Breakaway is one of the most recognizable elements of a cycling race. A bunch of riders leave the peloton early on and work hard, just to be caught a few kilometers before the finish line and be forever forgotten by the crowd. So what’s even the point of joining a breakaway?
The main reason cyclists join the breakaway is to win a race, but that’s not the only reason. Smaller teams want to show sponsors’ names, some riders join so the teammates save the energy or to create a ‘bridge’ for the attack. The jersey hunters join to win KOM and sprint points available that day.
Breakaway is as old as cycling itself, but the reasons for going into one changed quite a bit through history. The original reason for winning stayed on top of the list, but there are still several other reasons to go into one.
Winning is always on the mind of a breakaway
While breakaways are mostly doomed to fail, the chances of succeeding are never zero.
Cyclists know that, and even though they expect to be caught sooner or later, they keep a little faith of winning up until they are actually caught.
Many factors influence the success of a breakaway. Stage type, number of riders in the breakaway, time differences in the general classification, and the riders’ abilities – only the right combination of all these factors will result in a win.
I analyzed the success rate of breakaways on the three biggest cycling races in a season. I was surprised by how high the success rate was.
Even if all the odds are against the guys up front, they still hope for a miracle. After all, the riders at the back can start playing tactical games between them and therefore not be so involved in chasing. Or they can just miscalculate the time they need to catch the guys in the front.
On average, a breakaway loses one minute of advantage per ten kilometres (6 miles).
Riders in the breakaway are not picky. If they can get a win, they will take it. They won’t care if they won because they were the strongest that day or because the peloton screwed up the calculations. A win is a win.
Breakaway offers a perfect opportunity to fulfill sponsor duties
Cycling’s business model relies heavily on sponsors. Without them, teams cannot exist.
They can’t sell tickets as they ride on public roads, while money from television rights is kept by a broadcaster with teams not getting a penny from them.
Streams of revenue are very limited for cycling teams, so they will do anything for some sponsor money – even adjust their tactics.
Sponsors don’t put money into a team just as a goodwill gesture. They look that every penny invested has a positive return, otherwise, they will shut down the funding.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, sponsors reduced or stopped funding altogether, causing many teams to shut down.
Teams sell spots on a jersey to sponsors, and through the exposure on TV screens, they get the return on their investments. The best way of showing your jersey to the world is by winning, but since not all riders or even all the teams are capable of doing that, they resort to the second-best option – the breakaway.
There are far fewer riders in the breakaway than in the peloton. This means that every rider is more visible, as are the sponsors on the jerseys. For teams that have little chance of winning, taking part in the breakaway is a great and often the only chance to fulfill sponsorship obligations.
Burning one man’s energy can save another’s
They say that cycling is the only team sport where the winner is an individual. The whole team works hard, just so their teammate can win.
The unwritten rules state that the team of overall leader or stage favorite has a duty of leading the peloton. The leader itself is, of course, neatly hidden inside the peloton, but his teammates need to ride into the wind and burn the much-needed energy.
Riding at the front of the group day after day can get quite exhausting, and teams are always looking for a way to load the work to the competitors. One of the most used tactics to do that is by putting a cyclist in a breakaway.
The unwritten rules determine that if the team has a member in the breakaway, its teammates in the peloton won’t chase the group in front. It’s considered that he has a chance of winning. If they chase him, there is a chance of other rivals joining, making the competition for victory more intense.
The rider in a breakaway will burn more energy than he would in the peloton, but all his teammates will save it. After a few days at the front of the race, a ‘rest day’ like this is more than welcome.
A rider included in the breakaway will get some rest on the following stages, where his teammates will distribute all the work amongst them.
Breakaway as a launching pad for an attack
This reason is, in a sense, similar to the previous one, but it has one major difference.
When you put a rider in a breakaway to save energy, you hope that the group is not caught, but if you put him in the breakaway as a launching pad for an attack, you expect and hope to catch him before the finish.
As we learned previously, you can have a calmer day when you have a teammate upfront. Many riders take advantage of that on harder stages, usually those in the mountains.
On those stages, it is expected that the best climbers that are still in the peloton will eventually go for a stage win. Riding in the group can save you much-needed energy before the actual race for the win begins.
On mountain stages, the general classification contenders expect that the breakaway will be caught the latest at the last climb. Therefore, they will wait for the magic moment of the race coming together, and just as the wheels touch, an attack will follow.
The rider in the breakaway enabled them to not ride at the front of the peloton, which means they will have more energy than rivals. That can play a crucial role when attacking.
Breakaway member can be used as a ‘bridge’
Another tactic that teams used a breakaway for is to create a so-called bridge.
The rider in the breakaway is not involved in dictating the pace, as he is conserving energy for the moment when his teammate will attack.
When the attack happens, the attacker’s primary goal is to move in the slipstream of his teammate in the breakaway. There he gets the benefit of the draft, which can help him prolong the attack, making it more efficient.
If necessary, the rider can drop from the breakaway to enable his teammate to catch him faster. Together, they catch the group upfront, from where the attacker can attack again and go for the win.
It’s very hard for breakaway riders to follow an attack of a much fresher rider, as they are tired from dictating the pace the whole day. Therefore, those attacks usually work pretty well.
Breakaway offers the most points for special classification jerseys
Stage races are all about the leaders’ jersey, but the special jersey isn’t awarded just to the race’s overall leader. There are also three other classifications on every stage race – best climber, best sprinter, and best young rider.
Jersey for overall lead and best young rider are awarded to the cyclist with the lowest cumulative time. In contrast, the best climber and sprinter are determined based on points collected on mountain tops or intermediate sprints.
Polka dot jersey traditionally marks the best climber, while the green jersey is awarded to the best sprinter. However, a race organizer can choose different colors if he wants to.
Every classified mountain top offers a different number of points based on its difficulty – the tougher it is, the more points are available. On mountain stages, there can be several mountain tops on the way to the finish. Therefore a lot of points are available.
The same goes for the sprinter’s classification. There is at least one intermediate sprint at every stage, while some races even have more. Points are also available at the finish line, with flat stages offering the most and mountain stages providing the least.
The breakaway often collects points on a mountain top or intermediate sprint as the peloton is not yet chasing in the first part of the race. Therefore, being in a breakaway is crucial if you want to get one of the jerseys.
Breaking away can help you get through a lousy day
Cycling can be extremely dramatic at times, but it can also get a bit monotone at flatter stages when not a lot is going on.
On days like this, cyclists can have a hard time getting to the finish line, especially if the weather is really bad.
More often than not, the problem is psychological rather than physiological, so being in a breakaway can add a bit more drama to your day.
A lot more is going on in the breakaway than in the main bunch. Even if all the riders in the breakaway know that they don’t have a chance of winning, they can still have a bit of fun. Attacking and going for some mountain points can boost the morale of those trying.
Breakaway riders will be more tired at the finish, as they would be by riding in the peloton. However, the positive psychological effect is greater than fatigue.
Breakaway offers a lot of opportunities to various types of riders. Some will join it more often than others, some of them you will rarely see in it, but at some point in their career, every rider was part of the breakaway for one reason or another.
Breakaway always was and always will be a crucial part of a cycling race. It’s one of those elements that add a bit of spice to the race, offer unique opportunities and write stories we thought we would never witness.