Raiders Of The Lost Art

Christophe Agnolutto

The Tour de France returns to Limoges today and the city has a small niche in the race’s history as the last place where a long distance solo breakaway triumphed, 16 years ago with the victory of Christophe Agnolutto.

Definition: A solo breakaway is just that, a full solo raid by one lone rider, as opposed to a late flyer; or someone jumping out of a breakaway to take a solo win. For example Floyd Landis’s deleted ride to Morzine saw him attack with others, then he rode across to an existing breakaway and benefited from their help before going solo later on: his escape was partly in the company of others. The same for Tony Martin’s Vosges rampage in 2014 et cetera, it’s not about a solo win but a solo escape from the moment of the attack to the finish line.

Christophe Agnolutto won a 200.5km stage from Tours to Limoges and was solo for 128km. “It was like a three hour time trial” said Agnolutto, a lanky rider who’d won the Tour de Suisse in 1997 thanks to a solo raid which gifted him the overall lead that he defended for the rest of the week. Come Stage 7 of the Tour in 2000 and early attacks from others had not worked, including by his Ag2r team mate Jacky Durand, a breakaway specialist and now Eurosport commentator. A tired Durand whispered to Agnolutto that maybe he ought to try and off he went. It was Erik Zabel’s 30th birthday and everyone expected the powerful Telekom team to deliver him a sprint finish but US Postal were riding on the front and it seems Telekom didn’t want take over. Heavy rain showers disrupted things further as workers were tasked with fetching rain gear. Agnolutto’s lead never went beyond seven minutes but the chase never came.

Bourlon’s record
The record for a solo attack belongs to the late Albert Bourlon and his 1947 filibuster from Carcassonne to Luchon when he covered 253km by himself. On a roasting hot day he took off solo but said he never meant to stay away, he just wanted a 100,000 franc prize offered early on the stage:

I was not thinking of winning the stage. I would have been happy to take the prime which was double my monthly income… …After 20 kilometres I was told I had ten minutes’ lead. So I continued.

Bourlon’s feat will stand in the history books forever because stages are shorter today but if he’s become synonymous with a record-breaking ride there’s much more to his story than counting kilometres.

Bourlon, the escape artist

A card-carrying communist he said he was blocked from selection in the French national team because of his militant ways, that commercial sponsors of teams and races were wary of him and so he could only ride for regional teams invited to the Tour de France. He was captured by the Nazis in 1940 and attempted several escapes from prisoner of war camps, each failure saw him placed in more secure camps. In November 1943 he broke out of the Stalag III-B camp and made his way across Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary to Romania, all during winter including a swim across the part-frozen Tisa river which puts a day’s bicycle ride into context. Once in Bucharest he resumed racing, even winning the Bucharest-Ploiești-Bucharest race before returning to France and resuming his pro career in peacetime.

Bradley Wiggins 2007

A lone breakaway is rare. For starters it’s hard to get away solo, such are the commercial imperatives that many want to have a go, if one rider attacks others follow. Many want their shot at glory and if it fails there’s time on TV and maybe the day’s combativitity prize and a trip to the podium too. Yesterday’s solo move by Armindo Fonseca was rare, odd even given he had nobody to accompany him but he never had a chance and he knew it. In 2007 Bradley Wiggins came close when he was away for 190km of the 199km stage. It was whispered the peloton, or at least sections of it, was annoyed with his comments against doping, and let him dangle in the wind for as long as possible just to tire him out.

Le peloton décide
There’s no Rambo scenario of a rider attacking and staying away by brute force alone, the peloton is always stronger. Like a prisoner on day release or a mouse briefly released by a cat, the lone rider is only away with the permission of the peloton. “Le peloton décide” is the French saying and it doesn’t need much translation. An escapee can only daydream and try to tilt the odds. They must pace themselves, easier said than done on an effort that is going to last hours. One ruse is to vary the effort, especially later on. Once the sprinters’ teams start pulling the lone rider doesn’t redouble their efforts to stay away, instead they ease up a little to give the impression that the chase behind is working. The peloton sees the gap is falling and eases up as they think they don’t need to work so hard to reel in the spent rider. Only our lone fugitive has been able to keep a little energy in reserve and accelerates during the final 20km to confound the peloton who discover they’ve miscalculated their chase. This is all Breakaway Basics but variations on this bluff and double-bluff can help.

These considerations can be at the margin, luck is better. A crash in the peloton during the chase, a downpour to dampen the peloton or perhaps or a misunderstanding among teams where one squad doesn’t want to work so neither to the others causing a stalemate. It’s harder today thanks to increased information, race radios are the obvious villain of the piece but there’s more to it, live TV inside the team car allows team directors to monitor the time gap in real time too and radio course keeps everyone more informed, it was probably easier back in the days before all of this. When Bourlon won his stage the first thing he did was ask the commissaires if they’d noticed him crossing the line. They did but his sarcasm was because they’d left him of the results before during the race, back then it was possible to race and go missing at times.

