Monday, July 26, 2021

The Magic of the Breakaway

 In 1992 a little known rider named Jacky Durand shocked the cycling world by winning the Tour of Flanders after a full day in the breakaway.  It was the longest breakaway to win the Tour of Flanders and Durand was the first Frenchman to win Flanders in 36 years and the last one to do it.  It was a very unlikely outcome.  In fact it was so unlikely that when one of the TV cameras stopped working they brought the motorcycle camera that was following the breakaway to come back and follow the favorites.  This means there is very little footage of Durand and no footage of him when he made his final move to secure the win over his final breakaway companion.  My favorite moment of the coverage is when they realized the favorites were not going to make the catch and sent the motorcycle up the road.  

This was the moment that got me hooked on cycling.  The idea that an unknown could ride up the road and steal a major victory was amazing.  

The sport has changed a lot since 1992.  Nowadays there is data on every rider, race radios with detailed information about the breakaways, and so it is harder and harder for a lone breakaway rider to win.  But when it works it is a beautiful thing.  Just ask Anna Kiesenhofer of Austria after she won gold in the women's road race.  There are a lot of complaints inside the women's peloton about how this race played out, but you won't here it from fans.  Fans love this stuff.  The most unquestionable gold coming into these Olympics for me would have been the Dutch women winning the road race.  They had won the last two Olympics road races and came into this race with the four strongest riders.  

So how did they lose?  Well it's a combination of things.  

First they completely underestimated Kiesenhofer and her breakaway companions.  And when I say they I mean the Dutch.  Understand how cycling works.  The Dutch have the strongest team.  They are the favorite.  If you are the US, Germany or any of the other countries that have four riders you are not going to do any work to bring back the breakaway.  The Dutch are expected to win gold and it is their job to bring back any breaks.  Should the American's and German's have sent people to be in the breakaway to put pressure on the Dutch, or course, but they had no obligation to help the Dutch.  Say for instance the US and the Germans had moved to the front and fought to bring back the breakaway with the Dutch contributing one of their four riders in the effort.  In the end the race would have likely been an all Dutch podium.  Everyone understood that and though some have complained about the other large teams not helping out, they had no obligation to help out.  The Dutch want it, then they have to earn it.  The Dutch thought whenever they wanted they could simply win the race, no problem.  

Second, the Dutch had too many bosses.  All of the women on the Dutch team could have won gold and it became obvious pretty quickly that they were all committed to each trying to win gold.  Cycling is a team sport and as such you need one leader and one contingency rider.  On a team of four that leaves you with 2 to do the work only getting the freedom to go for the medal if things fall their way.  Again this is why the US and Germans should have sent someone up the road with the early break.  With one of those riders up the road it would have put more pressure on the Dutch to go to the front.  But the Dutch seemed to be riding as four individuals and well in the end that cost them.  

Thirdly no race radio.  That's right in the Olympics they are not allowed to have radios in their ears and so if they want race information they have to drop back to the race car and then make sure they communicate any information.  The Dutch lost track of what was happening in the race.  Van Vleuten who took silver for the Dutch said she thought she had won gold when she crossed the line.  Some riders on the Dutch team said they new that there was another rider up the road.  Communication cost the Dutch.  

Lastly Anna Kiesenhofer raced a brilliant race.  She did everything exactly right to win.  She stuck with her break companions long enough, she made the right solo move at the right time, and she had the best legs of the day.  People can complain about the tactics used by other teams, but in the end mistakes were made and Kiesenhofer had the ability to take advantage of it.