Today, the streets of Naples could not be turned pink, instead swarmed by the joyous sky blue of a Scudetto-winning football team, and the sombre blue jerseys of another failed breakaway. This is not new, or even interesting in and of itself. Emotion is instead stirred by the speculation, thoughts as to what could have been on a day when it should have been. Attacking from their breakaway companions (all from Italian continental teams), Simon Clarke and Alessandro De Marchi set about on a 66 kilometre two-man time trial towards glory.
They did not care for the bonuses of an intermediate sprint, or the mountains classification points that initially entertained their media hungry companions. Their purpose was shared, their means was cooperation. Stories were quickly sketched of what a win would mean to each of them in the twilight of their careers – careers spent largely honing this craft into an artform. For De Marchi, it would finally be a win at his home Grand Tour at the seventh attempt. For Clarke, a rare opportunity to complete a set of individual stage victories at each Grand Tour (as neither a pure sprinter or climber) lay ahead. Victory would not be another number; sentiment would surely run high.
The breakaway sits as an oddity, positioned alone ahead of the wide-berthed machinery of the peloton. Its ambition is often limited. Its presence, on occasion, tragically irrelevant to the events of the day. It is a racing custom whose success is presumed to be dependent on the errors and misfortunes of the strongest behind. Where once the peloton’s patron and their henchmen would negotiate the terms of these racing contracts, today it is a union of multiple team leaders and road captains. A collective, often binding, agreement is struck that only the also-rans may enter into this special torture chamber up the road, complete with the luxury items of devoted media lenses on motorbikes and a commissaires car – both scrutinising every exertion with an ever-furrowed brow and ebbing enthusiasm. To be an also-ran you must be a nobody to these bosses, either through fault (weakness) or design (prior sabotaging of a greater ambition). Neither prize money nor UCI Points are affected by a breakaway, only the ambitions of teams with supposedly loftier ambitions, or the so-called prestige of riders who once graced such heights.
Racing his final Grand Tour this month, Thibaut Pinot insisted before the race that he would take no joy from a breakaway victory, that true satisfaction would only come through achieving victory among the favourites. His subsequent pursuit of the Mountains Classification would however indicate an evolving self-perception. Similarly dismissive of breakaway victories, though after winning every Grand Tour, Vincenzo Nibali’s breakaway stage win, on the mud-addled penultimate stage of the 2019 Tour de France, would prove his only successful flirtation with stage-hunting. To him, it was little more than gloss over a disappointing race, a consolation for a lack of consistency. In his final years, Nibali would continue to ride for General Classification, his pride as a former winner overriding his most combative of inclinations. He would grind away, eroding the strength of others until he too would fall by the wayside of others’ superiority. Top-10s would follow in multiple races, including his final Giro, whilst his race-winning explosivity appeared to soften with age. His only subsequent win would come, poignantly, with the stage and overall victory at the Giro di Sicilia on home roads, a success not of the breakaway but of a champion. The shark of Messina did not seek the netting of the breakaway, for his successes lay beyond it.
Those that become breakaway artists are seldom the strongest riders, but the smartest. Those who understand the mechanics of the race situation that could make the peloton’s stranglehold on the outcome almost imperceivably lighter. Yet, it is a temporarily dying craft. Aurélien Paret-Peintre’s stage victory owed itself to Soudal-QuickStep’s own desire to cede control of the race elsewhere, to spare their own riders the ardour of dictating the terms of the peloton. It enabled a rare breakaway victory in World Tour races this season, one where the strategies of taming and slaying the power of the fresh chase behind weren’t required, Paret-Peintre instead able to rely upon Andreas Leknessund’s pacing in pursuit of pink to then outsprint him in the finale.
Both Clarke and De Marchi would have yearned for such a scenario but instead could only find each other. Through the narrow winding streets of Naples, the time gap appeared initially constant, teasing essay outlines to be developed into bullet points and paragraphs. Comparisons were being prepared to Thomas De Gendt’s success on this stage last year, where the ‘breakaway king’ corralled his companion’s efforts to hold off a chasing Mathieu van der Poel and Biniam Girmay before besting them all in the sprint. Supposedly elegant metaphors would be drawn between the psychological game management of De Gendt, and the near rhythmic pulling of Clarke & De Marchi, stage agents of chaos to an increasingly frantic, chasing peloton. After 65 kilometres, victory appeared assured to the noble pair, success inevitably theirs after courageously holding off the chase behind. The problem for Clarke was the rationality of De Marchi – in that moment not an athlete of emotion and sentiment, but a rational actor operating in a dynamic, cut-throat, professional environment. With such steeliness came an unwillingness to accept second place to the stronger sprinter without at least the advantage of the Australian’s pacing and lead out. At once, both rider’s efforts were wasted, their gentlemen’s agreement torn up for all to see.
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At the Challenge Mallorca earlier this season, a young EF Education-EasyPost rider found himself in a breakaway cursed by the prisoner’s dilemma, each rider unwilling to sacrifice themselves to damage their chances in the final sprint, and therefore seemingly content to consign themselves to an eventual catch and only a possible combativity prize. Yet the rider, without a prior professional result, recognised the value of his own sacrifice, a secured podium result from which he could show he had made his mark. Pacing Louis Vervaeke and Rui Costa to the finish line, ruining his chances in the sprint, Ben Healy’s third place in the Trofeo Calvia proved the first of an immense spring of results, establishing his name and respect in the peloton higher than through any short-term individual ambition. Where Vervaeke and Costa saw nothing to prove, Healy broke the prior expectations of a breakaway’s premature infection of ‘second-group syndrome’.
Neither Clarke nor De Marchi have anything to prove, their directeur sportifs do not yet have the desperation of team bosses scrambling for UCI points to avoid future licensing headaches. Neither man is motivated by an honourable mention in race radio’s dispatches. De Marchi’s calculation was made with a peloton fast approaching, one with De Marchi’s teammate fighting for sprint victory, leaving Clarke little choice but to lead for the shadow of a moment before conceding defeat. At once, the camaraderie collapsed, their bikes slowing to corner shop pace. The breakaway’s victory, Clarke’s victory, was snatched away by the business partner who collaborated to put him in that position. For once, the peloton’s victory, and that of Mads Pedersen, was determined by the breakaway, completing the Dane’s own set of Grand Tour stage wins in lieu of Clarke, and reversing the power dynamic we assume holds between the peloton and its fiercest dissidents.
Former teammates turned rivals, today the breakaway’s cooperation succeeded in the abstract pursuit of an objective, only to each be intimidated by the prisoner’s dilemma of further cooperation during the lead-out. Their waits for future glory continue, damned by the few opportunities that lie ahead. For both riders, future success is reliant on the goodwill of the peloton to again afford the breakaway such freedom on a terrain that suits each of them. Additional hopes will depend on the low maintenance of their teams’ greater ambitions with climbers (Pozzovivo and Dunbar) and sprinters (Matthews).
To be a breakaway artist is to seize these moments, to dissent against the combined mass strength of the peloton in favour of an otherwise impossible victory. Today, the same cooperation that enabled our artists to paint their masterpiece denied them the ability to add their signature. Opportunities may eventually come, but patience is a virtue. But for both our focuses of attention today, age continues to ascend. Both men will be rooting against their past success slipping further into memory, though (as we presumed at least until today) it is the peloton that decides.