“I think riding in the breakaway, and more importantly racing in the breakaway, is really an art form. It is something that you have to feel and if you do, it makes all the difference.
One way to be in the breakaway is because they [your team] asked you to or they told you to but, if you believe in it, and you know that this kind of racing approach is what you enjoy the most, it changes everything. It changes the experience completely.”
Where It All Began
“At first, I started to look for breakaway opportunities because when I was in a smaller team, the only goal we had was to show the team’s colors and sponsors at the front of the race and I understood that. However, in doing so, I had the opportunity to make some results from these breakaways and I started to feel like this was my opportunity to find a place in the cycling system. Being in the breakaway became something that I enjoyed and then, what came a little while after that, was that this kind of racing found it’s way into the hearts of the fans.
“Especially when I was younger and I couldn’t have the big result that I am always looking for now, just knowing that that people were enjoying watching me race and cheering for me because I was in the first group was satisfying for me. It was, and still is, something to be proud of because, at the end of the day, that is the most important part of our job. We make a show for the fans to enjoy. Other guys do it in different ways but, I found that this was the best way for me to do it and to this day, being in the breakaway is my preferred way to race. There has been a change though because I am no longer just satisfied with finding the breakaway. Now, I always want to do it for the result.”
Reading the Road
“The most important thing when you’re looking for a stage that has the potential to be one for the breakaway is to study the parcours closely. That’s the key to it all. It’s the point from which everything starts and once you have found a parcours that first of all suits the breakaway and second of all suits you as a rider, then you really have to focus on that day. The better you understand the parcours, the more ready you will be and the more prepared you are, the more chance you have to succeed.”
“During a week-long race or a Grand Tour, you also have to keep an eye on what’s going on on the days leading up to your chosen stage and what’s to come after it. Doing this, helps you to understand how the race could play out and once you know all of this, you can start to figure out a way to use your energy to get into the breakaway.”
The Right Move
“Just like when you are trying to find the right day for the breakaway, it is important to fully understand the race when you are looking for the right move. You need to know which teams are trying to control the race and those who are also looking for breakaway opportunities. Once you understand this, it is sometimes possible to tell the exact moment that the breakaway will go and therefore avoid any other attempts.
Other times, the breakaway is made by luck and a bit of instinct. You can try over and over again and not find the good move but then, as has been the case for me before, you can go with just one move and that’s the good one. However, after all these years, I believe that you have to try a lot of times and even when it looks like it is not going to work, you have to try again. In the end, if you wait for luck, sometimes it works out but, most of the time you are not going to find the right move. You have to help make the right move happen.”
A Race Within a Race
“After you find the good move, another race starts and you have to start to look at the composition of the breakaway. You need to work out what your strength over the other guys is and only after doing this can you start to think about the best way to beat them. To say that everything is planned is hard because as I have come to understand, success from the breakaway requires a combination of elements and the new race that begins is almost always completely different to what you might be expecting.
This small race that fits inside a much bigger picture is what I really like about racing in the breakaway. You find that the normal values or statistics assigned to individual riders are thrown out the window when riding in the breakaway and instead, everything changes. I have seen many times that the guys who are maybe stronger on paper are not as strong at the end of a long day in the breakaway on a difficult parcours.”
An Inner Battle: Legs versus Mind
“Most of the time it is your approach to the race that makes the biggest difference and that comes from your mind. When you are in the breakaway with guys who are just happy to be there and who aren’t looking for that big result, the chance of arriving at the finish in front is low. How I see it is that once you are there, you are out at the front of the race, you have to look at it like this is your only chance and so it is better to finish having played all of your cards than regret holding something back. It all comes down to your mental approach to the race.
For example my Vuelta a España stage win in 2018 was all about mental strength. It was a long and slow selection, kilometer by kilometer, starting with a big group, then a more manageable breakaway from which another smaller group formed before finally there was just the two of us. At that point, it was honestly all about the mind and for me that’s what is the most difficult, and also most rewarding thing about winning from a breakaway.
There is always one more step to make and at first, what takes you to the next step is your legs but slowly, as you get closer to the finish line, it is always less about legs and more about your mind. This is where you can make all the difference because sometimes to use your legs is easy, especially when you are the strongest, but fortunately, it is not always about that.”
The Perfect Number
“The number of riders in the breakaway is maybe the one thing where there can be more of a rule because if the group is too big, it is going to be really difficult to find harmony and get everyone to work together. So, I don’t like it when there is a big breakaway, around 15 to 20 guys or maybe even more. There are so many options in a group that big and it is challenging to control everything. I think the best number is between six to ten riders because you have enough guys to put up a strong fight against the peloton. Of course, if you were sure that 20 guys would all work together then it would obviously be better but most of the time, it does not work out like this so, you have guys who are not working and this creates the problems.
Once again you have to think about the parcours but somewhere around the six to ten is good. It is easier to find the right cooperation and that is the basis for any breakaway. You have to work together and if everybody has the goal of going to the finish, it changes the day. When you have guys who are not focused and who don’t believe in the breakaway, it is disappointing because they have already given up and you miss out on their help. At the beginning of the breakaway, you have to work as a team and then, when you know you are going to be able to fight for the result, that team doesn’t exist anymore. But, if you don’t work for the team initially, you will never get the chance to win. You have to be friends for half a race and then in the final, you can go back to being rivals.”
Timing Is Everything
“There is no schedule to follow and knowing when to go it alone is something you have to feel and also sometimes the moves which you might think are too early turn out to be the best ones. What I always remind myself of is that in a breakaway, even if you are really far from the finish, you can’t let anybody go, not if you want to win. You never know what can happen and I have lost races in the past because I thought that an attack made with 50 kilometers to go was too early but, in the end, it went to the finish.
Knowing when it’s your turn to make a potentially decisive attack is really about your feelings and how you see yourself against the other guys in the breakaway. Although you have done a lot of homework, and you know the parcours in detail, you cannot decide exactly when you are going to make your move before the start of the race. There is no science to it. No recipe. Every race is a different story.
Of course, you can have some ideas but in the end, it all comes down to your ability to read, and understand, the race as well as your belief in yourself. For example, if I look back to the Vuelta last year again, the group was 30 guys strong at one point and knew that I had to take the risk and say okay, I can’t follow everybody, I can’t cover every move so, I just have to feel it and follow my gut reaction. So, at the end of the day, when you decide it is your chance to go you really have to it feel it from the inside and once you make the move, you have to focus on the big result and not stop until you get to the line.”
Every Win is Different
“A question that I get asked a lot is ‘what is your favorite victory?’ and I am never able to choose one over the other. Every breakaway is different and so, every victory that has come as a result of making those moves has a different story and meaning to me.”
“My first Vuelta stage win felt like the 1000th attempt I had made and to be honest, in the beginning, I was not thinking about victory. I had done the Tour de France before it and none of my efforts worked there but in the end, I came to the finish alone and I was the strongest on the day. This was actually the easiest win because I made one attack and I dropped all of the other guys and went solo for ten kilometers.”
“My second victory at the Vuelta came after an injury so again I wasn’t totally thinking about the win at first because I was feeling really tired but, in the end, I fought with the other guys, attacking and attacking. I was still there at the end and I just had that one small something extra to give. It was amazing and maybe the hardest of them all both physically and mentally. Then, Giro dell’Emillia was special because I had never been really competitive in one-day races like I was in stage races.”