The riders pass the Kilomètre 0 point, Christian Prudhomme waves his flag and the race gets underway. Instantly a handful of riders from the wildcard teams stand on the pedals and go clear. Only this kind of move doesn’t work so why waste the energy? They say it’s to “show the jersey” but is this a good image? Maybe it’s just great fun.
The breakaway can have its day even when it looks like a nailed-on sprint finish. See Dario Cima in the Giro this year – that’s him in the picture and he hasn’t won the sprint, he has just managed to stay clear all day – or Jelle Wallays in the Vuelta last year. But the Tour? We have to go back to 2010 when Sylvain Chavanel won the stage to Spa, it was promised to the sprinters but it poured, the roads were slippery, the peloton staged a mini protest which let Chavanel stay away, freak circumstances. So we go back to 2009 and Thomas Voeckler’s stage win in Perpignan for a day that should have been a sprint but wasn’t. It’s testimony to how controlled the Tour de France is, days that look like bunch sprints end in bunch sprints and teams bring their best riders, for example Tony Martin was deployed by Jumbo-Visma yesterday to contain the breakaway. It creates a Catch-22 scenario as since it hasn’t happened this decade, few want to try and stay away on a flat day so few will try and the only ones to have a go are, say, four riders from wildcard teams and they simply don’t have the horsepower to stay away.
So why try? First there can be a good reason if there’s a tactical objective such as a couple of fourth category climbs because this brings the mountains jersey early in the race. This time last year Dion Smith went in the breakaway on the first day and yes they got caught before the finish but not before the New Zealander collected the mountains jersey, earning a podium appearance and media attention that his modest Wanty-Gobert team craves. Even just collecting a few points at the intermediate sprint means a bit of prize money for the team. Hope dies last and there’s always a chance the move sticks.
It’s often said getting the team jersey on TV matters. Now winning against the odds is an attractive proposition but by extension those odds mean the logo is more often associated with doomed efforts and failure, is this really the kind of effort the brand wants? The Pro Conti teams have budgets ranging from €2 million to €10 million and frankly this would buy a lot of TV ads but cycling can reach parts of France other marketing campaigns cannot. Also maybe that day the team has invited VIPs such as top clients or star salespeople and they need to see something happening.
Another reason is self-fulfilling, the teams are invited to the race in order to go in these breakaways and so now they’ve been invited they must go in the breakaways otherwise if they don’t then they might not be invited back. Wildcard teams are expected to “animate” the race, pro cycling’s euphemism for supplying cannon fodder. A breakaway, even a doomed one, provides us with a race rather than a procession and helps rotate the TV images and gives commentators more to talk about, like the time gaps and analysis of which team is chasing. This matters to the race and the all important TV production.
Finally there’s another good reason to go up the road: the joy of it all. The Tour de France is a street party and you enjoy the applause of the public, something special for any local riders on the day. Nevermind getting the jersey on TV, how about putting yourself in the picture instead.
These early breakaways are doomed in the Tour de France, if they succeed in the Giro and Vuelta every now and then they seem near impossible in the Tour de France. This becomes self-perpetuating as no big rouleurs are going to spend energy on it. It’s said it matters because lesser teams can “show the jersey” but is trying and losing a good image for a brand? It probably depends. Some teams are invited to the race on the implicit assumption they’ll animate the race, they ensure a race rather than a procession and if it’s doomed and of questionable value, there’s always the thrill of the chase and the cheers of the crowd. Not everyone can win but trying is part of the fun.