By Dan Cavallari
I was cramping so, so bad. It was unbearably hot, and I wasn’t used to the humidity in Wisconsin. Oh yeah, I’d also just got off a plane before jumping on the bike, and…so many excuses.
For much of the first hour I did my best to be tucked in behind someone, anyone, trying to take advantage of a draft. By chance, veteran WorldTour rider Jens Voigt was on the ride, too, and he’d been up front most of the day, chatting away with journalists and fans alike. The sweltering heat seemingly did not register with him at all. As we approached a rise in the road, I found myself tucked up behind the world-famous German, my wheel mere inches from his. The draft was glorious. For a moment I was able to breathe easy.
As though he sensed me pilfering the clean air in his wake, Jens momentarily peeked back at me. His pedal stroke never faltered, nor did his body position. Suddenly he shouted at me, “Drafting is for the weak! Real men die in the wind!” Then he sprinted away with a good laugh.
INSIDE THE PRO RANKS
History will long remember Mark Cavendish’s dramatic return to the Tour de France in 2021. Owing to some strong pre-Tour efforts, the “Manx Missile” had proved to a skeptical cycling world that he could still win. But, could he still win at the Tour? Of more consequence, would he win enough stages to topple Eddy Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins?!
And then came the sprint finish of Stage 4 that had cycling fans everywhere anticipating something special. But first, what about Lotto-Soudal rider Brent Van Moer? Who?! Brent Van Moer’s finish that day won’t go down in history. It’s likely that you’re having trouble recalling who exactly Van Moer is or how he factored into Cavendish’s big day.
BRENT VAN MOER’S COURAGE
Indeed, Stage 4 was almost Van Moer’s moment, not Cavendish’s. The young Belgian had spent just about the entire day in the breakaway, and he attacked at just the right moment to find himself alone heading into the finishing chute.
But, he wasn’t really alone; the peloton bore down on him in the final kilometer, yet it seemed Van Moer might find himself counted among the storied few to make a breakaway stick. It was that close.
BRENT VAN MOER’S DEFEAT
Less than 200 meters separated him from the finish line when Cavendish, along with all the best sprinters in the world, engulfed the desperate Lotto rider. As Cavendish pedaled past to taste the sweet glory that Van Moer would now only be able to dream of, many a race watchers knew he’d likely dumped a waterfall of adrenaline and faced the same end so many other futile breakaway artists come to—heartbreak. In the end, Moer would finish 49th on the stage, earning him the Most Combative prize—a small consolation.
Breakaways always seem doomed; we relegate them to the waste bin as soon as they’re formed, writing them off as mere TV time for unknown riders on the smallest teams. Yet another part of our cycling hearts hold dear the “you never know” beauty of the breakaway. We cheer for those brave enough to face the wind and hope it sticks; hope to see one of these brutally hard workers charge the finish line solo, the exhaustion plain and the victory sweet.
BRENT VAN MOER’S HEARTBREAK
It’s all part of the beauty of the breakaway—an often hapless pursuit that lends itself to the occasional miracle. It’s no surprise we should love it; its allegory mirrors so many of our lives, after all.
It was just 200 short meters that Van Moer’s name almost took on legendary status—a Tour stage win. But, a lot can happen in 200 meters. Just ask Toms Skujins, a regular in the breakaway who has tasted both victory and harrowing defeat in the wind.
SKILL, LUCK AND THE DAY JOB
Sometimes Skujins’ breakaway days have paid off, but more often than not, the break gets caught and Skujins finishes the stage in the group. It’s disappointing, sure, but Skujins says it’s not as devastating for riders as it may be for the fans watching.
“It’s not always heartbreaking,” Skujins says, “even if you don’t succeed in doing what you wanted to do. Though, there’s a couple of occasions, of course, when you get your hopes up and it all falls apart.”
“It helps,” Skujins says, “to go in with a plan.” If you have a reason to be there, the breakaway always means something, even if it doesn’t end up going your way. “I think it’s always exciting when you’re up there. I don’t just go into a breakaway for nothing. There’s always an idea behind it, and if you’re in the break, that means the plan is working.”
That in itself is an accomplishment. Getting into a breakaway seems, from a fan perspective, almost a foregone conclusion. But, Skujins knows better than most how difficult it can be to get into the breakaway in the first place. It takes an arsenal of skills, timing, and cycling knowhow to read the right moves and make sure you’re right there with it.
“I get to be there a lot more than others because I am, for one, capable of getting in them,” says Skujins. “I have a skill set that’s wide enough that I can both win from a breakaway or suffer in the breakaway and just get as far as I can. I have the power, let’s say, to go and keep going for a long, long time.”
It’s all part of the day job for Skujins. So, what if the occasional heartbreak is all within the job description?! Sometimes there is glory to be found. Sometimes the miracle actually happens.
THE HAIL MARY
Over the years the Amgen Tour of California has proven a dramatic venue for Skujins. In three different years and in three different breakaways, two very different outcomes have defined Skujins’ California narrative. In 2015, Skujins began building his name in the pro peloton with a breakaway win while riding for Hincapie Sportswear Development team. “Yeah, I think the one that always sticks out is the first stage win in Cali,” he remembers. “There were two of us from Hincapie in the breakaway, and there were some other really strong riders. It took a really long time for the breakaway to go, but when you make it to the finish, especially if you make it as the only guy from the breakaway, it’s even more sweet. It was on a big stage against some big riders.”
In 2017 Skujins attempted to build on his earlier California success. He went off the front and had a good chance of winning Stage 2, as he did two years earlier on a similar course. But, when he crashed on a high-speed descent and then climbed back on his bike despite bleeding and showing obvious signs of concussion, both fans and commentators were horrified. In one terrifying incident, Skujins became a poster boy for helmet design and concussion protocols.
