When Nobody Attacks

We’re seeing several stages in the Tour de France when nobody attacks. In the past there was always a move hoping for some publicity and the chance of beating the odds. No more…

Normally we’ve seen an early breakaway go. The flag drops and a handful of plucky riders take a flier. Race director Thierry Gouvenou has branded them “4×4” moves, as in four riders go up the road and get four minutes. This blog has labelled them 4x4x4 as four riders get four minutes in a forlorn move. These moves almost never work.

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Hope dies last goes the saying and a breakaway can make it. But here the Tour is a victim of its success. The early break can sometimes make it but it’s rare any time in the season. At the Tour though the sprinters’ teams can’t afford a mistake and the chances of the early break making it are to the right of the decimal place. It can depend on definitions but the last time the early breakaway survived on a sprint stage from the first half of the Tour was Thomas Voeckler’s triumph in Perpignan from 2009.

If they don’t bring victory they’ve been labelled an échappée publicitaire, literally a “commercial break” because riders go up the road and get exposure for their sponsors. Whether this is worth it is debatable, hours of logo on screen but signalling your brand rhymes with doomed moves is not great. It’d be cheaper to buy TV ad slots in the afternoon and craft a more targetted message than fund a pro team.

Riders though can make a name for themselves. As Yoann Offredo (pictured), a stalwart of the long breakaway, once quipped “there are some riders who only their mothers know are taking part in the Tour de France“. Jonas Abrahamsen has made a name for himself although he’s done more than the doomed moves but Offredo’s TV career today might owe itself in part to notoriety from all those moves.

“the stage slumped into the most dreary lethargy”
Antoine Blondin, L’Equipe 1968

Not every stage have action from start to finish, the glory of the Tour is its length. Surely no other sport can see a siesta guide published. Still a doomed move going up the road feels almost essential. There’s a story to follow as riders attack, we see the gap go up, we can see which team is chasing, we can see how the gap moves up and down. Even if the conclusion to the story seems more obvious.

This the illusion of suspense beats the lack of it. For television viewers the spectators get more shots as the producer can alternate between the breakaway and the peloton. Indeed the lack of sport is probably frustrating for TV viewers although if you are watching when nothing happens you can blame yourself as much as the riders or anyone else. In the past TV only started for the final hours (or less if you back further) so it’s a modern concern.

Today all teams all have their plans. Wildcard invitees like Uno-X, Lotto-Dstny and Israel all have house sprinters and want to back them so there’s no point going up the road, this was less the case in the past. This year Total Energies don’t have a house sprinter as much but they supply the other example, they are waiting for the right moment. Indeed this is the same for many other teams, just as we wouldn’t expect Visma, Ineos or Soudal-Quickstep to try a breakaway on the flat today because it would be a waste of energy, the same applies for, say, Cofidis, EF or Movistar who want to save themselves for other days.

When Axel Zingle followed Jonas Abrahamsen’s attack at the start of Stage 6 to Dijon he got roasted in public by his Cofidis manager Cedric Vasseur for “a spasm” and using up energy needed for Bryan Coquard’s leadout later, and for the coming days.

The Giro d’Italia has the Fuga prize (Italian for breakaway) where there is a classification for the riders who have spent the most kilometres up the road. A daily award and the photo opportunity is an incentive for lesser teams trying to get some limelight; the Tour though has the Combativity prize which can overlap. An extra prize in the Tour? Awkward because while the Giro has many prizes and awards, a confusing array even, the Tour likes its relative simplicity.

Finally if nothing happens there’s a benefit as riders can redouble their efforts the next day.

A stage without a breakaway makes for unusual viewing and with TV being so important to the event there’s probably going to be some reflection if the lack of breakaways become a trend. There are still wide gaps between the teams in terms of budget and ambitions but the lowest level has closed the gap and even invitee teams have plans to execute rather than energy to burn on doomed moves. And if there’s nothing to watch you can read about the trend of nothing to watch.

36 thoughts on “When Nobody Attacks”

  1. Yoann Offredo made a name for himself also by ending up in court after an altercation with an automobilist on a training ride. During a somewhat heated discussion on the roadside the lady passenger hit Offredo with a broom handle. The broken nose put him out of racing for ten days.

  2. It’s not just about TV. It’s racing at lower amateur speed, literally a further rest day. For now, they’re barely averaging 41 km/h on flat terrain in a full bunch. The break usually grants that a minimum level of effort is at least assured.

