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Tour de France

The big escape: How the Tour’s breakaway artists win in week three

The Tour de France's escape artists have one stage left to win. But attacking into a breakaway in week three is harder than you might think.

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NÎMES (VN) – “It is all mental,” says Dag-Otto Lauritzen.

Winning a Tour de France stage from a breakaway requires more brains than brawn, says the 62-year-old Lauritzen. He would know, of course. In 1987 Lauritzen became the first Norwegian to win a stage of the Tour, and he did so with a dramatic breakaway

“When you see the other guys are tired, you have to attack because then you get the little advantage,” he says. “Of course, you have to see how your body feels. But it is mental. Everybody is tired. If you don’t take any risks, you can’t win.”

Lauritzen’s advice comes at a perfect moment for the breakaway specialists at this year’s Tour de France. Wednesday’s hilly 17th stage from Pont de Gard to Gap is perhaps the final opportunity for a breakaway to win at this year’s race.

The 200-kilometer route may be flat as it leaves the Vaucluse; but passing through the Drôme, it features a 2.3km climb up the fourth category Col de la Rochette at 110km. Then, after entering the Haute Alpes, it includes the 5.2km third category climb up the Col de la Sentinelle at 191.5km, followed by an 8.5km descent to the finish in Gap.

Think of these 200 kilometers as an invitation for those riders who won’t figure into the great battles in the Alps, or the final stages on the Champs-Élysées.

Winning on a stage like this is not a simple ‘add water and mix’ process, especially this late in the Tour.

“It’s more and more difficult,” Lauritzen tells VeloNews of making the move midway into the last week of a Tour. “On this Tour You see many teams have three or even four stage wins, and a lot of teams have nothing.

“The directors are pushing their riders to get in the breaks. But you have to be a little lucky because your team has to have more than you, but two three guys that can continuously try to go.”

Such a scenario played out during Lauritzen’s push for glory in 1987. The peloton awoke the morning of the 14th stage to find wet and foggy conditions in the Pyrénees. A former policeman who took up cycling who took up cycling after breaking his leg in a parachute jump, Lauritzen rode for the American 7-Eleven team in his fourth year as a professional.

Ben King, Niki Terpstra, and Thomas De Gendt all spent time in a breakaway earlier in the race. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

He went in the early break in the 166km stage from Pau to Luz Ardiden.  After being caught by the overall favorites that included his team leader, American Andy Hampsten, he began riding tempo at the front of the group ascending the Col d’Aubisque. Meanwhile, Frenchman Thierry Claveyrolat raced away alone, followed by Dutchman Teun Van Vliet who was also alone. They passed the summit one after the other.

“Andy said, ‘You look good. Try to go away. Maybe you can help me on Luz Ardiden,’” says Lauritizen. “Go away” Lauritzen did, just before the summit. He then plummeted out of sight into fog in the valley below where Van Vliet joined and passed Claveyrolat to begin the 16km climb to Luz Ardiden alone, hoping that his 1:30 lead on the GC men was enough to win.

Colombian Luis Herrera bolted away in pursuit of Lauritzen, and quickly made ground.

Lauritzen, his face etched in the suffering of his pain, knew Herrera was closing in with pedal every stroke. But somehow with every pedal stroke of his own, Lauritzen found the strength of will and power to still win the stage by just seven seconds.

Somehow, the most unlikely of scenarios this far in the Tour was real: he was now a Tour stage winner. It is all the more amazing when you consider the variables that could have prevented him from winning.

Beating the odds

Charly Wegelius, head sports director at EF-Education First, says there are so many variables that doom breakaways this late in the Tour de France.

“First is the physical element after 16 days of racing. Even if you’ve had a clear run and in good form, that takes a toll on your body,” Wegelius told VeloNews. “Going into these last days, everyone has got something wrong with them, but it is also about what’s happening up here [he points to his head].

After 16 stages, there are just so few opportunities to win at the Tour that all of the teams are motivated for victory. Plus, there are the various jersey competitions to consider.

“You’ve also got all the other underlying competitions in the race that affect things,” Wegelius says. “And for a lot of people, it’s the last chance to really do something. Add in the heat, it’s going to make it super, super complex and miserable for a lot of people.”

On stage 14 it was Tim Wellens, Vincenzo Nibali, and Elie Gesbert who broke away. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Wegelius had riders who he felt would normally have been suited to ride for their own chance of victory in Wednesday’s 17th stage. He cites Tejay van Garderen, Mike Woods and Sebastian Langeveld.

However, van Garderen is already out of the Tour due to a fractured hand, Woods is racing with broken ribs and Langeveld is still not at optimum level due to injuries from an early crash in the Tour.

“We’ve got good ones, but they’ve got a few dents in the body work,” Wegelius says.

Luke Durbridge, one of the work horses in Mitchelton-Scott, predicts that stage 17 will be impacted by the pressure bearing down on teams that have yet to win.

“Teams get more and more desperate,” Durbridge says. “Before, they might not have thought about going into breakaway. They might have come with a sprinter or ‘GC’ rider; but he might have crashed or gone home, or be off GC by now. So, the pressure builds and builds and builds and the final week is really your last opportunity to get something out of the Tour de France. In [team] meetings, it becomes, ‘We have to be in the breakaway.’ But you may have 100 guys that want to be in a breakaway.

Durbridge believes Wednesday will feature the toughest battle amongst the breakaway men in the entire race. In his prediction, the peloton will battle for perhaps two hours on the flats before the break finally goes.

“I’m calling it now,” Durbridge says. “We’re flat for a while, then we start climbing. I reckon it’ll happen on the climb. When it happens on the climb, you don’t really have a choice if you are in it or not. You just a strongest.”

Such a scenario played out on stage 15 when his teammate Simon Yates attacked into the breakaway, and eventually won. Durbridge says the opening kilometers of the stage were incredibly fast, as more riders made moves on the flat terrain.

“It was so fast for so long because it was flat. Everyone was attacking,” Durbridge says. “Simon wasn’t even close to the front until 50km in. Then he came to the front on the climb, went away. That’s kind of the best way to do it; but you have to have the legs.”

So, how do riders gauge which teams and specific riders are strong or not and likely to go in a break?

Mitchelton-Scott has enjoyed a Tour of breakaway success, with Simon Yates winning two stages from early moves. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Durbridge says Mitchelton-Scott actually name which teams are likely to attack into the breakaway during each stage’s pre-race meeting.

“You can’t worry about everyone. You just worry about CCC. You worry about Movistar, especially in the climbing stages, or Astana,” he says. “Pick those team and that means you can sort of get into the breakaway because they going to be 100 per cent [committed] and they’re going to take you across.”

Who does Durbridge think will attack in stage 17? It’s a list of the usual breakaway protagonists.

“Greg [Van Avermaet], Michael Matthews—they will not want to miss the break,” he says. “Unless [Team Sunweb] want to put their team on the front and ride for 200km with a chance of him winning in the final, I think ‘Bling’ has to be in the break.”

So, will Durbridge be up there too?

“I hope I’ll be in there with Darryl [Impey] or [Matteo] Trentin,” Durbridge says with a grin.