Unlike marathons and other running races, in which a few elite athletes and their teammates congregate at the front and take turns setting a fast pace to leave the rest behind, riders in the Tour de France generally stay together for most of the multi-hour stages. That’s because riding in a pack is far easier than riding alone at the speeds they average (around 45 kilometers (28 miles) an hour on ﬂat stages), and drafting off other riders can save up to 40 percent of their energy output, or as much as 90 percent in a tightly packed group.
When the peloton is moving faster, especially in the ﬁrst and ﬁnal hours, it can be tough to just hang on. A casual observer might wonder why some riders make huge efforts to get into breakaways, particularly on ﬂat stages, knowing they’ll most likely be caught before the end and probably dropped. There are many reasons for getting into breaks: a genuine attempt to win the stage (or win points at an intermediate sprint or KOM climb); a defensive move to mark a rival team (or to help a teammate bridge up later); or just a publicity move to give a team sponsor stage-long exposure. To make a winning attack (either from the break or the peloton), a rider has to choose an opportune moment (perhaps when he sees weakness or fatigue on his competitors’ faces) or a strategic location (a tight turn, short uphill, or section of cobbles), where a sharp acceleration can give him a jump-start on riders who hesitate.
Because it’s so much easier for a group to race at high speeds, solo breakaways are the most difficult to sustain. Over long distances, a rider has to pace his effort perfectly, fuel constantly, and not overextend himself. Over a short distance—a kilometer or two—his focus is selecting the correct gearing so he can use maximum power to maintain the highest possible pedal cadence.
On stage 3 of the 2007 Tour, Fabian Cancellara attacked solo in the ﬁnal kilometer and held off all the best sprinters to win. He made his move on a stretch of cobblestones in Compiègne, near the start of Paris–Roubaix, the cobbled classic he won three times.
The longest successful breakaway since World War II was made in 1947 by Albert Bourlon, who rode solo for 253 kilometers (157 miles) on stage 14 between Carcassonne and Luchon, to win by more than sixteen minutes.
In 1951, Hugo Koblet single-handedly held off a peloton led by Tour greats Fausto Coppi, Gino Bartali, and Louison Bobet for 135 kilometers (84 miles) between Brive and Agen to win stage 11 by almost three minutes—before going on to win the Tour.
Buy the book here.