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I've watched the Tour de France for the last few years, and I'm beginning to think I understand the basics of the tactics and strategy. But one question has just struck me:

Why don't team breakaways happen?

The teams have radios so such a move could be planned and coordinated without the knowledge of the rest of the peleton.

I can see that it would be hard to prevent one or two freeloading non-team members tagging along, and that if such riders are sprinters they could well win the stage. But if your team is more interested in the general classification that wouldn't be a big issue surely?

(Postscript: As such things don't happen I'm assuming there is a good reason why they don't happen. I'm not claiming to know better than the team managers! I'm just after a good explanation of why.)

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Actually, sprinters stay in the peloton so that they conserve energy for the sprint later in the stage. Sprinters generally aren't good at sustained breakaways. -- And what zenbike said. -- –  user313 Jul 9 '11 at 15:08
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I generally agree with the reasons stated so far, however a strong crosswind can lend itself to a team coordinating a split in the peloton. In a strong crosswind, the aerodynamic advantage of the group is greatly reduced. If the team director is aware of the wind direction and strength, he can tell the team to attack together when the the road turns and the group is in the crosswind.

This was the situation in the 2009 Tour de France when the Astana team employed this tactic. It was ultimately brought back, but set alarm bells off in the peloton. Recovering ground in a strong crosswind is difficult - a small gap can be held, causing the chasers to expend a lot of extra effort.

Reference to the attack here: http://www.theepochtimes.com/n2/sports/tour-de-france-armstrong-contador-garate-20097.html see the section "Garate in Early Attack"

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One example of a team breakaway (and by that I mean 3 riders from the same team in a breakaway where they are clearly in charge) is the 12th stage in the 1995 Tour. The famous Jalabert victory on Bastille Day in Mende. For this to happen, you need several ingredients:

  • hilly/twisted roads. As explained above, a fully organized peloton on straight roads will catch anybody. The hilly/twisted roads facilitate the extraction from the peloton and the chase to be truly organized. For the mountain stages, the team breakaway makes less sense as you gain less aerodynamic advantage there...
  • offensive riders. To get things started you're gonna have to attack, and probably not just once. That day, Jaja got things going early.
  • strong back up. While usually, you might send the "domestiques" first and have your leader bridge later on, that day the opposite happened. Through a series of counter attacks and thanks to the strategy on the ONCE manager Manolo Saiz, a few Jalabert teammates managed to bridge the breakaway. By the time the peloton fully organized, the ONCE had a nice 3-rider train going in the front and managed to get several minutes ahead of the peloton.

As you can see, many things need to happen to allow even such limited team breakaway. And I have the feeling that with radios nowadays, this would never happen... But there is hope that these are banned and we see a return to more "instinct" racing in the coming years...

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Why don't team breakaways happen?

Well, it is conceivable that a team could do this on a single stage. However, since the race has 21 stages, it would be an enormous waste of talent and energy.

Every team has specialists: climbers, time trialists, sprinters, etc. Basically, when these guys are in the peloton, they are conserving energy for a later stage, for a sprint, or climb, etc. So, if the entire team made a breakaway, it could very easily sap the energy reserves for a later energy expenditure.

For example... A team breakaway in the mountains would probably mean that the sprinters would be left behind with their energy sapped for an upcoming sprint. Or, a team breakaway on the flats, would mean that a climber would be out of condition for the mountains on the next day.

I could pontificate more, but gotta go....

Back now and some more on the idea of "team breakaways"...

Anyway, my example of a breakaway on the flats was a bad one. Breakaways are very rare on flat stages. Why? Because it's extremely difficult for individuals or small groups to get away from the peloton since there are no big hills to slow it down. However, teams will often work to stay at the front of the peloton so that their sprinter(s) are in good position for a final sprint to the finish.

Breakaways are common on hilly and mountainous stages because hilly/mountainous terrain will filter out non-climbers and weaker riders. A breakaway will be either an individual or a small group of riders, and not, an entire team. Why not an entire team? One is that all members of a team are simply not capable of fending off a chasing peloton for any sustained period of time. For example, a sprinter is rarely if ever, a climber, so you really don't want that rider out in a breakaway. Another reason is strategy. With say a climber and a domestique out in a breakaway, the rest of the team can be back in the peloton manipulating the pace so that the breakaway has a greater chance of success. So, the "team" doesn't breakaway because other strategies are more effective. Another thing to consider is the prize structure of the race. The team classification is calculated by adding the times of the three best riders of each team per stage. So, even if a team was out to win this classification, there would be no point in sending the entire team out on a breakaway.