  3. I would suggest that Cofidis would be better off organising and participating in breakaways. As much as I quite like Coquard his best years seem to be behind him and there is probably about as much chance of me winning a stage at the Tour this year. Also Total Energie have their stage now, surely they can roll the dice now. What are Lidl doing now Pedersen has gone home, providing a full team in service to Ciccone coming 8th? It seems riders need a full team of support to do anything these days, noteworthy or not.

  4. The problem is the inordinate, unrealistic and absolutely exaggerated number of riders and teams working for a sprint finish, including the equally silly number of mediocre riders considered “sprinters”, whose chance of winning is well below any of their teammates’ should they be part of a successful breakaway. This is all completely unbalanced and illogical: 3/4 teams basing their tactics on their sprinter versus 15/18 teams interested in breakaways would certainly be more realistic. By the way, who said teams with a candidate to overall victory should not be interested in breakaways? Anyone remember Vincent Barteau in 1984 or Ronan Pensec in 1990? If the number of riders working against a sprint becomes reasonable, in proportion to those working for a sprint, then successful (and more importantly, GC-relevant) breakaways can come back to flat stages
    Anyway, flattish stages disputed 100% on tarmac do not have a place in modern cycling. The more boring “sprint stages” there are, the more blatant the need to make them disappear, and th sooner their disappearance will happen.
    And by the way, Cédric Vasseur deserves a good kick up his backside for his moronic comment, and leave the sport.

  5. If I had watched todays stage on mute I would have presumed there had been some sort of rider protest. A genuinely weird stage.

  6. As mentioned previously: The remedy for such stages is to reduce the certainty of an outcome. How? By reducing the ability to control a race: Less riders per team and 1 or 2 more teams. This will lead to a competition between breakaway teams and sprinter teams, which will need to manage their efforts as they have less riders to “burn”.
    I am also a big proponent of removing race radios altogether, as this adds to the uncertainty. Nowadays, even if you are at the back of the peloton, you will immediately informed over radio by your DS who is in the break and if any rider is dangerous in the overall. Without radios, this will take some time to get through to every rider of a team and reaction will thus be delayed. Also, a time gap to a breakaway is much more difficult to manage without radio. There are many examples where this played a major role, see for example several European Championships of the women’s race in the last Olympics, where AVV thought she had won, but never realised there was still one rider off the front…
    Of course, sprinter teams will try to keep things on a tight leash, but with limited resources, they can only do so much…

  7. Another difference between TdF and the Giro is that the French wildcard invites are more or less guaranteed. If they don’t put on a show by going in a futile break, they will be invited back next year. I sense this is not the case in Italy (or Spain).

  8. Today’s stage was definitely a stage to forget. Not just the bunch trundling along at cyclo tourist pace, but some of the almost inane ‘safety’ comments from the usual suspects.
    Lets hope tomorrows parcour encourages at lest some reminder of what the sport should be about.

      • It would have been a day in quite deplorable weather, incessant cold rain and headwind for most of the route from Liège to Lille. 42 km of the course was on pavé, including some of the sectors ridden in Paris-Roubaix:
        “un enfer pavé échelonné sur 42 km, dont 19,5 sur de très mauvaises sentes, des lieux mythiques (Camphin-en-Pévèle ; Carrefour de l’Arbre)”.

        But even so, it is hard to escape the thought that the “8” must be a typo…

  9. I suspect the point system – although, we should then see the same effect at Giro and Vuelta?
    Why should, say, Uno-X use their riders in useless moves if their sprinter (Kristoff?) can place fifth in average?

    • I think this is the reason and this year there are more sprint stages and less spaced out, concentrated in the back end of first week and second week, makes it seem like more of a problem.
      But if smaller teams can pick up points for lower places in a sprint, that is where they will focus their efforts.

  10. Will the UCI’s plans to make wildcards increasingly restricted to pro teams nearer the top of the points rankings mean that this issue is likely to become more frequent over the next few years?

    • No.

      It’s many years since even the Giro last selected a team from outside the previous year’s top 30. There was absolutely no need for the UCI to introduce that regulation.

      Where it could get interesting is if the two Italian teams currently in the top 30 (whatever Bardiani is called this week in 25th, and Polti-Kometa in 29th) were to both have terrible years and fall out of the top 30. The following year RCS would have to choose between the Giro not complying with the regulation requiring a minimum of one home team in each grand tour (a regulation which the Tour and Vuelta have no problem with courtesy of French and Spanish WorldTeams) or the Giro not complying with the new top 30 rule.

