Most races are formulaic, especially at the pro level. In the team buses before each race, the majority of the directeurs will be mapping the day out for their riders in a similar fashion. The team leaders will be told to wait in the slipstream of their teammates and the peloton until the final hour or less of racing, where they’ll attempt to burst ahead. Until then, their only goal is to conserve energy and stay fresh for the finale. The domestiques will be tasked with protecting the leaders, keeping them fed, fueled, and in position. Each of the domestiques has a distinct role: some will be told to follow the attacks to ensure a combination of the right riders is in the early breakaway that forms, some might be asked to attack early. Others, who will wait patiently with the leader in the slipstream, will be required to increase the tempo to thin the peloton before the leader’s final attacks. Each rider will work selflessly in the wind, so that the leader can execute the goal.
Broken down, the tactics are simple to an experienced team, but to the neophyte fan or racer, they can seem puzzling. Riders are constantly calculating, guessing, and evaluating distance, difficulty, wind, speed, and physical capacities. The goal of any team is to save energy while the competition expends in the hope that, by the end, the advantage is theirs. Time spent in the wind is energy consumed; yet there is a fine line between allowing a rival too much of a lead and too little.
During my racing career, I rode on the front for hours at a time, pursuing breakaways, and placing the leaders in the front for the decisive moment of a race. Once a breakaway formed, I would begin setting a tempo at the front with a teammate or two, slowly reeling the breakaway in. Often for well over 100 km, I would ride on the front of the peloton sharing the burden of the workload with a teammate or two. The sole objective was to catch the breakaway just before the finish to ensure our leader was in a position to win. If we brought them back too soon, the peloton would begin attacking with fury, resetting the race. Too late, and quite simply, we wouldn’t catch them.
On the front of the peloton, we gauged our speed off of the time checks that were relayed to us over the race radio or by the ardoisier, a motorcycle passenger who posts the time gaps on a chalkboard. Steadily, our speed would increase until the final kilometers, when would be tearing through the countryside or city streets at top speed.
With time, I learned the differences in speed required to ride to catch a three-man breakaway or a 10-man breakaway. The greater the number of riders in the break, the harder our chase would be. Most teams will not to allow more than 10 riders to escape from the peloton. In a strong headwind, the pursuit of a small group is easier, as the wind wears the leading riders both mentally and physically. As a general rule, a chase led by the peloton can narrow the time gap to the breakaway by a minute every 10 kilometers. The number of riders in the breakaway determines the number required to chase, but ultimately, the peloton can overpower any breakaway.
Cohesion and consistency is vital to the success of both the breakaway and the pursuit. A group of riders working together with metronomic fluidity will usually be faster than a group that surges and slows. And a team of devoted domestiques chasing a breakaway will always have the advantage over a breakaway made of up of rivals. The breakaway riders will be thinking about conserving energy for the finale, while the only objective of the chasing team is to catch them.
In the current professional peloton, few breakaways succeed, as the riders and the team directeurs have mastered the chase. Over the race radios, the directeurs can orchestrate their riders, and within the peloton, each rider knows his role. The breakaway is always at the mercy of the peloton: the only chance a breakaway has of success is if the peloton decides to let them go, or is disjointed in their pursuit. The speed of good chase is a thrill.
Often, the only accolades the domestique receives after the finish line is crossed are from his teammates in the bus. But, the effort on the front in the wind, controlling the pace, eating away at the time gap, and contributing to a victory is exhilarating and fulfilling in an unparalleled way.