Thierry Marie

The stuff of legends
Lone breakaways hold a special place in cycling’s mythology. Fausto Coppi as un uomo solo al comando, a “lone man in the lead” in the 1949 Giro and prior to this he’d won Milan-Sanremo by such a margin that he stopped for coffee along the way and once he’d crossed the finish line the live radio coverage went to play some music to bide the time until the others arrived. Eddy Merckx’s ride in the 1969 Tour de France on the Pau-Mourenx stage was a sign of the The Cannibal’s huge appetite, he was already in the yellow jersey but decided to take off solo for 140km. Yet the solo breakaway can equally be the story of the little guy beating the system.

What is striking is just how rare the solitary raid is, we have to go back to 2000 for the last real one but they were not that common before. Jacky Durand was famous for his many breakaways but typically ditched breakaway companions en route to a stage win. Genuine solo rides in the Tour de France are so rare it’s hard to find a record of them. In 1991 prologue specialist Thierry Marie was alone for 234km from Arras to Le Havre (pictured), proof perhaps that the solo move isn’t just something for the sepia age; Marie even whiled away the time by singing to the TV cameras.

In 1966 Pierre Beuffeuil won a stage from Montluçon to Orleans after being away for 205km, solo of course. Along the way he passed through the town of Nohant, once home to the writer George Sand. Sand died long before the Tour de France ever started but some of her words come to mind:

Let me escape the deceitful and criminal illusion of happiness! Give me work, tiredness, pain and some enthusiasm.

Is there a better motto for a breakaway specialist?

40 thoughts on “Raiders Of The Lost Art”

  1. What with GS data, live television and race radio, should today’s scenario read “Le DS decide”?

    And, if it’s not, who decides in the peloton *for* the peloton?
    Is it an organic thing, or down to Les Patrons?

    There are clearly unwritten ‘rules’ or a ‘code’ but the dynamics of these are something of a mystery.
    Tommy Voeckler clearly knew his place yesterday anyway.

    • This is something of great interest to me too, the unwritten rules and code of the peloton. I’m assuming the leader of the race and those respected by their peers hold biggest sway but is communication of these decisions a bit like Chinese whispers?

      Like you say is does seem very organic not one person is controlling the decision as such. As inrng says in his article it is like a toy thing for the peloton by ‘letting’ people go.

      I’m also intrigued by the calculations they make on the fly of how far they’ll let the elastic stretch so to speak before reeling them back in. This part of the equation is where there is always that very slim chance the breakaway might succeed if peloton mis-judges, fails to work together or come to an agreement over who will take up the chase.

      On that note, who’s responsibility is it to take up the chase? The team with the yellow jersey? Reason I ask is I was a bit perplexed with Dimension Data on stage 2, especially Cummings taking up a massive turn on the front of the peloton, why didn’t they just all sit back, save energy with a view of keeping Cav within front group? Is it just not the done thing?

      Back on topic of solo raids, Tony Martin’s effort at the 2014 Vuelta was heartbreaking to watch, I knew it was inevitable he would be caught but was willing him to the line before he was swept up by the peloton in the final run in.

  2. I’m amazed at your productivity (paired with quality) these days. I love George Sand, and love her quotation (let me give the original: “Laissez-moi fuir la menteuse et criminelle illusion du bonheur! Donnez-moi du travail, de la fatigue, de la douleur et de l’enthousiasme”, as pronounced by her female hero Consuelo). She was a real romantic and true believer in progress and freedom, who nevertheless didn’t want to destroy the past, and who loved the countryside much better than cities. But I disagree with the idea that stages will “never” be that long again. Who are we to know? And what’s the point of trying to make this statement appear self-evident?
    I have more question… Does the average contemporary rider not feel dwarved and humiliated when he compares himself to someone like Bourlon (or Marie, or Viejo, or Perez-Frances), whose one victory is worth more than 30 guys’ whole careers? Don’t they want to be given the chance to achieve something memorable?

    • I think Bourlon will hold the record, television demands shorter stages, as do the UCI rules which cap the distance at 250km although in recent years the Giro has been given permission to exceed this a few times. Given the rarity of this distance, the chances of a lone break going away and then of it succeeding surely Bourlon’s record will live on?

      • I mean, I’sure deep inside that the necessity to restore the Tour de France and Henri Desgrange’s spirit will dawn on ASO sooner or later, no matter what Fabian what’s his name might think.

        • I mean, I’m sure deep inside that the impossibility to regress the Tour de France and Henri Desgrange’s spirit will dawn on everybody sooner or later, no matter what Ferdi what’s his name might think.

          • What is exactly wrong with Henri Desgrange’s spirit, IYHO, as opposed to today’s cycling and the way it’s going? This could surely be an excellent subject for a well-thought post on this blog, but perhaps you have your reasons, haven’t you?

