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by Caley Fretz
July 14, 2019
A successful breakaway is an art, but it’s also a science. And Thomas de Gendt is a master.
With his solo win into Saint-Etienne on Saturday, de Gendt cemented his reputation as cycling’s foremost breakaway rider. He has two Tour de France stages now, plus stage wins in both the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a Espana, the Criterium du Dauphine, Paris-Nice, Tour de Suisse, and more. All of them came out of some sort of breakaway.
This win, he says, was the best. “I would put this above the Ventoux,” he said, referring to his 2016 Tour stage win on Mont Ventoux. “Just because it was 200km of fighting, and winning with five or six seconds.” He loves a big battle, and a close finish.
So how does he do it, over and over again? How do they let him get away with it?
Well, they don’t just let him go. He makes them.
The Belgian’s secrets to breakaway success aren’t really secrets. He explains them in the matter of fact manner of a professor lecturing material so deeply ingrained it’s become a part of him. Each one seems obvious on its own, but combine them and they set a perfect trap for any team hoping to chase him down.
Step one: Find a stage just a bit too hard for the sprinters. De Gendt tried a few times early in this Tour, but the early stages weren’t hard enough and the sprinter’s teams kept him on a short leash. “Sagan, Matthew’s Colbrelli, they could get over those climbs easier,” De Gendt said. That keeps their teams motivated. De Gendt needs big climbs – big enough that the sprinters are more worried about getting dropped than doing any significant chasing.
Specifically, De Gendt likes climbs in the 20-30 minute range, which are very similar to those of his preferred training grounds in Calpe, Spain.
Step two: Bring some good friends. Saturday’s break was only four riders but all are known as big engines. Ben King, Niki Terpstra, Alessandro de Marchi, and De Gendt. It’d be difficult to pull together four stronger riders for this type of effort.
De Gendt ends up in breakaways with De Marchi quite frequently. “This maybe sounds strange, but he doesn’t think, he doesn’t calculate, he just goes, just like me,” De Gendt said of his frequent companion. “And that’s the best you can have. If you have ten guys like this in a break then they will never catch us.”
Most riders start to calculate too early, De Gendt said. Which brings us to…
Step three: Turn your brain off.
“Most guys start to calculate and think about the victory before they even get to ride for the victory,” De Gendt said. “De Marchi is the opposite. He rides first and then thinks about the victory.”
Any time spent messing about, skipping pulls, or side-eyeing competitors is time not spent going as fast as possible. And the only way for these sort of moves to succeed is to take every second available.
Step four, the final and most important part of the puzzle, is to make sure to be absurdly strong.
About 70 kilometers from the finish, De Gendt turned to De Marchi and gave him a pace: They’d do 420 watts up the climbs from there to the finish. De Marchi nodded, “and we just kept going like this for 70km,” De Gendt said.
The ability to set a pace this high, and hold it, combines with stage selection to put chasing teams on the back foot.
“If you have six climbs [of 20-30 minutes], there is almost no team that can put two or three guys on the front of the bunch that whole time,” De Gendt said. “If we ride 420 watts, they can’t push 450, it’s just impossible. That’s why I pick stages like this.”
Even the strongest teams won’t have the numbers to chase hard at the end of a hard stage, putting the peloton on a more even footing with De Gendt and his companions. Add in De Gendt’s ability to maintain an insane pace for 200 kilometers, and you have a recipe for stage wins.
So there you have it, Thomas de Gendt’s four secrets to breakaway success. Pick the right stage, bring some strong friends, get everyone to stop thinking so much, and push 420 watts on all the climbs.