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In a race such as Le Tour De France, what advantage does a team gain from sending one team member into a break away? What does the rest of the team, including their favoured rider, gain?

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    It's often for points. The other riders sacrifice energy so that, for instance, a top sprinter can be put in position to take points. Otherwise there is no point it would just be because you were masochistic. Good question. I'm curious as to other's answers. – ebrohman Jul 21 '17 at 0:46
  • I understand a lead out for a sprinter, but sending one guy I don't understand. He can't slow down the break away. – WW01 Jul 21 '17 at 1:50
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    What's the situation to which you are referring? You might get a more pointed answer if you ask about the specific team or rider or incident that happened on a certain stage. In general if you catch up and sit behind someone they can't outrun you unless you're totally outclassed so it effectively slows the breakaway. – ebrohman Jul 21 '17 at 1:57
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    Also, I'm watching stage 17 right now in a recording and the commentator just said the peleton is maintaining 37mph on the flats. I doubt one could maintain that speed alone or in a small group for a long enough time for it to be meaningful in the stage. – ebrohman Jul 21 '17 at 2:01
  • @ebroham I don't really know the circumstances; watched a little bit a few stages ago. Are you saying the trailing rider slows the lead rider? Feels to me that lead rider would go about as fast with/without a trailing rider. – WW01 Jul 21 '17 at 3:42
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The full answer depends exactly on the teams involved and the composition of the break but, in general, the key to understanding this isn't physics as much as it is game theory.

In a race like the TdF, there are many separate competitions being run simultaneously: not just for the overall General Classification but also for stage wins, the (green) points jersey, the (polka dot) mountain jersey, the (highest ranked rider under age 25) white jersey, the team with the lowest cumulative time, and so on. Not every team has a GC hopeful, but every team has a goal or goals. If your goal is a stage win, or to get one of your riders a particular jersey, getting someone into the break can allow the rest of the team to shelter in the peloton, conserve their effort for the entire day, and prepare for the next day's stage.

A more complicated case is when you do have a GC contender and also someone in the break. Depending on the composition of the break, your break rider can be threatening some other team's goal of a jersey. In that situation, you're playing a waiting game (a game of "chicken"), to force the threatened team to chase the break, while your team shelters in the peloton, conserving their effort for the entire day.

Sometimes a GC-contending team will put a rider in an early break with a set plan to drop the rider out of the break later in the race to help the team's leader. It's like caching supplies farther up the road that they can draw upon if needed.

Sometimes you have a GC contender but no one in the break, and the break composition threatens the secondary goal of another team. If so, you can wait until the other team starts to panic and initiates the chase, then shelter in the peloton, conserving your effort.

Teams will always look at the riders of an early break to determine whether its composition fits their goals. If not, the team will chase early to absorb the break, then wait until a different, more acceptable, break forms; in which case they will allow the break to continue while they shelter in the peloton and wait for someone else to panic and initiate a chase.

As the stages count down in one of the Grand Tours (the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia, or the Vuelta a Espana), teams that still haven't yet won a stage become more and more desperate to get someone into an early break. There can be several re-shufflings of break compositions as the directeur sportifs try to get at least one rider into a stable break. That can be miserable for already tired riders as they accelerate again and again to claw back unsuitable breaks.

There are 20 teams on the road simultaneously each with different goals and skill sets, with many different sub-competitions. In terms of n-person game theory, cycling allows (encourages) temporary coalitions, collusion (as when members of different teams in a break work together to stay away), side payments (not only of money but also of agreements not to contest a sprint or mountain point), prisoner dilemmas, bluffs, feints, and tops it off with reneging. Then they have to do it again the next day, remembering whether a particular team carries through with its promises. This is the reason why mass start bicycle racing is, from both a strategic and tactical perspective, so much more complex than sports that feature only two teams facing each other on a field.

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    Caching riders up the road is especially helpful on days with a big mountain partway through the stage. If the rest of the team can't keep pace with the GC rider, a teammate up the road can take the mountain at a slower pace and still be there to pull on the flatlands after the mountain. – Jamie A Jul 21 '17 at 14:43
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Don't forget that there is money involved! Every competition in the TDF has a cash prize. Every sprint. Every categorized mountain. Often towns along the way will have their own prizes, such as a cow, or your weight in champagne. Every team wants to take home some of the spoils, but you can't win if you don't play, so teams that aren't winning stages or jerseys will make sure they have guys in the breaks.

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