In a Tour de France stage with parcours which could fall in favour of a breakaway, getting into the move of the day becomes a true type of art form. While the finish is, of course, always the most exciting part of a stage, the opening kilometres which riders spend fighting for a precious spot in the break can often be just as riveting to watch.
One group rides away, then, like an elastic band snapping into position, they are all of a sudden back in the jaws of the peloton. Another move fires off, it’s relentless, repeated attacks, a tortuous period for the riders, for so many of whom the effort comes to nothing.
For Bahrain-Victorious’s Fred Wright, though, today was the day he made it. How? “You've always got to say in your head that it's not over,” he told Rouleur after the stage. “You have to keep trying, keep following. It’s a fight.”
The British rider found himself in a group with two other riders after around 20 kilometres of relentless attacking in stage eight of the Tour de France. Wright’s own attack was countered by the duo of Mattia Cattaneo (Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl) and Frederik Frison from Lotto-Soudal, but the 23-year-old was able to hitch a ride on the back of the pairing, making the trio the break of the day. However, it wasn't a mission accomplished for Wright.
“It was just the three of us, unfortunately. It’s a shame there weren’t more. There was a crash and maybe that affected some guys getting across. If they were coming across the gap, we would have waited for them.”
With Bike Exchange-Jayco gunning for a stage win for Aussie puncheur Micheal Matthews, and Jumbo-Visma confident that their all-round super talent Wout van Aert could take the spoils in a reduced bunch sprint to the line, Wright and his breakaway companions were given little leeway. The gap rarely tipped over the two minute mark, as the big teams kept a tight leash on the trio.
“When it was just us three, I knew that they were going to keep it close,” Wright explains “Because obviously they’ve got Wout there and he's pretty much wrapped up the green jersey after his win today. We’d heard rumours people were going to control it today.”
“At one point, I think after about an hour and a half, I thought, oh dear, this is not the best. I could have let myself have a much easier day here,” he laughs.
But, this is the Tour de France, and, despite the odds being against him, the Bahrain-Victorious rider was still prepared to give it his all for the chance to secure his first ever professional victory. “The Tour gives you that extra motivation,” he explains. “All the fans, the cameras and everything. It's that extra bit of energy in the legs.”
The energy Wright had was apparent even to those watching at home. With 70 kilometres of the stage remaining, Cattaneo, Wright’s breakaway companion, told the British rider and Frison of Lotto Soudal that it was time to put the hammer down. The Quick Step-Alpha Vinyl’s rider gesture to the camera mimed turning the throttle on a motorbike: it was time for them to ride hard.
“Cattaneo, he's a bit more experienced. He said, right, let's go easy here and wait for the bunch to bring the gap back,” explains Wright. “The he said: when I hear that everyone's stopping for a toilet break, we'll turn the gas on. It worked quite well.”
The injection of pace saw Frison drop off the wheel, leaving just Wright and Cattaneo ahead of a chasing pack alone on the roads of France. “I knew that might happen based on how he was riding on one of the climbs,” explains Wright. “I don’t want to put any offence on him, but you can feel it when you’re riding together.”
For the British rider, fuelling was at the forefront of his mind when it came to making it through a long day in the wind. “I was just trying to eat as much as I could. Every 20 minutes having a gel,” he says. “I almost had too much, my body was rejecting some of it.”
“Today took more of a toll on my body than being in the peloton,” Wright explains when I ask about how his legs were feeling after a mammoth effort. “But it's so much more controlled in the break, you just ride at a steady tempo for four hours. Whereas the bunch there's a lot more spikes. The training intervals I do are often a steady tempo for long periods of time. Today was basically just that for four hours.”
Wright explains he took inspiration from his teammate and breakaway connoisseur, Matej Mohorič, during his time up the road. “I was trying to channel my inner Matej as much as I could,” he says. “Just getting as low as possible, rolling a big gear.”
It was a technique that paid off for Wright. As he approached the final climb of the day, he distanced Cattaneo and found himself riding solo towards the finish line, still with a 30 second gap on the looming peloton. “Sometimes I doubt my own abilities. I kind of don't realise how strong I am. I was like: what? Okay, I’m alone now?”
“I didn't want to think about the gap. I just thought, I’m going to try and ride it ridiculously hard and see what happens,” he says. “My team was getting quite excited at one stage!”
In the end, it was heartbreak for Wright as the bunch swallowed him up with a few kilometres of the stage remaining, the likes of Jumbo-Visma and UAE Team Emirates storming past him in a flash of colour. Wout van Aert sprinted to a predictable stage win, but Wright had impressed with his show of strength. However, a testament to his character and determination, the British rider is left wanting more.
“People keep saying, well done, I’m so proud of you and stuff,” he says. “I don’t want to be arrogant, but I think I have the legs to win a stage from a breakaway. The result is coming.”
One tool that Wright will take from his exploits today is the confidence that he has the ability to compete to win at the highest level of professional cycling, amongst the best riders in the world.
“It's all good signs for the days to come. We’ve got some mountains coming up but there’s more breakaway opportunities after that. And I’m ready for more.”