Racing 101: Making the break
"Before a rider decides to make a move, they need to consider whether or not the
breakaway group is even worth bridging up to...."
By Jeb Stewart M.S., C.S.C.S.
Most who have competed in a cycling race have at one time or another wanted to
make the break – break away from the others in the field and hold the lead to
the finish. And even as a race spectator, it’s exciting to cheer those who do
get away to the finish. Conversely, it is painful to watch those who take their
chances get caught only meters from the finish. Regardless of whether you are a
racer or a spectator, breakaways animate races and are very difficult to ride
So why do they do it? It’s fun, it’s an ego thing and it’s a challenge. Breaks
are the most exciting part of the race. There’s a lot of drama involved, it
makes for great stories, and it’s a lot safer than being in the pack. For those
who don’t have a good sprint, it may be their only chance at a good finish. For
many, the simple challenge of succeeding at this painful and exciting endeavor
is all the allure they need. And so the quest continues.
What not to do
Before many have had the fitness or the wisdom to make a successful breakaway
attempt, they attack like crazy, without reason. It’s an adrenaline-driven,
random approach that usually results in a less-than-desired placing. They either
burn themselves out completely by the time they catch the break and are unable
to hang on, or if they do hang on they’re too tired to sprint for the win. I am
sure many have you have seen this lone attacker who goes up the road, no one
chases them and they eventually get swallowed back up by the charging peloton.
No one wants to be this guy who keeps spectators scratching their heads, so
let’s look at a number of key points to making the break which, when applied
consistently, lead to success.
Ivan Basso, Alejandro Valverde and Boogerd et al attack in LBL
Photo c. Fotoreporter Sirotti
Evaluate the circumstances: Is it worth it?
Before a rider decides to make a move, they need to consider whether or not the
breakaway group is even worth bridging up to. There’s no point in wasting energy
on breaks that are doomed from the start. The following elements help ensure
making the right choice:
Time – Early moves are typically doomed to failure because the field has more
energy and is able to chase down breaks quickly in the early stages of the race.
As the field tires, breaks begin to stay out longer and have a better chance of
Representation – Are the big teams in the break? If the riders up the road have
teammates in the peloton to block and chase riders who attempt to bridge, the
break will have a much better chance of staying away.
Players – Are the right riders in it? Typically we know who the guys are who
have the horsepower and tactical savvy to stay away. If the break is made up of
riders without the fitness or the skills to make it work, it’s not worth
When to go
Randomly chasing breaks only wastes energy and leaves riders unable to respond
when it really counts and racing for a less than desired placing. Rather than
random efforts, more successful attempts are made by looking for the following:
• Lulls in the action – Anytime there’s a general “letting up” by the field,
like when a move gets brought back or when something causes the group to slow
• At the top of a hill – A hill that flattens out at the top allows the group to
catch an attack. Instead, making the move near the top and continuing to hammer
afterwards often allows it to get away from a field that lets up to rest!
• In the tricky part of a course – Single riders or small groups can navigate
tight turns faster than the field. Attacks that go just before a technical
section often get away.
• On windy courses – Wind makes the stronger riders lick their chops. Once a
separation occurs, it’s tough to catch a strong, small group because the field
usually gives up quickly in order to save something for the finish.
How to do it
Now that we know when to go, let’s talk about how it’s done successfully.
Following wheels – Why should someone do all of the work if someone else is
willing to? When a move goes up the road and someone’s not in it, there are
several ways to bridge the gap. All too often riders try to bridge only to get
stuck in no man’s land. Instead, when someone else goes after the break, it’s
better for them to jump on their wheel and get pulled across.
Going solo – If going solo, then the attack needs to be timed correctly. For
starters, it should go from at least five or more riders back to catch the group
by surprise and have enough speed when approaching the front of the peloton to
create separation. This will keep others from grabbing the wheel and just
pulling up the field to the break.
Filippo Pozzato chases Ballan to bridge up and win
'06 Milan - San
Photo c. Fotoreporter Sirotti
What to do when they get there
Aside from the requisite fitness needed to ride a break, (i.e., a developed
aerobic engine and the ability to ride at and above the lactate threshold
repeatedly), there are a few key things that need to be done in order to make it
to the finish.
Recover - Sitting out a rotation or two to recover is a way a rider can get
their legs underneath them so they can join the rotation and contribute to the
break’s chances of staying away.
Chill - The break will typically have to ride hard for at least 5-10 minutes and
often much longer to establish the gap and this will require a lot of effort, so
pulling too hard can be disastrous. Doing so makes the rest of the break work
harder than necessary and fall apart.
Positioning - Riding directly behind the strongest rider can be a bad move.
Energy can be saved if a rider doesn’t have to match the fastest pull in the
group. Instead, it is better to ride behind the biggest rider so they get the
Be encouraging - Negativity is counter-productive. Yelling at breakaway
companions disrupts focus and will inevitably make the group want to work
against that rider and destroy the cohesiveness of the group.
Sit on - If someone’s hurting, it’s okay to take shorter pulls and sit one out
every now and then. Riders may yell at them, but it’s better to get yelled at
than to get dropped.
Sit up or “go for it” - Finally, when a rider reaches the break and no one will
pull there are two choices:
1) Sit up and let the field catch up since this break is doomed, or;
2) Attack the break and hope that the strongest riders will come along.
The latter is a good move because the field often sits up after catching the
first move, allowing the attack to get away.
How to win from the break
This is where the fun begins. The break has either successfully left the field
behind or they’re still hammering and hoping they won’t get caught. Either way,
the winning move must be planned.
This is a good time to change position in the rotation if it will improve their
chances at the finish. If the break is going to stay away, it might also be a
good time to take shorter pulls to save their legs. This is also the time to
drink and a take few deep breaths to help relax and get mentally prepared.
If someone’s a sprinter, they should stop pulling and get behind the other
riders. Riders will probably start to attack, so the focus should be to follow
wheels and not get dropped. If they pull them to the line, then it’s just a
matter of them making their move at the right time. It’s best to jump onto the
wheel of the rider who tries to attack, get back in the saddle to save energy
and when the timing is right, launch their sprint for the win.
If they’re not a sprinter and favor a solo jump to the finish, they need to get
away from the group before the sprint. The time to start attacking is when there
are several laps to go. They need to time the attacks when the group is
struggling – slowing into corners and when it’s unexpected. If the move doesn’t
work, then they should try it again, as this might be their last chance to get
away and foil the sprinters.
Bringing it all together
Obviously, racers don’t go through this entire checklist every time they’re in a
breakaway, but being aware of these points will enable them to make better
decisions. The only way to improve is by practicing. Practice makes perfect, and
in cycling we often have to fail 100 times to succeed once. That’s what makes
bike racing such an exhilarating and challenging sport.
Jeb has a Master's degree in Exercise Science and Health Promotion and is
certified by the ACSM, NSCA, NASM and USA Cycling as an Elite Level Coach. He is
a performance consultant to the AEG/Toshiba Professional and Travel Girl Elite
cycling teams and a Category 2 cyclist. He is the co-creator of The Next Level,
Strength Training for Endurance Athletes DVD and contributes to Bicycling
magazine, Runner's World, Tri-Newbies.com, Ironman Live and the Daily Peloton.
He owns and operates Endurofit, LLC, a coaching and consulting company dedicated
to performance enhancement for athletes, coaches and organizations. For more
www.endurofit.com or contact Jeb at