The art of the steal: How De Gendt pulls off his breakaway heists
If there’s a winning breakaway in a race, there’s a good chance Thomas De Gendt will be in it. And if the breakaway makes it to the finish, there’s an even better chance De Gendt will be first across the line.
At 32, the veteran Belgian at Lotto-Soudal has emerged as today’s stage-hunter par excellence. No one does it better.
“I feel more comfortable in a breakaway, rather than sitting in the bunch, and waiting for the final 3km, like everyone else does,” De Gendt said. “That’s the only way for me to win races is out of a breakaway, so why not join them as much as possible?”
Why not, indeed. De Gendt has emerged as the master of the fine art of the breakaway.
With 13 pro seasons under his belt, De Gendt knows how to earn his paycheck. He’s not fast enough to beat the sprinters in bunch finale, and he’s not lean enough to beat the sleekest mountain goats on Europe’s steepest climbs.
But he does have a diesel motor that carried him to third overall in the 2012 Giro d’Italia. Add to that the racing smarts to be able to read a race, and that adds up to one thing — attack and win out of breakaways.
“When you win out of a breakaway, it’s one of the best feelings,” he said. “The odds are never very good in the first place. Playing the lottery is easier I think.”
De Gendt has managed to pull the rabbit out of the hat more than a few times. Fourteen times, to be exact. That’s not much compared to what sprinters can bring home, but for a stage-hunter, every win represents dozens of chances that came up short.
He’s won stages in all three grand tours. He’s won on some of cycling’s most emblematic mountains, from Mont Ventoux to the Stelvio. And every one of those wins has come after a successful breakaway effort.
How often does he try? Every chance he gets.
“You have to try almost every day,” he said. “You never know when it’s coming, or when it’s coming back. Even on the GC days, you can always try. They can still go for the GC [race] 10 minutes behind a breakaway.”
A lot of whether De Gendt moves or not depends on what’s happening in the race. If it’s a sprint stage, De Gendt will be pulling for his sprinter Caleb Ewan. If the team has a GC captain, he will be setting the pace. Those two factors alone limit his freedom.
Yet in many ways, Lotto-Soudal is the perfect team for De Gendt. He’s happy working during the sprint days, just as he did for years with André Greipel, because breaks normally don’t stick on those days anyway. And since Lotto-Soudal doesn’t have a top-line GC captain like a Chris Froome that would require day-in, day-out sacrifice for the overall, at Lotto-Soudal, De Gendt gets plenty of chances to roll the dice.
For a rider like De Gendt, the opportunities to win out of a breakaway are pretty limited. Take away the sprinter stages, time trials and a few key mountaintop finishes before the GC is settled and the top riders are still racing for time bonuses, and it might leave four or five shots during an entire grand tour.
It’s on those lumpy days, sometimes deep into the second or third week of a grand tour, where De Gendt reveals his innate talent. Some riders might get into a breakaway just a few times a season. They’re either obligated to work for their team’s larger goals or simply don’t have the horsepower to follow the endless series of surges in each stage before a break does pull clear.
For an expert and specialist like De Gendt, however, it can be a surprisingly high number. By De Gendt’s count, his breakaway ratio — his success rate of getting into a breakaway when he has the liberty to try — is more than 50 percent.
“I raced 94 days last year,” De Gendt recounts 2018. “There were 45 days I could ride for myself, and I was 26 days in the breakaway.”
That’s an astonishing success rate. Of course, getting into the breakaway is just the start of it. The break has to make it to the line, and then a rider has to be able to win. Last year, De Gendt was surprisingly successful and won two races, both out of breakaways.
By De Gendt’s own admission, riding into a breakaway and then winning out of one is akin to playing the lottery. But there’s a lot more to it than luck.
De Gendt has his methodology. He doesn’t just blindly ride off the front when he feels like it. There are a series of elements that have to stack up to deliver a chance of success. It’s his version of having the stars line up.
First off, he knows how to read a race, and studies the roadbook in detail. He’ll circle a few key days during a race that suit his characteristics. He rarely misses the chance to try.
Getting into breakaways is one of the most refined talents in the peloton, yet a rare skill. Often De Gendt’s best work happens before the TV cameras are turned on. He also has the racing craft to realize when the elastic is about to snap. When the peloton is stretched out, De Gendt is often on the sharp end, ready to keep powering away when rivals throw in the white flag.
“When it’s a day for the breakaway in the grand tour, there is a big fight, so that’s why you have to make it hard,” he said, “because eventually someone will give up, and that’s when the break goes.”
