactical games to play, notably for the breakaway to signal to the bunch that the chase is working only to accelerate in the final. Watch closely next time a move is away to see if you can spot this.