Stage 13 debrief: The Perfect Break

Mads Pedersen was the stage winner in Saint-Étienne, from a break which the peloton surely never had a chance of catching

The Platonic Form is a philosophical idea which posits that everything in the physical world also exists, in a more perfect form, as a non-physical concept. The Platonic Form is the idea of a perfect example of something, while its manifestation in the real world is imperfect and compromised.

Plato uses the example of a horse in his work Republic. The Form of a horse is abstract, perfect and unchangeable; all horses in the real world are imperfect manifestations - they have individual differences, and in death, even cease to be a horse, but the Form of a horse remains constant.

This philosophical tangent is relevant to stage 13 of the 2022 Tour de France, which finished in Saint-Étienne and was won by Mads Pedersen of Trek-Segafredo, because the break of seven riders that eventually coalesced with 145km to go was about as close to the Platonic Form of the cycling break as the imperfect, flawed real world of bike racing can be. The peloton never stood a chance. It was the perfect break. 

Pundits, fans and even cyclists themselves love to look at a stage and declare whether or not it is a day for the break. The classic day for the break is a hilly one which is beyond the capacity of the sprinters, but not tempting enough to the GC riders to try to control or use to gain advantage. (The advent of Wout van Aert means that while there are many stages that are beyond the capacity of the sprinters, there are fewer that are beyond the capacity of the Belgian rider, as the pseudo-mountainous Lausanne stage this year demonstrated.)

The early Alpine stages were days for the break. Bob Jungels won in Châtel and Magnus Cort won in Megève, and it never really looked like they would get caught by the peloton or GC group. Looking further forward, stage 14 to Mende is surely a day for the break - the only GC rider who might fancy his chances of beating Jonas Vingegaard on the final climb and therefore taking a time bonus is Tadej Pogačar and his team does not currently look up to the task of controlling such a hard stage. 

Stage 13, however, was much harder to call before the stage. Some described it as a day for the sprinters, and ASO officially designated it a flat stage, even though there were a few lumps and bumps along the way. However, while it might not have been a day for any old break, it was definitely a stage for this break.

It consisted of Filippo Ganna (Ineos Grenadiers), Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), Hugo Houle (Israel-Premier Tech), Fred Wright (Bahrain Victorious), Matteo Jorgensen (Movistar) and the Trek-Segafredo pairing of Quinn Simmons and Mads Pedersen. Initially, Ganna, Küng and Jorgensen slipped away. The peloton, led by Alpecin, did not approve of the composition of this break, even with just three members, and chased for a long time. However, all they did was set up Simmons to lead Pedersen up to the break, along with Houle and Wright. Once these seven were together, their lead started stretching.

This seven-man move was the highest quality break of the 2022 Tour so far. Küng and Ganna are two of the best time triallists and rouleurs in the peloton; Houle is a multiple Canadian champion in the time trial and won the gold medal in the discipline at the 2015 Pan American Games. Pedersen is a classics specialist and former world champion, with the advantage that his team-mate Simmons spent the day working for him. Wright and Jorgensen have both been aggressive in this Tour, and Wright has had the form to already be in several strong breaks and he came close to winning in Megève, even after spending the final kilometres blocking and chasing attacks for his team-mate Luis Léon Sánchez.

The peloton tried to regulate the break’s lead, with Lotto working for their sprinter Caleb Ewan. However, almost the entire Lotto team slid off the road with 65km to go; the resulting chaos saw Alpecin riding hard to distance the Australian, which brought the lead down to two minutes. However, Lotto and Ewan gave up chasing, which took the steam out of the bunch’s effort, with the gap going above three minutes and it was only when BikeExchange made a belated effort to chase for Michael Matthews that the lead started to shrink. The number of BikeExchange’s available personnel also shrank as the kilometres ticked dow, and with only two domestiques left and the gap still stubbornly sitting at two minutes, they gave up.

It always looks like the battle between a small break and the peloton is an unfair one, given the discrepancies in their sizes, but actually the numbers favoured the break this time. There was generally only one team chasing at any one time, and they would commit three or four riders to the chase, which meant the battle was seven against three or four. It wasn’t just the numbers that favoured the break, however: the seven were, pound-for-pound, stronger riders than those who were chasing.

But the bonds tying the break together loosened as soon as their primary function - holding off the peloton - had been achieved. Breaks are co-operative endeavours, until they are not. Simmons was dropped, having saved Pedersen considerable energy with his presence in the break; then Pedersen attacked, taking Wright and Houle with him before easily dispatching them in the sprint. It had been the perfect break, although perhaps only the winner would agree.