Theoretically, there could be a good reason for a "team breakaway" in a stage race, but I haven't thought of one yet and have not seen one in the real world. ;~)

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...gotta go watch the tour? –  zenbike Jul 9 '11 at 16:58
    
...Nah, ridin'. The tour is on the TIVO... –  user313 Jul 10 '11 at 2:15
    
Even better. Do it yourself, then watch the pros... –  zenbike Jul 10 '11 at 2:49
    
Agree a team breakaway in the mountains would make no sense. But not every flat stage has a mountain stage the next day, e.g. in the first week of the TdF. –  onestop Jul 10 '11 at 12:23
    
@onestop - That is an "example". Obviously I did not cover every scenario, just a couple for "example". –  user313 Jul 10 '11 at 15:35
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While a breakaway could be organized by a team, the peloton would not allow it to succeed. The mechanics of 8 or 9 riders, even excellent riders working together, are such that the maximum sustainable speeds would not be high enough to stay away from the peloton for long enough to matter, and every other team would develop a vested interest in ensuring that the breakaway was caught.

The GC advantage of a team that succeeded in such a maneuver would be all but impossible for other teams to recover from, so any every other team would work together to make sure it didn't succeed.

Breakaways are often allowed by the teams in the peloton as it gives the GC teams a lever to play rivals against. Which team will have to expend the energy and manpower to reel in the break? How is that going to affect their chances tomorrow?

Edit:

And to add... An entire team breakaway would be a waste of "specialists" energy. For example, a entire team breakaway to win a single stage, could ruin a climber's chances in a mountain stage the next day. – Courtesy of *wdypdx22*

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And to add... An entire team breakaway would be a waste of "specialists" energy. For example, a entire team breakaway to win a single stage, could ruin a climber's chances in a mountain stage the next day. –  user313 Jul 9 '11 at 15:19
    
It seems that breakaways are allowed (or even encouraged) by the peleton. If the breakaway was full of powerful or strategic riders it would be reined in very quickly. But for some reason they also seem to like having a breakaway out there and will let it survive until 20-30km left. I have no idea why this happens. –  Mac Jul 10 '11 at 0:29
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It gives the teams a lever to play rivals against. Who's going to be the ones to expend the energy and manpower to reel in the break. How is that going to affect their chances tomorrow? –  zenbike Jul 10 '11 at 2:51
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GC for the team standings is not the same as GC for rider standings, though they usually end up looking like it. And my point in the comment was that @wdypdx22 was using one type of possible issue for one possible type of rider as an example. He wasn't saying that it was precisely that situation every time. –  zenbike Jul 10 '11 at 13:40
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@onestop- That was ONE example out of various possibilities. Notice that I said, "For example...". I did not intend to cover all possible scenarios. –  user313 Jul 10 '11 at 15:24
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There are several reasons for breakaways but, counter-intuitively, they are rarely because of a desire to win the overall. You will almost never see one of the major contenders for the overall (GC) title in a breakaway - because they know that if they did join a breakaway, that every team with GC aspirations would co-operate to hunt them down, which would also means that the other members of the breakaway would be unlikely to help them as much.

Normally breakaways are as much to get some limelight for the team, their sponsors or the individual and conducted by people who are less likely to win a stage 'normally', i.e. not being a sprinter, climber or time-triallist.

The peloton can generally travel faster than a small group, there are exceptions to this, but you'll often see that moment in a stage where a breakaway that has had a good solid lead suddenly start to lose it; that moment when the peloton decides that enough is enough.

Even a well drilled team can't keep the peloton at bay (and certainly not day after day) - team time trials are rarely more than 60 minutes (this year's a lot less than that) not the 100+ miles of the average stage - if the peloton decides to work together.

You even saw this in stage 7 where the peloton split into two relatively equal parts and the part behind really struggled to keep up.

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