      • In future, the demands of the television will be ignored, as the modus operandi of broadcasting will change to something more democratic. I can try to imagine what that will be, but I’m sure to fail miserably at predicting.

  3. “It’s harder today thanks to increased information, race radios are the obvious villain of the piece but there’s more to it, live TV inside the team car allows team directors to monitor the time gap in real time too and radio course keeps everyone more informed, it was probably easier back in the days before all of this.” sums up will why I would like to see this technology restricted.
    They still use a chalkboard to show the riders the time gap instead of a GPS-enabled video screen while MLB still uses wooden bats and horsehide balls. Change doesn’t always = progress or improvement. Example-remember “NEW COKE” from Coca-Cola?

  4. Tony Martin’s epic Vuelta effort comes to mind, one of the most heartbreaking days of cycling I’ve seen… I think today it would take a special rider and a large amount of luck to get and stay away.

  5. A comment on the TV in the car – I see there is a rule in the Tour that there must be no TV in the front of the team car within view of the driver (the same rule as applies in the French highway code). “Placing a functioning device fitted with a screen that is not a driving or navigational aid in the field of vision of the driver of a moving vehicle is forbidden”. Is this enforced? Do they turn the screen so the driver can’t see it? Is it in the back seat?

  6. And dont forget: Team size and strategy nowadays usually spoils the chances of any breakaway. Teams are nowadays usually dedicated to one goal: Sprinter or GC, so the sprint teams will hunt down any breakaway on flat stages, the GC rider teams most of the mountain breakaways, as GC contenders come into play in those stages. This was different before.
    So the best move to get the chances of breakaways increased is by reducing the size of the teams to 6 or 6 athletes and allow more teams in (=keeping the total number of athletes in the peloton constant). This would allow for more uncertainty in the race and thus a higher likelihood of breakaways(solo or not) making it..

  7. Not as long but about 170k breakaway including over Mt Ventoux for Eros Poli in 1994. Twenty minutes advantage at the base and just a couple of minutes to spare at the finish. Great ride from a 2metre lead out man.

  8. Thierry Marie’s win was the first Tour I remember watching, so I thought it was a fairly common thing back then. I think he still had a couple of minutes in hand coming over the line which is pretty remarkable, although not quite as remarkable as that Castorama kit…

  9. Let’s not forget Jack Bauer’s recent solo in the 2014 Tour:

    crossing the finish line in Nîmes, suffering more from the disappointment and despair of being caught and passed in sight of the finish and denied Tour de France glory, rather than the pain of spending 222km on the attack in search of a first ever stage victory by a rider from New Zealand.

  10. Hi from Romania! delightful article. it’s really enjoyable to have once in a while (though pretty often on your blog) these insights in cycling history and strategy.

  11. Wikipedia has a duller reason for the Wiggins solo effort,

    “On the 40th anniversary of the death of Tom Simpson, Cofidis rider Bradley Wiggins led from the two kilometre mark and at one stage was 18 minutes clear, but riding alone took its toll and with seven kilometres left he was reeled in. That left Tom Boonen to beat Óscar Freire and Erik Zabel in a sprint finish for his first Tour stage win in two years. After the stage Wiggins revealed his lone breakaway was a gift to his wife on her birthday, with Wiggins only finding out about the date’s significance after the race.”

  12. My immediate reaction was: no mention of Hugo Koblet?

    In looking at it in more detail it appears he was accompanied for the first few kilometres of his raid in the 1951 Brive-Agen stage, so maybe he misses out because of this technicality? However, it seems slightly unjust given he dropped his companion very soon into a long solo raid – when all the big guns were pulling to bring him back.

    Great write up here:

  13. I’m thinking of Joël Pelier, 102 mile solo break in the 1989 TdF. It was the first time his parents had ever seen him race as a pro.

  14. That is funny, I never thought I would read of my home town of Ploiești on this blog. I live in București now. Or Bucharest, the city’s international name. It’s 60km between the two, there isn’t a race now, just a very common ride. Ploiești is close to the hills that come before the mountains so for the cyclists in Bucharest, that lies in a flat land, it’s like a vacation.

  15. Solo breakaways don’t even need to be successful to be exciting and significant. Just the act itself shows the true heart of the champion. So many examples in the past–and I’m not talking about riders seeking face time on TV for their sponsors. The Badger’s solo attempt in the ’86 Tour comes to mind where he completely bonked out. The cycling equivalent of committing seppu-ku for Lemond. The real reason for which remains a mystery to this day.

  16. I’ve just realised that Eros Poli’s win was the first bike race I ever saw live, at the age of 11 – long before I became a fan. Happened to be at the foot of Ventoux on holiday with my parents and watching – I remember a rider coming through with a big lead but I’ve never realised quite what a stage I saw! Thanks for another wonderful piece.

Comments are closed.