Why Do You Stop Pedaling?
I have watched countless professional races on TV, especially grand tour stages. Interestingly, despite racing myself and knowing the feelings and sufferings inherent in bike racing, when I’m watching the breakaway in those races I’m often left with the same question: why did you stop pedaling? I have this thought mostly on the hilly/mountain stages. It looks so easy from the sofa. They’re on the last climb, they've been in the break all day. They have earned a two minute lead. Just put it slightly below threshold and they’d stay away. They’d win the stage. Why do they not keep going? Why do they let the guys who have sprung from the peloton glide past them? This weekend I did a road race where I was that guy, in that position. Now I know.
As is my want, today was a day I wanted to be in the break. Having just this very moment at this keyboard invested some time contemplating that sentiment, it seems that is essentially my want on all the days. In all the races. This was a weird one however, as I had the intention of going as soon as possible, at the gun if it could be achieved. The oddness here wasn’t that I wanted to go as soon as, but that this race was 108.5 miles (or 174.6 km in new money) with about 8,500 ft of climbing. On really tough, rough roads. In short, this race was a beast. A monster. I’ve written a little about this race before so you can get a sense of the difficulty of the parcours. Fortunately, my team manager, the selfless Diamond-J, supplied me with a sponsor-provided, phenomenal bike for the event, one specific for the cobble-esque nature of the course, giving me the right equipment for the job at the very least.
I tried to get a bit of separation from the start. No dice. I’m not sure if those behind were ‘chasing’ or simply didn’t know to let the lunatic on a solo flyer just go. Either way, it wasn’t allowed. Two miles after the start the race’s major climb starts (~9 minutes at an average 5%, which was to be tackled 5 times in the race). About two thirds of the way up a group tried to go clear. I went after it which contributed to the highest 5 minute power I put out all race (377 w, 144 lb) and highest 1 minute numbers, too (459 w). Astoundingly, I wasn’t able to follow the move. Even fresh I couldn’t make the junction and get across: they were putting out some power which was a bit too much, apparently. Fortunately, it was of little consequence as the race came back together at the top of the climb. With the attempts to get away, climbing and trying to follow other attacks, my average power for the fist 20 minutes of the race was 325 w, which is a little on the high side seeing as I wasn’t always on the front!
After about 30 minutes of racing and 9 miles, a couple of riders got some space. Seeing as these guys were in the two teams with the largest squads, this seemed like a move with potential- so I went off after it. I was surprised to get some daylight but considering this now, I suppose it was given to me. Its better for the teams blocking to have a few more bodies in the move helping their guys than not, so I guess that played in my favour; after all, there’s still 99 miles left to race race. I’ve talked about bridging to moves before and the folly therein, but apparently I never learn. I got two-thirds of the way across and then started to suffer. Ah shit. My Garmin tells we that I averaged 378 w for those first 2 minutes of the bridge which only got me part way. The riders ahead had about 15 seconds when I started out and they probably still had 6 seconds on me after two minutes of chasing. Six seconds doesn’t sound like much but when you’re stuck in no-man’s land it is an absolute canyon. I took a quick peek over my shoulder and saw two welcome surprises. First, I had quite a lot of space on the pack. Second, two other bridging riders were following me. This was a heavenly sight, allowing me to ease up slightly to allow the junction and get support. After a short period the two chasers reached me and I tucked in at third wheel. Unfortunately, one of the riders in that duo was a teammate of one of those who I had gone after originally. This meant that he had no intention of putting anything into this bridge attempt, leaving it down to me and the other rider. In any case, after taking a nice breather on the back for a few moments, I came round our passenger at second wheel and began contributing again to the bridge with the other rider who would work. After another minute or two, we made the junction- making 5 out front, two from the same team. The day’s break had been established. We were 10 miles in to a 108 mile race.
I’ve had the fortune/misfortune to have been in a fair few breakaways in long road races before, but this was the most demanding that I had attempted, purely from a course perspective. As the break formed there were still over 90 miles of racing left with almost all of the climbing remaining. It was going to be a tough day at the office. I’ll summarise the finale here: at mile 70 of the race, I got pinged from the group on the fourth of five attempts up the course’s major climb. By the end of the race, only one of the original breakaway riders hung on (and he won- great performance!). Due to luck, fatigue, mechanicals the rest of us were jettisoned at some point. The day’s work was hard and a challenging ride in every sense. I wasn’t even doing as much work as the others in the move, knowing that I had to try at least, to be smart and conserve where I could. Prior to eventually losing contact with the break (at which point we were down to four riders, having lost one guy before) I’d had to fight to stay on the wheel on the prior two climbs, chasing and barely latching on on the previous climb. When we hit the longer, 10 minute ascent for the fourth time (with multiple other, smaller climbs added in for fun) I just didn’t have it. We’d been given many time checks on the road: 2:00 minutes at first, then 2:30, then 3:00, with the largest gap at about 5 minutes. The race to me getting flicked had taken me 3 hours 3 minutes at a normalised power of 289 w. It was hard but not horrendous, according to the numbers. But in any case, it was the point at which another hard climbing effort was out of the question.
I was shelled. I still had a few minutes on the chasing group once I became unhitched but it didn’t matter. I was cooked on both sides and ready to come out of the oven. After settling into a much more reserved pace, two riders who had sprung from the pack came by me after a few minutes. I entertained the idea of getting on and briefly surged into third wheel as they passed. Yeah…not happening. That lasted about 20 seconds before I relented. Did I say I was cooked? I managed to scramble up the climb and down the other side and put a few more miles in before easing up to let a small chase group from the field hoover me up. I jumped in the group and hitched a ride until the next climb, where I again became unglued as they attacked each other, racing for top-10 finishes. After that ascent, there were still 20 miles to race with a final ascent up the major climb included, which I covered at a modest but continuous pace, eventually crossing the line 14th place, about 20 minutes behind the winner.
I now know what it's like when I watch those valiant breakaway riders as they lurch up the day's final climb on that stage of the Tour. Their pedaling is ragged. Their shoulders slumped. Fatigue etched across their faces. Only a few miles from the end, the group is still a few minutes behind. No matter, that final 3 mile ascent they face may as well be a thousand miles. The end, and the win, is gone. Those relaxed legs who had been whooshing along in the pack all day, barely sniffing the wind, are fresher. Those legs are more spritely. They're move capable. Those legs can still pedal fast. For our breakaway rider, his legs have been leached dry. Their power withdrawn mile after mile, the toll that needs paying for those out front. In reality, those going hard in the finale of a race who catch and pass the remnants of the break are also fatigued, going at a measured pace. But to those men of the breakaway, that tempo is unattainable. The price for racing has been paid in the many, many miles before that point, and it is of a significant value. That's why those riders of the breakaway don't pedal harder. That's why those riders of the breakaway don't hang on.
The breakaway, down to four, somewhere between mile 40 and 60 of the race.