Doomed Breakaway, Wild Sprint Put Hincapie in Yellow

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The first stage of the 2006 Tour de France provided a great example of a scenario you can expect to see repeated several times throughout the next week. Well, at least in part… let’s hope we don’t see a repeat of the bizarre injury Thor Hushovd suffered during the final sprint. What we’re likely to see again is a breakaway group dangling in front of the peloton for most of the day before being reeled in close to the finish line. Comprehending the motives and tactics behind this scenario is an important part of understanding the Tour de France.

The peloton is full of riders with varying strengths. Some are climbers, others are sprinters, many are good all-around riders, and just about everybody is an opportunist. If the whole peloton reaches the final miles as a big group, the sprinters have a big advantage and are likely to win. If you’re not a sprinter, one of the only ways to increase your chances of winning a stage in the first week of the Tour de France is to leave the peloton behind and set out in a long breakaway with a small group of like-minded riders.

The breakaway typically extends its lead over the peloton to between five and ten minutes before the big pack gets organized and picks up the pace. The gap falls steadily until it reaches about two minutes with around 25 miles (40 kilometers) to go, and then one minute within about 12 miles (20 kilometers) to go. Teams with strong sprinters send their riders to the front of the pack to drive the pace even higher, and then the peloton overtakes the breakaway somewhere within the final three to seven-and-half miles (five to 12 kilometers). The sprinters’ teams stay on the front until the final kilometer, and then all hell breaks loose as the fastest men on two wheels battle handlebar to handlebar all the way to the finish line.

Life in the Breakaway

Spending most of the day off the front of the peloton is a risky proposition because riding in a small group takes a lot more energy than sitting in the draft within the big pack. What’s more, the odds are not on your side. More times than not, the breakaway is caught before the finish and the men in it are too tired to even hang on at the back. Instead, the whole field streams by them and they have to continue riding by themselves all the way to the finish line.

Yet, every day another set of men ride off into the distance because every once in a while, it works. Sometimes, the organization in the peloton breaks down and the breakaway group gains more time than the pack can retake later in the stage. Other times, the peloton simply underestimates the strength and tenacity of the riders in the group up the road. Having a rider in a daylong breakaway is also a great way to get hours of television exposure for your sponsors’ names and logos. And of course, winning a stage of the Tour de France can be the highlight of a rider’s entire career and possibly a ticket to a higher salary. This is why good breakaway riders never give up, even when they can feel the peloton breathing down their necks. There have been many instances where confusion grips the peloton just as the breakaway is about to be caught, and in that confusion, the small group escapes again and reaches the finish line first.

How Breakaways Help the Peloton

While it may seem like it would be a better idea to chase down immediately all breakaway attempts and keep the pack together all day, having a group of riders up the road actually makes the race easier for many teams in the peloton. A group of riders already six minutes up the road discourages other riders from attacking, which is why the sprinters’ teams are so careful about where the breakaway eventually gets caught. Catching the breakaway too early encourages other opportunists to attack and try to win on their own. But waiting too long to close the gap means the breakaway group could survive all the way to the finish line, which is the mistake the breakaway is counting on.

How it Unfolded Today In the first road stage of the 2006 Tour de France, a seven-man breakaway distanced themselves from the main field. The group, made up of Stephane Auge (Cofidis), Matthieu Sprick (Bouygues Telecom), Walter Beneteau (Bouygues Telecom), Benoît Vaugrenard (Française des Jeux), Nicolas Portal (Caisse d’Epargne), Fabian Wegmann (Gerolsteiner), and Unai Etxebarria (Euskaltel), extended their lead to five minutes by the halfway point in the stage, and then the peloton started to reel them back in. Fifty kilometers from the finish the gap was down to about four minutes. At 25 miles (40 kilometers) to go, the seven were 2:10 ahead of the field, and losing ground quickly. Between 15.5 and 12.4 miles (25 and 20 kilometers) to go, the gap fell from 1:30 to just 40 seconds. At that point, the pack could have accelerated and swallowed the break at any time, but it chose to hang back just a bit to discourage counter-attacks. Ahead, the breakaway riders knew their time was up so they started launching attacks of their own. While most of the small group was caught with 7.5 miles (12 kilometers) to go, Walter Beneteau refused to admit defeat and continued ahead on his own. After a valiant effort, he was caught with seven kilometers to go, but not before Discovery Channel rider George Hincapie sprinted for third place in the final points sprint of the day. In addition to two points in the green-jersey competition, he also earned two bonus seconds, which would come in quite handy a few minutes later.

With the breakaway caught, the sprinters surged to the front of the peloton to contest the field sprint to the finish line. In a strange turn of events, it appears that in the final sprint, World Champion Tom Boonen was struck by an object thrown from the crowd and that race leader Thor Hushovd was cut by a plastic sign held by a spectator. As they slowed, Frenchman Jimmy Casper surged and reached the finish line first. Since Hushovd finished ninth and received no bonus seconds (there are 20, 12, and eight bonus seconds awarded to the first three men across the finish line), the two bonus seconds Hincapie earned seven kilometers earlier were enough to move him ahead of the Norwegian in the overall classification and into the yellow jersey.

So, what’s in store for tomorrow? Well, I can’t tell you how it’s going to end, but I’m pretty sure another group of hopeful opportunists will leave the field behind early, in pursuit of glory, TV exposure for their sponsors, and perhaps even a shot at taking Hincapie’s yellow jersey.

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