De Gendt isn’t the only breakaway merchant in the peloton. In fact, other familiar names are usually with him wheel-to-wheel, including the likes of Rajal Majka, Alessandro De Marchi, Ben King, and Bauke Mollema.
“They are always the same strong climbers; guys who can win on a mountaintop finish but just below the favorites,” he said. “They seem to pick the same point as me – when I see the place where I think the break will go, they are often right on my wheel.”
The fight for the break can drag on for kilometers, sometimes even hours. The key to the breakaway is sometimes an elusive calculus; it has to be the right mix of strong, committed riders, and on the right stage profile. One thing is always true: the harder, the better.
“You have to listen to your instinct,” he said. “When it’s hurting for me, it’s also hurting for the other riders. When there is not a break yet, but it’s hurting, then it’s time to go, because that’s when someone will say they will not go … when it’s painful, you have to lie to yourself – usually, that is the break that goes. It doesn’t really matter how many riders will join in. If it’s an important day, then a lot of riders will try.”
There are more factors. None can be a major GC challenger nor can there be a sprinter. Experts like De Gendt also know when to sit up. He won’t ride into a breakaway with a fast finisher like a Michael Matthews holding the wheel, that he knows he has no chance of beating in a reduced bunch sprint.
Once he commits, however, it’s all in.
“I won’t go into a breakaway with someone like [Elia] Viviani when it’s a flat finish — any other rider I will take to the finish,” he said.
De Gendt also has his preferred terrain, and will often save his legs for the stages that best suit him. It’s those kinds of jig-saw profiles, across the Apennines in Italy or the rugged Cantabrian range in northern Spain, when De Gendt likes to go on the prowl.
“It has to be a start with an uphill,” he said of his ideal stage. “I like the 5km uphill the most. It’s an effort between 10-15 minutes of climbing. It’s a good effort for me — longer than that, I cannot go so hard, shorter than that, more will join me.”
De Gendt — no, he’s not from Gent, but front Sint-Niklaas near Antwerp — got the racing bug early. He went to watch his older brother race cyclocross and mountain bikes in local races, and he still remembers the tangy smell of massage oil that the Belgian riders used on cold days back in the 1980s and 1990s. The young De Gendt set up a race-course in his parent’s back yard and he dreamed someday of racing his bike professionally.
“I loved how I could just jump on my bike and ride my bike, wherever I wanted and for how long I wanted,” he said.
It was in that same exploring spirit last year after the Giro di Lombardia when he and teammate Tim Wellens rode 1,000km from Italy back to Belgium to round out the season.
“We only had one rule — be in the hotel before it got dark,” he said. “It was in that same spirit, of just riding wherever we wanted.”
Despite being a Vlaanderen, somewhat surprisingly, De Gendt has not started many of Belgium’s most famous races. In fact, he steers well clear of the hazards of Flanders or Roubaix. He’s only started Roubaix once and Flanders twice.
“I am not really interested in those races,” he said. “I watch them on TV. My skills are not on the cobbles, so why would I be there?”
De Gendt had been bouncing around a few years when things clicked for him in a big way in the 2012 Giro d’Italia. The seed of his breakaway legacy was planted in that year’s edition. There was no clear favorite, so no singular team was controlling the race. Unlike in the hyper-controlled Tour de France, that meant a lot of breakaways were getting away in that year’s Giro. Ryder Hesjedal was the surprise overall winner, and De Gendt found himself finishing third overall.
“It’s a bit of a shame my biggest win came on Ventoux when Chris Froome was a ‘runner,’” De Gendt said of his famous win in 2016, the same day when Froome was knocked off his bike, and ran up the side of France’s most famous mountain.
“I still have it on my palmares,” he said. “I don’t care that he was running up the mountain. It’s a bit of a pity that it didn’t finish at Mont Ventoux, it finished at the Chalet. So for me, the Stelvio is the most prestigious win.”
It was his breakaway victory up the Stelvio that sealed the deal on what would be De Gendt’s calling card.
“I had the form of my life for those three weeks. It was an attack for the stage victory and the GC was a bonus,” he said. “Since then, I am trying to get a lot of breakaway victories, because it suits me.”
This year, he’s returning to the Giro for the first time since 2014. It’s part of a larger plan to race all three grand tours in one season. Teammate Adam Hansen’s record of 20 straight grand tours is safe for now.
And you can guess where he’ll be — in the breakaways.
“That’s also the nicest way to win a race,” he said. “If you can win out of a breakaway, it’s always something unexpected.”
Well, it used to be. These days, when there’s a breakaway, chances are De Gendt will be there. Nothing unexpected about that.