Breakaway or Sprint? They’re Both Fun to Watch

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It was heartbreaking to see the breakaway of Jakob Piil and Mark Wauters swallowed up so close to the finish line, right? Were you sitting on the edge of your seat wondering how the peloton timed their surge so perfectly? If you’re relatively new to the Tour de France, I should let you know you’ll see the same scenario play out several more times before this race is over. But who do you root for?

The Underdogs
The flatter opening stages of the Tour de France favor the sprinters and the powerful trains of their teammates delivering them to the final kilometer to contest a field sprint. It’s extremely difficult for just a few riders to foil the plan of half a dozen teams devoted to supporting their sprinters. Still, riders launch off the front of the peloton because there is always a chance they will actually make it and win a stage of the Tour de France.

There are many riders in the peloton who are unlikely to win a field sprint, an individual time trial, or a mountain stage. For these men, getting in the right breakaway is the best chance they have to win, and winning one stage of the Tour de France can be the crowning achievement for an entire career. It’s bigger than just winning another bike race; it’s like scoring a touchdown in the SuperBowl or hitting a grand slam in the World Series. Previously, Piil and Wauters have both been part of several doomed breakaways that have been caught within sight of the finish line. They have also both won stages of the Tour de France by being part of a successful breakaway group. If you want to win in this race, you have to be willing to risk losing in the process.

The Sprinters
While breakaway riders risk getting caught, they don’t risk their lives the way sprinters do. The buildup of speed and the battle of the leadout trains culminate in some of the most exciting and nerve-wracking final rushes to the finish line. These guys are bumping handlebars, hips, and heads at nearly 40 mph. This is their specialty, and a few teams in this year’s Tour de France are built specifically around delivering their sprinter to the finish line.

The Fassa Bortolo team may have the yellow jersey right now, but even young Fabian Cancellara was on the front in the final 10 kilometers of Stage 1 to support the team sprinter, Alessandro Petacchi. Lotto-Domo, Crédit Agricole, and didn’t come to the Tour with serious contenders for the overall lead; they brought sprinters and the strongmen who can keep the pace high in the final 50 kilometers of flat stages. Ag2R-Prevoyance doesn’t have anyone who can challenge Armstrong, Ullrich, Hamilton, Mayo, or Heras, but Jaan Kirsipu won Stage 1 and Jean-Patrick Nazon, who won the final stage of the 2003 Tour, was just behind him in fifth.

If you’re wondering how the peloton times it so they catch the breakaway so close to the finish, they get frequent reports on the time gap from race radios and a guy on a motorbike holding a chalkboard. From experience, they know how fast they need to go to close a two minute gap in 20 kilometers, and as the gap narrows they can adjust their speed so they don’t wipe out the breakaway too early. Bringing the whole field back together with 10 kilometers to go encourages other opportunists to attack and try their luck. When there is already a group up the road, it’s easier for the sprinters’ teams to keep the pace high, discourage additional attacks, and control the peloton.

The Dilemma
Cycling fans split into two camps during the flat stages. If you always root for the underdog, you’re going to be cheering for the breakaway. If you enjoy the spectacular show the sprinters put on, you’re going to love seeing the leadout trains stream past the breakaway riders. Either way, you’ll be on the edge of your seat wondering, like the rest of us, how the final kilometers are going to play out. As for Lance and the other overall contenders for the yellow jersey, their main objective for the first several days is to stay out of trouble. They will stay near the front and surrounded by teammates, but it’s unlikely they’ll be in any breakaways and absolutely certain they won’t take the risks inherent in the field sprints.

Chris Carmichael is Lance Armstrong’s coach and author of the new book, Chris Carmichael’s Food For Fitness: Eat Right to Train Right, available July 2004. .