Tour de France stage 14 analysis: breakaway riding is more than just luck

QUILLAN, FRANCE - JULY 10: Bauke Mollema of The Netherlands and Team Trek - Segafredo in the Breakaway during the 108th Tour de France 2021, Stage 14 a 183,7km stage from Carcassonne to Quillan / @LeTour / #TDF2021 / on July 10, 2021 in Quillan, France. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Bauke Mollema of Trek-Segafredo in break on stage 14 (Image credit: Getty Images Sport)

One of the most memorable challenges in the cult Japanese game show Takeshi’s Castle was “Knock Knock”, where the contestants were made to run at a series of doors. Some doors were made of paper, in which case the player would burst right through, keeping themselves in the game. Others, however, were made of what appeared to be wood, and the players would bounce straight off it, and be ejected from the show in the process. This series of arbitrary decisions, luck, and quite a lot of commitment always comes to mind whenever it takes a while for a breakaway to be formed, especially in the pressure of the Tour de France.

Stage 14 was marked as one of those days that was always going to be one for the breakaway, as Sean Kelly told Procycling magazine ahead of the Tour, in a way that looks reasonably prophetic now. “The guy who is interested in the KoM jersey will be very interested,” he predicted. “But also all of the breakaway specialists. If they get a number of minutes advantage in the final 50km, it will be an opportunity.”

It was a day that was clearly going to be one for the baroudeurs: the stage wasn’t quite hard or selective enough to be taken seriously by the general classification riders, and at the same time it was too hard for the peloton to be controlled by the few sprint teams left in the race. All of this meant that the pressure was heaped upon the teams looking to get something out of the race from an escape up the road, which at times feels more like the lottery of Takeshi’s Castle than an exact science.

This is why it was a messy day, another in a messy Tour, with the breakaway taking a long time to go. It took almost 100km and a solid couple of hours of racing before things settled down. Those teams without GC ambitions are left searching for crumbs of stage wins. Of the 14 riders up the road, 13 teams were represented, of whom only three had gotten something out of the race so far. The others, Trek-Segafredo, Groupama-FDJ, B&B Hotels p/b KTM, EF Education-Nippo, Israel Start-Up Nation, Cofidis, Team BikeExchange, Arkéa-Samsic, Astana-Premier Tech, and Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert, went into that move without significant results thus far. Now Trek-Segafredo have a stage, their first since 2018, but the others are still empty handed.

With the vanishing of opportunities that comes every day, and the knowledge that today was a nailed-on breakaway day, come the chaotic attempts to secure a spot in the stage’s big move. Hence Trek were represented in almost every attack in the early stages, with Toms Skujiņš, Vincenzo Nibali and eventual winner Bauke Mollema all making splits at good times. This is the commitment that is needed in order to secure one of those golden spots in the day’s big move, the repeated nous to sniff out the right door to run through.

There are teams that need to try something different in order to win a stage, make their mark at this Tour, and were unable to get in the move - Movistar, DSM, Qhubeka-NextHash, TotalEnergies and even the Ineos Grenadiers were all teams without a stage win who missed the move. It was perplexing that some of these teams did not make the move, especially when the representatives from B&B Hotels p/b KTM, Arkéa-Samsic and Groupama-FDJ all managed to go up the road at a later point, joined the day’s break and therefore had a card to play in the final.

Once the breakaway had run the gauntlet, charged through the doors made of paper and not wood, the next phase of the day began. There were different objectives at play in that group of 14. While every single one wanted to be the first rider over the finish line, some were gunning for king of the mountains points, like Michael Woods and Wout Poels, while Guillaume Martin, perhaps accidentally, was shooting up the general classification. The battle over polka dot jersey points might now become one of the most lively narratives in the final week of this race, with Poels, Wood, Mollema and Nairo Quintana all up in that particular competition, all with not a lot to lose, but a lot to gain. It might be even more fraught to get into future breakaways as any move that includes one of these will not be allowed to get away easily.

The presence of Martin gave some riders an excuse to not pull as much as they might have, with Patrick Konrad telling the press post-stage that he was not pulling in order to not increase Martin’s time gain too much over his Bora teammate Wilco Kelderman. Sub-plots like this are what make the politics of the break so interesting, that among so few riders so many different objectives and desires can be playing out.

When Mollema attacked with 43km to go, it was not nailed on that the Dutchman would take his second Tour stage victory. His diesel-like engine powered him away from those conflicting objectives behind, however. Konrad admitted that being on the back of the bunch did not help him when the killer acceleration finally came. It was testament to Trek-Segafredo’s commitment to going up the road, and Mollema’s repeated attacks through this race.

It might seem like a game of chance, getting into the breakaway, and yet there is more skill to it than that. To successfully run through the paper door, you have to be in the right place at the right time, and resolutely prepared to give it all.

Adam Becket is Procycling magazine's staff writer.

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Adam Becket is the staff writer for Procycling magazine. Prior to covering the sport of cycling, he wrote about ecclesiastical matters for the Church Times and politics for Business Insider. He has degrees in history and journalism. A keen cyclist himself, Adam’s favourite race is the Tour of Flanders or Strade Bianche, and he can't wait to go to the Piazza del Campo for the end of the race one day.