Breakaway Strategies

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Okay, so after a flurry of attacks you’ve finally managed to get in the breakaway move that sticks. Now what? The common school of thought is to ride as hard as you can and get as big of a gap as possible. Is that all there is to it?

No matter how strong you are, a chasing peloton will always be faster than a small group of breakaway riders. It’s not about how much time you get ahead of the peloton, it’s how much time the peloton lets you get. Assuming the terrain or weather conditions aren’t playing a part, the main reason a breakaway is allowed to establish is because it’s the right combination of riders and the peloton decides it’s okay to let them go, or the working members of the peloton are tired (or can’t be bothered) and no one else has any interest in chasing.

Once you’ve established a gap with a small group of riders here are a few things to think about to help your breakaway make it to the finish.

Be a good mathematician

Watch for markers on the road and constantly take note of how much time you have on the peloton. Also keep track of how many kilometers are remaining in the race. This allows you to manage your gap and gives you a better idea of what you have to play with.

Chapatte’s Law states that a chasing peloton will close a break at the rate of 1 minute per 10 kilometers. On a climb, this is closer to 2 minutes per 10 km. Does this rule apply to you? This law is fairly accurate in professional cycling with 9-man sprinter teams who are highly motivated (and paid) to make sure the finish ends in a sprint. You won’t often get this in club racing, so you can give yourself more leeway.

Use the course

Narrow twisty roads are great terrain for breakaways to stick. Out of sight, out of mind. If the peloton can’t see you, they’ll often give up the chase and misjudge the finish. Once they get a whiff of you however, they’ll quickly chase you down.

The way you ride over the terrain can also make your breakaway more effective. As a general rule, ride the hills and go fast on the flats. You’ll be able to rely on the efficiency of your small group much more effectively while concentrating on the flats rather than smashing yourself over the climbs.

Know the wind direction in relation to how the course finishes. If it’s a tailwind for the last 10km, you’ll have a much better chance at succeeding to stay away than if it’s a headwind. This will also help you judge your effort.

Psychology of the peloton

I read a good interview with Matt Wilson a while back where he said, “Jacky Durand was a rider who never had any special abilities, but he knew what he could do and he took his chances and when I see a guy like that win, I say if he can do it so can I. He’s a smart rider and he takes his chances on the long breakaways. I learned from him how to ride a breakaway, he would attack in the beginning and get a gap then sit up and let the teams work at the front to bring him back. The teams would take 2-3 minutes out of his lead and then let off because they were bringing him back too fast. He would literally play with them, staying in reserve until the final kilometers and letting the teams think they had him under control. Then, when he takes off, the teams realize they have made a mistake and it’s too late.”

Also, few days ago my mate Brad Davies wrote a post on his Crocodile Trophy experience and gave some breakaway advice from retired professional Rene Haselbacher: “Establish the break and then slow it down. The group behind will have in their minds what they are prepared to give so if you ride hard they will ride hard. If the break rides easy then they will ride easy.”

Group efficiency

When you’re in a small breakaway group and the pace has settled in, ride in a smooth rolling rotation (i.e. riders rolling through on the leeward side of the wind), not a paceline. Riding in a paceline is about control and/or speed. Rolling turns is about maximising the efficiency of the bunch.

All you should be thinking about after you’ve firmly established the breakaway is conserving your energy. Depending on your “status” in the group, you may be the one motivating the others to do longer turns (pumping up someone’s ego and saying “you’re riding so strong” is a great way to get him to do more work).

There’s no sense of working your backside off for 100km in a breakaway and having nothing left at the finish while you’re being chased by the peloton or attacks are being launched from your group. You need to find the delicate balance between being in self-preservation mode and riding fast enough to make your breakaway stick until the end.

In the last 20km you should have a pretty good idea if your break will succeed or not. If you have 2 minutes on the peloton, there’s a good chance. This is when you’ll want to be tapping into those energy reserves and drinking that coke you saved for the finish.

Know your competition and the race situation

Depending on what type of race it is, there will always be dynamics and agendas at play. As Tim Krabbe so elegantly wrote in The Rider:

“Every once in a while someone along the road lets us know how far behind we are. A man shouts: ‘Faster!’ He probably thinks bicycle racing is about going fast.”

More important than anything, you need to ask yourself the following questions while in the breakaway to judge if it has a chance at staying away:

•   Is the combination of riders in your group strong enough to stay away?

•   Why are your breakaway companions there? To get some sprint primes? Will they stop working once they’ve grabbed them all?

•   If it’s a stage race, how many stages are remaining and is the GC leader (or teammate) in this break with you? This fact alone will change the dynamics of the race significantly.

•   Are the right teams represented in your breakaway group? What is their agenda? Who is not doing any work in your breakaway group? Why?

•   What is the situation within your own team? Do you have teammates back in the peloton who have more of a chance of winning in a bunch kick than you do in the break? You being up in that break may serve as a purpose to take the pressure off your teammates and you might not have an obligation to work very hard. This is a great position to be in.

•   Consider if it’s a one-day race or a multi-stage tour. If it’s the beginning of a tour, you may not want to go too deep if you have GC ambitions. You’ll pay for it the next day.

Even if you don’t bike race yourself, these points above can still come in handy to help understand and follow a race. There’s a lot more happening in the sport of bike racing than making it to the finish line first.

*Note: these scenarios and tips are more applicable to road racing than they are to crit racing. Also note that in Masters racing the only way you’ll ever get in a breakaway is by letting the crosswinds or terrain break the field up. Those old foxes will chase everything else down!

If you’re interested in the first part of establishing a breakaway, you can read about attacking methods here:

– When to Attack

– Attack on the Lull

– Counter-attacking