  11. The argument against race radios seems somewhat undermined by playing snippets during coverage. Most are completely inane of the “well done boys keep it up” or “dont forget to put on your rain jackets” variety. The concept of puppet masters back in the team car fiendishly forcing their riders into perilous positions at the front of the peloton appears to be somewhat wide of the mark.

    I am sure start to finish coverage doesnt help here (though generally in favour), there have always been slow days in stage races. Sean Kelly can be relied upon to bring up tales of yore when young keen riders met with serious disapproval from the peloton “patron” if they dared too race aggressively before the cameras were turned on. Perhaps the Giro idea of a small scale competition for some sort of breakaway prize has merit. However minor any sort of “prize” at the TDF would been seen as good publicity for the sponsors.

      • The only problem with that, is if (for example) the wind blows. A stronger wind yesterday and we could have had 4 hours of full gas racing, and we’d all be gutted if we missed half of it because of limited tv coverage…

  12. I’d like to see the intermediate sprints become a separate competition to the green ala the red jersey competition of the 80’s. Then maybe the flat stages could have a few more intermediate sprints (ie. 4 or 5 instead of just 1 or 2). Maybe even throw in a few time bonuses there as well. A flat stage can be super hard if the incentive is there to race which it’s not now given how controlled those stages have become. The only other solution I can see is they only show the last hour which is probably not going to happen either.

    • More intermediate sprints on flat days seems like a good idea to me. I enjoyed the “Golden Kilometer” additions to the Belgian Tour, where there were a series of sprints packed together. Not only did they liven up the race but seemed to provide more of an opportunity to keep going on the attack afterwards.

  13. So a boring Tour and a boring soccer Euro tournamnet is the sporting highlights so far of the Summer. Maybe there’s too much pressure and money in modern professional sports. “Play not to lose, rather then play to win.”
    As was said, it’s a waste of TV time to have certain stages from km 0. If a stage has zero classified climbs then the last 2 hours are more then enough. Sure, have it on as “moving wallpaper, but don’t expect sporting action.

  14. Maybe my memory is playing me false but I remember last year’s Tour being action-packed throughout, with riders fighting for the most minor of prizes and several stages where the fight to get into the break went on for half the day. Am I imagining this? Was the parcours more favourable to breaks, fewer sprints? Was it that the GC looked completely locked down so more teams had to look elsewhere for glory?

  15. I don’t know what everyone’s problem is. You see the profile, it’s after a restday, so you know there is no need to watch the whole stage. You just check the ticker now and then and watch just the final 5k.
    Or you watch the whole thing and lament about the boredom for the next 5 day. Which I find more boring than such stages.

    • Agree, the most boring thing is people complaining “this stage is boring” when you can see from space it wasn’t going to deliver start to finish action (and if you don’t have a telescope you can find free previews even advising you not to watch in corners of the internet).

      To reprise Blondin who wrote so many sharp lines, the Tour is “a deep breathing contest”, a gradual thing. He’d be in a state of shock at the amount of action these days.

  16. Tour should do the breakaway award and offer bonus prize money to the riders who don’t get caught by a certain distance, say 50k or more.

    Even on dead flat days it would be a race within the race. Maybe that was the original intent of the points jersey?

    • It could work; or why not make the intermediate sprint have more points than the finish? Or would this close things down even more? Your idea of rewarding the breakaway works, like the Giro’s “Fuga” prize.

  17. This is a really important problem in a way. The sport depends om TV watching numbers. More negotiating power for the organisers for TV and government funding. More money for the teams from increased visibility for the sponsors advertising.
    So saying just watch the last 5 minutes misses the point. The race needs as many viewers for as long as possible for the entire operation to maxmise its returns.
    At least a partial solution is already being slowly introduced. Get rid of dead flat sprint stages and replace them with a stage that has a bit more on offer. Some hills at the end, gravel or pave etc. Anything but dead flat long stages will be increasingly the course designers mantra.

    • To a point and TV really drives things now. But to tour France you still end up with flat stages, draw a line from Biarritz to Strasbourg and the terrain above this is often flat and featureless, it’s half of the country though.

      The race tries to avoid these interludes (or have time trials/gravel/cobbles) but they’ll always exist. But on a Tuesday when few are watching. But big crowds can still turn out. To coin a phrase, TV might make the race but it still belongs to the crowds.

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