A boisterous battle for victory between a breakaway group is one of the most exciting scenarios in pro cycling. The margins are small, and it depends on a mix of head, heart, legs, timing and a little bit of luck.
You only have to look at a few results sheets when it comes to accurately comparing the sport's best sprinters, stage racers, puncheurs and time triallists. But rating breakaway specialists? That's a little more subjective.
All the riders on this list regularly go up the road, take wins on the biggest stage, in different races and have found different ways to win. Achieving that success is a mixture of mind and matter.
Escape experts develop an instinct for picking the right attack that'll go away if the first 10 don't, then use racecraft, psychology, deception, calculation and energy conservation. It's all about working together with companions, subtly weighing them up, whittling them down and leaving them behind. And, of course, a big dose of sheer bloody-mindedness helps too. (Jens Voigt, we're looking at you.) But then there's the science – putting out a lot of watts, fuelling correctly, ticking the aero boxes.
Succeeding from a breakaway is one big, complex game. It's fun if you know how to play it, and these 10 riders certainly do.
Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal)
The modern era's breakaway master is Thomas De Gendt. He examines the minutiae of the stage he fancies beforehand and has a bloodhound's nose for the right escape. Once up the road, the 35-year-old is constantly calculating the forthcoming challenges and how fast he can go in relation to the bunch and the group's advantage. He makes a long break less mentally taxing by dividing it into bite-size sectors.
De Gendt has become the Kimi Raikkonen of pro cycling: a dryly-funny cult hero whose ability and decorated career (15 of his 17 wins have been WorldTour stages) affords him a special aura and rare independence. In fact, he on stage 8 at the 2022 Giro d'Italia from the breakaway.
Just leave him alone, he knows what he's doing – he shepherds his assigned Lotto Soudal leader as a dedicated domestique on certain stages and come up with the goods on his self-assigned escape days.
Matej Mohoric (Bahrain Victorious)
His palmarès doesn't lie: he's won at least a stage in all three Grand Tours and he's still only 27 years old. Mohorič has all the attributes to excel in escapes: he's versatile, reads races deftly, has sublime technical skills and makes attacks stick with his deceptive power.
The Slovenian was the breakaway king of last year's Tour de France, winning in Le Creusot and Libourne. That latter triumph on stage 19 epitomised his class: representing a final opportunity for teams that hadn't won a stage, it turned into a breakaway battle royale, with 20 riders from 16 squads represented. Following umpteen counter-attacks and splits, Mohorič came out on top, smashing it with a 28-kilometre solo.
Lennard Kämna (Bora-Hansgrohe)
Anyone who goes long with the German on a heavy-duty mountain day knows they are shooting for victory with an expert marksman. In fact, Lennard Kämna has already picked off Tour de France, Vuelta a España, Critérium du Dauphiné, Volta a Catalunya and Tour of the Alps mountain stages in his short career. Why worry about GC when he possesses such a knack for stage-hunting?
Alessandro De Marchi (Israel-Premier Tech)
Cut from the same cloth as fellow attack addict De Gendt, seeing Alessandro De Marchi and the Belgian go toe-to-toe as the last men standing on stage 8 of the 2019 Tour de France into St-Etienne was something to savour, like Picasso and Dalí having a paint-off. De Marchi has three Vuelta stages to his name and his efforts at this year's corsa rosa suggest the 36-year-old won't be missing a Giro stage victory for lack of trying.
Søren Kragh Andersen (Team DSM)
Like the Spanish Inquisition, nobody expects Søren Kragh Andersen. Despite his pedigree, he's a silent assassin, slinking into escapes, picking his moment and leaving chasers in his wake. Case in point: a brace of 2020 Tour stage wins. Team DSM would give a lot for a similar showing from their Danish danger man this summer.
Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo)
As the Lombardia trophy and Tour de France lion on his mantlepiece underline, the Dutchman has switched tack with aplomb in recent years. Bauke Mollema has gone from GC challenger to one of the bunch's best breakaway whisperers, using all his strength, wisdom and experience to outlast others over the climbs.
Taco van der Hoorn (Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux)
There's something romantic and joyful about a lone racer holding off a charging peloton, making his unlikely win at the 2021 Giro one of the race's highlights. It was no fluke either: Taco van der Hoorn followed it up at the Benelux Tour with another smart triumph.
Intermarché's joker in the pack is meticulous, obsessed with aero and has a name guaranteed to make you drool about Mexican food. With that in mind, he's in a prime position to take over as the sport's breakaway cult hero when Thomas De Gendt retires.
Ben O'Connor (AG2R Citroën)
His approach might change now that he's AG2R Citroën's main man for the GC, but the Perth native regularly goes up the road and challenges for tough mountain stages. Ben O'Connor's aggressive spirit yielded him a stage win at Tignes and fourth at the 2021 Tour, as well as Giro stage glory in 2020 after a few past near misses.
Marc Soler (UAE Team Emirates)
This list, and every bike race, needs a wild card and they don't get much wilder than this climber. Marc Soler sometimes picks tactically curious places to attack and, as the Netflix documentary The Least Expected Day showed, they don't always work (or please the team). But don't look past his 2018 Paris-Nice masterclass, where he leapfrogged five places on the final day to take the spoils. It's never dull when Soler power is on show.
Franck Bonnamour (B&B Hotels-KTM)
Over 900 kilometres in the break at the 2021 Tour de France and the race's combativity prize gets Franck Bonnamour on this list, even if he's yet to bag a pro win. We love to see a trier in the Jacky Durand mould; an honourable mention to his teammate Alexis Gougeard for his love of a long breakaway, too.
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Formerly the editor of Rouleur magazine, Andy McGrath is a freelance journalist and the author of God Is Dead: The Rise and Fall of Frank Vandenbroucke, Cycling’s Great Wasted Talent (opens in new tab)