Long-Range Survival

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You have to be a little crazy to break away from the peloton more than 125 miles from the finish line on a day when the temperature’s in the mid- to high-90s Fahrenheit, but today Jens Voigt and Oscar Pereiro were handsomely rewarded for their efforts. Surviving a long-range breakaway and still having the power to attack or sprint for the stage win takes training, experience, and intelligence, and Voigt used all of them to grab a well-deserved victory.

Keep It Steady
Getting into the breakaway is not easy, but once you’re there and the group has a lead that is growing, it’s important for everyone to keep the pace as steady as possible. Fluctuations in speed make riders work harder and fatigue faster. All breakaway groups slow down as the race gets longer, and collectively having more energy left in the group can be the difference between staying away and getting caught in the final miles of the race.

Of course, once the lead grew to 28 minutes today there was no chance the breakaway was going to be caught. Knowing that one of the five men in the group would win the stage, though, the riders needed to take steps toward improving their individual chances of winning.

Do Your Work
Although it’s tempting to skip pulls and try to contribute less work to setting the pace in a breakaway group, it’s a bad idea when there’s still a lot of ground to cover before you get to the finish line. When riders see that someone is just sitting in the draft and not pulling his weight, they are more likely to attack well before the finish, just to get rid of him. Once a rider is off the back, he won’t catch back up, no matter how much energy he had been conserving by skipping pulls. The moral of the story is that it’s worth the effort to do your share of the work, because first you have to make it to the final 12 miles of the stage before you can use any saved energy to make a bid for the win.

Eat and Drink
It takes more energy to ride 125 miles in a group of five men than it does to ride the same distance in the peloton, so it’s important for riders to eat and drink more than normal. Where they might normally eat 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrate (a gel and bottle of sports drink) in an hour, they will often increase this to 70 to 80 grams by adding another gel or bar to the mix. Some young riders get excited when they get into the big breakaway of the day and forget to eat and drink enough, which is why experienced riders like Voigt often have an advantage at the end of long breakaways.

Start Saving Energy Late
If you’re certain the breakaway is going to make it to the finish line, you can start trying to save some energy in the last third of the race. To do this while still contributing to the overall work in the group, riders start taking shorter pulls or pedaling a slightly easier gear. You want to have some explosive power and sustainable energy in your system when it comes down to the final 12 miles; you’re going to need it to initiate and respond to attacks.

Reduce the Size of the Group
The easiest way to increase your chances of winning is to reduce the number of riders in contention for victory. Today’s breakaway started with five men, but by the final kilometer it was down to just two. Jens Voigt only had to worry about outmaneuvering and overpowering Oscar Pereiro because he had already gotten rid of the other three. It’s good to launch your first offensive moves far enough out from the finish line that you can regroup and recover a bit if a few riders are still with you after you shed a few others. At the same time, you don’t want to attack so far out that you run out of power before you can reach the finish line. In the past two days, the winning moves that have split the breakaways have come in the final six miles.

Go for Broke
The one thing that’s guaranteed in a group of riders that has been ahead of the peloton for such a long period of time and distance, it’s that everyone is tired. Voigt used his experience to gauge how tired the other riders were by the ways they responded to his attacks. With four kilometers to go, he attacked and Sylvain Chavanel chased him right away. A few moments later, Pereiro countered and Voigt was able to get right onto his wheel, but Chavanel was slow to respond. That told Voigt the Cofidis rider was tired, so the German attacked again. This time, Pereiro was able to go with him, Chavanel was not, and the fourth rider in the group, Manuel Quinziato refused to help him.

With the group down to just two, Voigt drove the pace to make sure Chavanel and Quinziato didn’t catch up, and then attacked hard just within the final kilometer. Even though Pereiro clawed his way back to Voigt’s back wheel, it was clear he was too tired to attack for the stage win, so the German waited until he was in the final 200 meters and jumped hard to sprint for the win. An experienced rider with more than 45 victories on his race resumé, Voigt read the riders in the group, evaluated their strengths and weaknesses versus his own, and adjusted his tactics accordingly. The result: the second Tour de France stage win of his career.