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The beauty of tactics: The early breakaway

So what is it with these early breakaways that build up many minutes only to get reeled in before the finish? Why do the riders take off like that? Why does the pack let them go? In Sunday’s 168km stage from Lamballe to Quimpier, three riders – Matteo Tosatto (Fassa Bortolo), Ronny Scholtz (Gerolsteiner) and Jakob Piil (CSC) – got away and built a lead of nearly six minutes with 80km to go. It would not be their day, however; the peloton chipped away at that gap and eventually caught them with 10km remaining. In a stage race like the Tour, the riders in the peloton usually want a small

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By Thomas Prehn

So what is it with these early breakaways that build up many minutes only to get reeled in before the finish? Why do the riders take off like that? Why does the pack let them go?

In Sunday’s 168km stage from Lamballe to Quimpier, three riders – Matteo Tosatto (Fassa Bortolo), Ronny Scholtz (Gerolsteiner) and Jakob Piil (CSC) – got away and built a lead of nearly six minutes with 80km to go. It would not be their day, however; the peloton chipped away at that gap and eventually caught them with 10km remaining.

In a stage race like the Tour, the riders in the peloton usually want a small group to get away. It’s mostly psychological; the start of each stage brings a bunch of attacks and counter-attacks, and when you are racing for 23 days, all these little jumps and chases become a real nuisance.

On many days, especially during flat stages like Sunday’s that will not have a significant effect on the general classification, it is not a matter of if a break will get away, but when,, and with whom.

On stage 4, the day after the team time trial, everyone in the pack knew not only that an early break would get away, but that it would stay away. The U.S. Postal Service team and Lance Armstrong wanted a break to get up the road and take the yellow leader’s jersey.

But as with any break, it had to have what the strong teams deemed to be the “right” combination of riders. They weren’t about to let riders who threaten their Tour strategies get out of their sight.

Once a combination of the “right” riders gets off the front, there is a physical and psychological release in the peloton. Everyone sits up and starts to ride steadily. The breakaway is established, and the “chase” group settles down until the time comes to reel the escapees back in.

An early break may go for a variety of reasons. Sometimes riders in want to get up the road and steal mountain or points sprints before being reabsorbed by the peloton. And of course, there’s always a chance that the peloton will not begin its chase in time, and that the riders in the break will have a shot at a stage win.

How can this happen? The peloton may be playing a game of chicken, with each team waiting for another team to start the chase. A team that does not have a rider up the road may want to bring the break back so the team’s sprinter will have a chance at winning a stage. But no team wants to do all the work of reeling the escapees back in.

And sometimes, this waiting game goes on just long enough that the break survives all the way to the finish.


Thomas Prehn is a former USPRO champion and author of the recentlyreleased “RacingTactics for Cyclists,” now available through VeloPress. If you have questions about tactics employed during a particularstage at the Tour de France, send a note to WebLetters@InsideInc.comWe will try to answer a selection of questions on a regular basis duringthe Tour.