Fan’s Guide to Tour de France Breakaways

Learn how and why riders escape during the Tour de France and other bike races. – By Molly Hurford

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When It Happens It’s done best as a sneak attack out of nowhere or when a rider takes advantage of a slight gap between himself and the rest of the peloton.

Why It’s Cool Nothing compares to the drama and nail-biting tension of watching to see if a breakaway will succeed, especially if it includes your favourite rider.

Riders to Watch Any rider in search of personal glory or TV time for his sponsors may try his luck in a breakaway.Breaking away isn’t just a classic cycling movie—it means that a small group of riders has gone clear ahead of the main peloton of racers. A breakaway is chased by the peloton, or sometimes by another breakaway, which is called the chase group.

RELATED: How Does a Tour de rnace Sprint Work?

A breakaway may or may not succeed in staying off the front until the finish on any given day. It depends on the riders involved in the break, the route, conditions, and the motivation and tactics of other riders in the chasing peloton. Some Tour de France stages are better for breakaways than others—look for breaks to happen on stages with more technical riding and tight turns.

If a breakaway does get caught, the peloton may stay together for the duration of the stage, or another breakaway might launch a counterattack with fresher riders.

To an observer, the process of forming a breakaway may look smooth: Suddenly eight riders move to the front and tear away from the rest of the peloton, but inside the pack, it’s chaos. Overhead cameras make the escape look like a well-choreographed bike ballet.

“Forming a breakaway is often very complicated,” says Tour de France former pro Ted King (Garmin-Cannondale), “because on any given day, you have 150 riders in a 200-person race trying to get into that break. But once you make the break, it’s actually freeing.”

Things often calm down once a breakaway is established. Riders off the front will begin to work seamlessly together, taking short turns pulling at the front and then tucking back into the group for a rest, one after another.

What bodes well for a successful breakaway attempt? “You want four to eight guys in it,” said King. “Less than that and it may not have enough power to succeed and beyond that, it’s too big to succeed.”

Breakaway riders are obviously fast, or they wouldn’t be able to escape; however, in most cases, the larger, chasing peloton has the manpower to rein them in unless the break’s riders work perfectly together.

Depending on the overall tactics of top riders and teams, a peloton may decide to catch a break or it may opt intentionally to keep the gap to the breakaway within some certain arbitrary time limit.

You’ll never be sure if you’re watching a successful attempt fly off the front of the peloton as it happens, but the odds are favourable for a breakaway when it hits the magic number five—five men who have a five-minute gap.

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