“I remember pretty much everything until like five seconds before and like 20 minutes after my crash,” he says. “I’m missing about 20 minutes of my life there.” Not exactly a career goal, but one year later Skujins took to the starting line with the crash out of his mind and his focus on another win. He pulled it off, too, winning Stage 3 in jovial fashion. He danced across the line, once again becoming a poster boy, this time for the sheer joy of winning.
With those skills and successes in his back pocket, Skujins took his breakaway chops to the Tour France in 2018 and was rewarded in an unexpected way—the polka-dot jersey. Two years later he would be there again, this time nabbing a sweet second-place finish on the eighth stage.
A BREAKAWAY PLAYBOOK
Skujins says in addition to a special combination of skills, it takes good timing and awareness of the competition to get yourself in a breakaway. The move you follow isn’t always the right one.
“There’s a lot of times when it takes quite a few tries,” he says. “It’s rarely just the one move you make. It’s a lot about reading other people around you, reading the teams around you, trying to figure out what their plan is, whether or not they are actually trying to get in the break, or whether or not they’re trying to shut it down, or do they want a break to go fast? There are all kinds of different variables that you need to keep in mind when shooting for it. There’s definitely different scenarios that play out.”
“I don’t just go into a breakaway for nothing. There’s always an idea behind it, and if you’re in the break, that means the plan is working.”
But once the breakaway forms, the assembly of riders from various teams know it’s time to work together to build a gap. Without that gap of over a minute, the life of a breakaway can shorten dramatically. Skujins says once that gap gets established, the riders in the breakaway can start to venture guesses as to how the peloton has, or will, react.
It’s no willy-nilly affair. Teams always discuss strategy before a stage start, and the breakaway gets factored into that plan. “Depending on the race or the plan of the day, it’s either just getting in a break because you believe the break will go to the line and you want to fight for the stage win or get someone in the break to use them later,” says Skujins.
“Let’s say last year, for example, when we [Trek-Segafredo at the Tour de France] had maybe lacked a little bit of firepower in climbing. If we got someone up the road that could pass a few climbs in the breakaway, then that person would be in a good position to help Richie [Porte] later on.”
JUST LIKE IN THE RING
As Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” A team’s plan for its breakaway riders has to evolve as the race goes on, since the race situation can change in an instant for a team’s GC rider or team leader. That goes double for the riders in the breakaway; as the day goes on, the situation changes and goals change with it.
That’s exactly what happened in the 2018 Tour de France during Stage 5. “In my first ever breakaway in the Tour when I got the KOM jersey, that actually was not the plan,” says Skujins. “I went into the stage hoping to go for the stage win because I thought the breakaway might succeed. I knew the course was up and down and twisty. But then, [Sylvain] Chavanel attacked with about 100 kilometers to go and went for the KOM points, which meant that the breakaway stopped working together, and we were just bleeding time against the peloton. So, that race for the stage was over, and I started going for the mountain points.”
By the end of the day, Skujins did indeed wear the polka-dot jersey — and he held onto it for several days. The experience was a career highlight for Skujins, but in retrospect, what made the entire effort notable wasn’t the jersey at the end of it, but the process of reading the breakaway—and its quickly-changing goals—correctly.
“The best thing about it probably was that there were two guys from Total Direct Énergie, and they were both going for it, so Chavanel went and then Lilian Calmejane was also trying. After they were cooked. I got to pull one over on both of them!”
A TEAM WITH NO TEAMMATES
Although team jerseys and intentions differ in the breakaway, both must align, at least temporarily, to keep the peloton at bay. You have to work together—until you don’t. When a breakaway forms, each participant needs to make a decision to either play along or pursue individual goals without help. Whatever happens, a smart breakaway artist can read the situation and react accordingly.
“Sometimes you can talk with other breakaway guys,” Skujins says, “but a lot of times, there’s just stupid breakaways that have no tactics and people start attacking 100 kilometers out. They don’t want to actually fight for the stage win, or they have their own intentions, so then you can throw your plan out the window, too.”
For some, breakaways are all about camera time and pleasing the sponsors. Others have an eye on the stage win. Still, others just want to get out of the chaos of the peloton. And in some cases, it’s actually based on a team strategy. With all those conflicting agendas, the breakaway can be a chaotic place. Within that chaos, however, alliances often form out of necessity; breakaways need to keep the peloton at bay, after all. Perhaps that’s why so few of them find their way all the way to the finish line.
LEARNING TO DIE IN THE WIND
Thinking back to that day in Wisconsin when Jensie pedaled away from me, I still recall the wind hitting me hard and my heart rate climbing startlingly fast. Real men die in the wind, huh? Well, perhaps I became a real man then, because I was certainly dying in the wind!
As most of us know, it doesn’t feel good to face that wind alone. But, I see it now, the absolute raw appeal of doing it all alone. As I watched Voigt become smaller and smaller ahead of me that day, it was easy for me to retreat into fantasy with the pain clear on my face, evident as I found the finishing chute after a brutal day pushing against an invisible enemy. The fantasy lets me taste the redemption of my exhaustion. I can hold up only one arm as I cross the finish line.
A lot can happen in 200 meters; Van Moer almost became a legend. Skujins read his competitors perfectly and ended up in polka dots. I watched Jens Voigt disappear and take his beautiful draft with him. And some, the lucky few, have tasted the true beauty of the breakaway. They have won, and that has made the oft-ill-fated journey worth it for so many who have followed.
Van Moer is only 23 years old. That’s a lot of breakaways yet to come. I hope that someday he will raise that one exhausted arm and become a legend, alone in the wind.