What's Cool In Road Cycling

Carmichael Sez: Winning Out Of The Break

Coming to the finish line in a small group always gives you a better chance of winning than entering the final straightaway with the entire pack, but when you have Daniele Bennati in the group, who’s one of the best sprinters in the world, the odds are still against you. Markus Fothen, Martin Elmiger and Jens Voigt used an entire arsenal of tactics to try and win the race, but Bennati played his cards well and came away with his first Tour de France stage win.

By: Chris Carmichael

Whether you’re the sprinter or the slow-twitch guy, Stage 17 offered some good lessons on what you need to do to increase your chances of winning.

Not everyone is blessed (or cursed, depending on how you look at it) with fast-twitch muscle fibers to be an explosive sprinter. If your sprint pales in comparison to a rider in your breakaway, you have to do everything you can to prevent the race from coming down to a sharp acceleration to the finish line. You have a few choices:

1. Attack a long way out. Today, the attacks started just after Jens Voigt took the final intermediate sprint of the stage. The eight-man break was soon down to four, and then it was Voigt who tried to go off the front with 4 kilometers to go. This is a good move because if you and a sprinter are equally tired, he’ll still beat you in a sprint, but he may not be able to chase you down over a longer distance.

And the other riders in the breakaway are likely to look at the sprinter to lead the chase because they don’t want to pull him back into contention so he can beat them, too. This means your chances of going solo are sometimes greater attacking from a breakaway containing a strong sprinter compared to attacking a breakaway of equally-matched riders.

2. Attack relentlessly. Even the best sprinters only have a few hard accelerations in their legs, and the more times you make him dig deep to close gaps, the more you can level the playing field for the final 500 meters of the race. Some riders are afraid of this tactic because they want to save as much energy as possible in case nothing works and the sprint happens anyway.

But if it comes down to a sprint, you’re going to lose, and what does it matter if you finish second or fourth? In some amateur races, second definitely provides a better prize, but at the Tour de France the difference between second and fourth doesn’t really matter. As a team director, I wanted my riders to play the cards that gave them the best chances of winning, even if it meant they finished last out of the men in the breakaway.

3. Attack just inside the final kilometer. At 700-900 meters from the finish line, it’s too early for a sprinter to hit the afterburners and you’re close enough to the finish that you might reach the finish before the chasers manage to close the gap. A last-minute flyer is an all-or-nothing move, but it’s often a poor sprinter’s best chance to grab a win.

The first thing you have to know is that you have no friends in the breakaway. You’re the rider everyone’s afraid of, and they’re going to do everything in their power to prevent the race from coming down to a sprint. So, what are you going to do about it?

1. Keep the pace high. This can be relatively difficult if you’re with riders who have already started playing cat-and-mouse games, but a higher pace in the breakaway makes it more difficult for anyone to accelerate off the front. A hard-charging peloton right on your heels plays to your advantage in this situation because it gives the other riders in the break an good reason to keep working. A big lead on the pack is a double-edged sword. It guarantees that the winner will come from the breakaway, but with a lead of more than nine minutes on the peloton today, Benatti couldn’t rely on the threat of being caught as an incentive for the other three men to keep the pace high.

2. Cover the attacks immediately. You’re going to have to cover the attacks if you want to retain a chance of winning, but a long and drawn out chase is going to take the punch out of your sprint. If you react to the attacks immediately and get on the wheel fast, the hard efforts will be shorter. This is especially important when the attacks start several kilometers from the finish because it sends a message to your companions that you’re too strong to ride away from (even if you’re not). If you’re slow to react, you’ll be seen as vulnerable and then you’re in trouble.

3. Use your natural advantages to cross gaps alone. This is going to seem contrary to the previous tip, but it’s just a different tactic, no better and no worse. If or when someone attacks and gets a few seconds up the road, your companions are likely to wait for you to pull them back into contention. Use your ability to accelerate to snap them off your wheel as you make the move to bridge the gap. The effort is going to cost you energy either way, but at least now you’re not giving them a free ride at the same time. If you’re lucky, they won’t catch up at all.

The exciting thing about a breakaway is that everyone has a potentially winning hand of cards to play, whereas a relatively small group of riders have a realistic chance of winning when the whole peloton storms into the final kilometer together. So, if you’re in the break with 10 kilometers left to race, examine the situation and play your hand. Even if the odds are stacked against you.

The next audio workout in the Do The Tour… Stay At Home™ series is Stage 19, the final individual time trial. Time Trial World Champion Mari Holden joined me to record an interval workout that’s specifically designed to help you train at race pace, just like she did to prepare for World’s and just like I had Lance Armstrong do in the winter and spring before the Tour de France. Check it out and download it to your iPod at www.trainright.com.

Chris Carmichael coached Lance Armstrong throughout his 15-year cycling career. For more information on Carmichael Training Systems’ 9+3 Coaching Offer, the Do the Tour…Stay at Home_ audio workouts with Lance Armstrong, and our free Tour de France Newsletter, visit TrainRight.com.

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