Are riders losing faith in the lottery of breakaways?

On a stage that seemed poised for flurries of attacks from the peloton, few were willing to roll the dice on getting in the breakaway

Stage eight of the Tour de France was supposed to be different to the sprinter stages that had come before it. The previous three had been sleepy, uneventful affairs for the most part, as the riders, aware that their chances of a breakaway holding off the bunch and denying the fastmen on such flat terrain was next to zero, chose not to get up the road, staying in the comfort of the peloton instead. 

Today’s parcours, by contrast, featured many climbs and undulations throughout, that seemed ideal for riders to get up the road. This would be a difficult day to control, and how many sprinters’ teams would even want to use up energy chasing, given the uphill drag to the line that hindered the pure sprinters’ chances? Add to that the inclement weather, and we were braced for a thrilling battle at the start of the day as attackers vied for a prime spot in a breakaway that had a chance of contesting the stage win. 

Yet for all this anticipation, the stage ultimately played out in much the same way as the previous, flatter sprint stages. We were left with a sole escapee, the indefatigable Jonas Abrahamsen (Uno-X Mobility), hoovering up king of the mountains points all day to strengthen his grip on the polka-dot jersey, but with no realistic chance of making it to the finish. He was, inevitably, caught, there were no more attacks, and the race came down to another bunch sprint. 

The stage was a continuation of a trend that has run through not just this Tour de France, but Grand Tours in general for the last few years. There’s a growing reluctance among riders to get into breakaways, with the promise of TV coverage for the sponsors no longer deemed worth the amount of effort required to spend all day at the front, on days where there is virtually no chance of winning the stage. Consequently, some days go by in Grand Tours where not a single attack happens — something that, in contrast to the overall contemporary trend for exciting racing, can lead to very dull days. And the fact that even a stage like today, which appeared on paper to promise so much for riders who got into the breakaway, still only produced a lone attacker, suggests the trend is only becoming more commonplace. 

Riders need to find a way to rediscover their faith in the lottery of breakaways, and today EF Education-EasyPost tried to show the way. The American team have always fashioned themselves as innovators in the sport, a team who make up for in new ideas what they lack in budget, and today they took a very unorthodox approach in trying to forge an advantageous breakaway for themselves. 

Unlike all the other teams, they displayed great eagerness to animate the race, with both Stefan Bissegger and Neilson Powless attacking in tandem right from the flag. The way they attacked immediately in sync signalled that this was a pre-planned move, but it also seemed that that plan was undertaken on the assumption that other teams and riders would join them in the break. Instead, the pair were only joined by one other, Uno-X’s Abrahamsen.

Tour de France 2024 stage eight

It was here that the team’s tactics became weird. When Powless was heard on the TV moto’s mike expressing to his breakaway companion Abrahamsen how he wished there were more people in the break, it sounded like more of a lament at how things had turned out; but instead, the team were serious about wanting riders to join them. And rather than waiting for other teams to try and try and bridge up on their own accord, they took matters into their own hands. As the roads started to undulate during a flurry of early climbs, Alberto Bettiol attacked out the peloton, with Ben Healy on his wheel. A flurry of riders tried to follow him, but it was the EF Education-EasyPost duo who pressed on, determined to catch their own teammates. 

In the book of standard cycling tactics, this move is madness. You don’t up the pace in the peloton when you have a rider in the breakaway up ahead; let alone if you have two. But the team had deduced that the chances of a break with only three riders making it to the finish was so remote that they were better off potentially risking shutting it down altogether, if it meant they had a chance of boosting their numbers. Ultimately, though, the tactics didn’t work, as, despite Bettiol’s best efforts, he didn’t manage to bring Healy close enough to the leading group for him to attack and join his teammates. In response, Powless and Bissegger sat up altogether, leaving Abrahamsen to spend the rest of the day out front all on his lonesome. 

EF Education-EasyPost weren’t done yet, however. Although their chances of winning from a breakaway was gone, they still felt they had a potential stage winner in sprinter Marijn van den Berg. Although not a pure sprinter, the hilly terrain suited him well, and (as heard through a snippet of radio broadcast aired on the TV coverage), they believed they could give him a chance by riding hard on the climbs in the final 20km preceding the finish. And this ploy worked, at least to an extent. The Dutchman might not have won the stage, but a fifth-place finish in the final sprint was more than respectable.

On days like this, fans across the world will be grateful for the combativity shown by individuals like Abrahamsen and teams like EF Education-EasyPost. Neither ended up with a stage win, but still enjoyed successful days — the former by extending his lead in the polka-dot jersey classification, keeping as high as third in the points classification, furthering his case to be considered in the super-combativity prize awarded at the end of the Tour, and just generally solidifying his status as one of the race’s great entertainers. And EF Education-EasyPost got more TV coverage and media attention than most, while also offering new ways that teams can think about taking on and achieving success on difficult days like this. Hopefully others can take their lead, and we’ll see more attacking racing in the sprint stages to come.

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