Getting into a breakaway is an art. A paradox. Often a crapshoot. Yet you always find the same guys there.
Try too hard to make it and you won’t, don’t try enough and you’ll surely be left behind. Making the day’s escape takes a nose, patience, a sense of calm and -never forget – strong legs.
For a break to form and escape the peloton also requires a special set of circumstances. Road too big? Difficult to block behind. Too straight? Nowhere for the peloton to slow down. Downhill? Good luck riding away from 200 guys at more than 70kph.
In addition to the course, it also has to have the right composition of riders. Too big a group and behind they won’t want to let it go. Too small is unlikely, as the teams who are not in it will do their best to join those in front. A rider too high on the general classification? He just killed your move. Have a rider with a big leader in the bunch behind? He’s unlikely to contribute to your effort.
Once the breakaway is established, there is another set of circumstances that will decide its success. The first is probably everyone’s desire to be there and willingness to contribute to the group’s effort.
Get a guy who doesn’t even want to be in it and he can kill the groove. Another guy shirking at the back trying to save it for the finish can ruin the collective of the group. A group too big often doesn’t work well together. Too small and you probably don’t have enough firepower.
Strong legs in the front definitely helps, but ultimately, it’s up to the chasing peloton behind whether they want to grant your group the win, or gobble you up and take it themselves.
On stage four of the Vuelta, I had the fortune of timing it right. A hard start, rolling until a climb after 20 kilometres, where the group went à bloc. When the start is like that, you can be pretty sure there won’t be an escape until the climb.
That day though, there was an odd number of GC guys moving, too big a group away at the bottom, and momentary chaos. We hit the bottom of the climb with a group off the front I believed to be too large. I waited patiently.
Then Valverde jumped across. Then Froome. And Contador. Patience, I thought. Either the entire Vuelta could ride up the road right here (very unlikely), or they will slowly chase it back. Stay calm.
They chase it back.
More guys move. On the recoil of a big effort and the return of a large group can be a good time to go. Guys launch. I go too. A few of us away. Don’t dig too hard or else you could explode. Still a few kilometres to climb. They bring us back.
A new group goes. Twenty guys. One of our strongest riders is in it. Perfect. Ten seconds. Fifteen. Too many big names. The peloton begins its chase.
Stay at the front. It can go soon. A few minutes later we make the catch.
Four guys jump. Now is the time to go. Sprint up the right, make the junction, and we are on our way. Fifteen guys roll up and that was it.
I made it.
Looking back it sounds easy. But in the heat of the moment, it is very difficult to predict.
I’ve been in two breakaways since the start of the 2016 Vuelta, one successful, one not. Unfortunately, the first time, my legs didn’t have their best day. And the second time, the bunch decided not to let us go to the end.
It’s disappointing, but it just means I need to keep at it and one of these days, the barriers will break.
There’s a delicate mix of circumstances that decides whether you will be successful on the day, both inside and out.
In this race, I’m adhering to the sage advice of a friend of mine. “The breakaway,” he said, “is like chasing girls.”
“Try twice a year, and you’re not very likely to have success. But you know those guys who get all the girls? They’re the ones who go after every girl they see. You need to do the same… just not for girls.”
The wisest words can come in strange forms. So for now, I’ll keep trying.
Larry Warbasse is a professional cyclist for AG2R La Mondiale