Dark horses: the Tour's breakaway brigade

What do Simon Gerrans, Marcus Burghardt and Sylvain Chavanel have in common? Each proved strongest within a small breakaway group to win a stage during the 2008 Tour de France.

It's a fine line between success and failure and these three riders managed to master the art of escaping in the year's biggest race. Cyclingnews looks at what makes an escape artist and who could be one in France this July.

Riding for Crédit Agricole, Australian Simon Gerrans started last year's Tour de France as a can-do all-rounder with the strength to help Thor Hushovd leading up to a sprint finish and the intelligence to pick the right break.

On stage 15 to Prato Nevoso he did that, while three stages later Marcus Burghardt proved his mettle against speedy Spaniard Carlos Barredo to deliver another win for Columbia-Highroad. The next day Sylvain Chavanel confirmed the faith placed in him by many fans and won the stage that took riders from Roanne to Montluçon.

The latter pair won in a two-up sprint while Gerrans fought for victory against Egoi Martinez, Danny Pate and former teammate José Luis Arrieta.

So what makes a successful breakaway rider at the Tour? Looking closely at the attributes of this trio, it becomes apparent that each shares traits which make them perfect candidates to remain out front when the pointy end of the race comes about.

A long Tour stage essentially becomes a Classic so an ability to perform well in one-day races is the most obvious quality. Gerrans, Burghardt and Chavanel share this. Whether it's in the Ardennes, Flanders or northern France, the combination of strength, endurance, a handy sprint and intelligence to pick the opportune moment to strike are all vital to riding a good Classic. These three riders have all of these attributes in spades.

The burning desire to make their mark on the world's biggest race is another. The psychological factor was clearly evident when Gerrans was dropped on the final climb before grinding his way back to the leaders and when Burghardt outfoxed Barredo for the win in Saint Étienne. "I really wanted to win this stage. Even before the Tour, I had targeted this and tomorrow's stage as perfect opportunities for a break, and it worked out," said Burghardt after his triumph last year.

It was the same for Chavanel, who had come agonisingly close several times over the years, notably during stage 10 of the 2005 Tour. July 25, 2009 was his day, however. "This victory proves that if you don't give up, you can one day achieve your goal. Today was my day. I missed out several times at this Tour, and if I hadn't won today, I would have been frustrated, one more time. But I would have tried again!"

With provisional startlists at the ready, let's take a look at riders who could prove to be escape artists in this year's edition of la Grande Boucle.

David Le Lay (Agritubel) - This punchy rider has gone from strength to strength over the past three seasons and a call-up to Agritubel's Tour de France squad last year as a mid-season signing was confirmation of the Frenchman's potential. Useful in a sprint against a small selection and has the gas in the tank to keep his breakaway companions honest.

Haimar Zubeldia (Astana) - Has been in good form as a domestique during '09. The Spanish stalwart may have to sacrifice his chances to work for the leaders, although with the likes of Leipheimer as a water boy, it gives him a bit more scope to chase the right break.

Pierrick Fédrigo (Bouygues Telecom) - Has done it at the Tour before (Pau, 2006) and has the Clasika San Sebastian to his name. Fast, French and a more realistic chance than Voeckler of taking a stage. Bouygues Telecom boss Jean-René Bernadeau has expressed his desire to get one of the boys in baby blue over the line first on home turf.

David Arroyo (Caisse d'Epargne) - Has got the ability to be the best in a break and can be regularly seen mixing it with the leaders on mountain passes. Maybe this will make him a marked man, although he's given a looser rein more often than not due to the fact that he has star teammates such as Alejandro Valverde behind him.

Joan Horrach (Katusha) - Has been there before; the Spaniard rider netted the 12th stage of the 2006 Giro d'Italia with a clever attack out of a group of six. A change of teams may help in his cause to fly under the radar, with teammate Filippo Pozzato the marked man in the Katusha crew.

Stef Clement (Rabobank) - While teammate and countryman Robert Gesink will be a marked man, Clement may be allowed a longer leash to pursue the stage win. The 26-year-old is a talented climber and very capable time trial rider with the endurance to sit on the front all day and still be in the mix for a win. Victory in stage eight of the recently-run Dauphiné Libéré enhances his reputation.

Johannes Fröhlinger (Milram) - The 24-year-old German has been touted in some circles as one of Germany's leading young talents and at this year's Tour de France he'll be part of Milram's youth brigade, with Linus Gerdemann and Markus Fothen also in the squad. That will be a marked duo throughout the three weeks. He hasn't raced much in 2009 although taking 51st on general classification in last year's Giro d'Italia showed he can stick it out in a Grand Tour.

Niki Terpstra (Milram) - Like his teammate (above), Terpstra has established himself as a sure selection for big races. The 25-year-old Dutchman who moved from the track several years ago won the third stage of the Dauphiné Libéré and finshed on the final podium at the recent Ster Elektrotoer. His background means he's got a sizeable engine and can outwit his competitors in a small group if it comes to a sprint.

Gustav Erik Larsson (Saxo Bank) - A silver medal in last year's Beijing Olympic Games time trial and 14th overall in the Giro d'Italia in the same season announced Larsson's arrival at the pointy end of the peloton. Selection in Saxo Bank's Tour squad confirmed it and Bjarne Riis will undoubtedly be expecting big things from his super Swede. Whether that means he's given licence to try his luck off the front is the tantalising question.

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