Every Day, I Think About the 2020 UCI World Championship Men’s Road Race: Prologue/The Breakaway
[Author’s Note: This is a piece about a bicycle race, however, it’s not meant to be a piece of sports journalism — rather it’s better classified as a work of creative non-fiction. We can never know what goes through a cyclist’s head when they race, we can never truly understand their motives, their inspirations, but their actions tell a story, and my goal here is to distill those storytelling elements into a broader, if somewhat embellished narrative.
Every day, I think about the 2020 UCI World Championship Men’s Road Race. Ever since it transpired on that rainy late September afternoon in Imola, it’s lived rent free in my brain, not because I am in any particular agony over who won and who lost, but because the 2020 UCI World Championship Men’s Road Race is a grand literary exercise wrapped in the facade of a bicycle race.
In its almost seven hours of racing, Worlds 2020 tells a story — several stories, in fact — stories involving national and international rivalries; heartbreak and redemption; the strive for greatness at all costs; and a great deal of personal and interpersonal conflict.
The cast of characters is quite eclectic in this little bicycle drama. Their personalities range from deadpan to pigheaded to cleverly Machiavellian; their careers boast narratives of tragedy and panache, power and desire.
But first, the scene must be set, and what a scene it is.
If you are a recreational cyclist, you’ll appreciate just how grueling the 2020 Worlds parcours is. Taking place in Imola, a city within the province of Bologna, the race loops around the famous Imola F1 motor course in a set of nine laps that together pack over 5000 meters of climbing into a back-aching 258 kilometers. It will take almost seven hours for the riders to complete it.
The scenery is stunning, traversing several Italian vineyards, each flanked by verdant and craggy mountains that part the landscape like zippers. The riders alternate between two main climbs back and forth, over and over: the Mazzolano and the Cima Gallisterna. Each spans fewer than 5km in length, yet with gradients above 10%, their brevity offers no consolation. It’s a parcours for the puncheurs and the climbing specialists — there’s very little flat terrain on which one can rest their legs. Not to mention, each climb is a prime area for the cleverest and strongest of riders to make their sneak attacks, chipping away at their competitors bit by bit.
Interpersonally speaking, the World Championship Road Race is an fascinating event in and of itself. Riders who normally compete with or against each other on their main teams throughout the season are regrouped by nation. As is the case with all races, there can only be one winner, and because the best cyclists in the world compete for the right to wear the world champion’s rainbow bands, the national teams often have several strong riders, each of them contenders, and as such, inter-team strife is more pronounced. Additionally, much of the existing drama between riders on competing pro teams often flares up at Worlds — national allegiances be damned — and it is within these dramas where we find many of the great kernels of this story.
The sky in Imola is slate gray. Low-hanging clouds threaten the riders with rain and the mood is tense as they stand at the starting line clad in custom jerseys painted with the colors of national flags. Their bright, fresh Lycra contrasts starkly with the dull greenery and the motor course’s dark, smooth pavement. It’s a cool day and the weather is unpredictable, which is rather annoying. Some cyclists choose to start with rain jackets, others wear gilets; some brave souls take their chances with just arm warmers and hope for the best.
After a long wait, there’s a clamor at the front and the idle conversation dies down, replaced by the sound of cleats clipping into pedals and the soft clacks of brakes being tested one last time. Some cyclists make the sign of the cross, others lean forward and wait patiently — all of them experience the same anxiety. The race director stands on the back seat of his sedan, torso popped out of its sunroof, UCI flag in hand as he departs. The race starts slowly, and the peloton follows, a spandex comet draped across an asphalt sky.
The time for action has begun.
The first few kilometers of a race are neutralized. The race organizer’s car paces the riders to a point designated as the safest or most convenient position from which to launch. This neutralized zone offers riders an opportunity to warm up, spin the legs a bit, work out their nerves as they calculate their strategies for the rest of the day. Nothing much happens during these early kilometers, but they are tense with anticipation, egged on by commentators making their predictions, cameramen on motorbikes panning to get decent shots of the favorites in an attempt to make decent TV out of the most boring part of the race.
As a spectator or viewer, watching a seven hour race from the beginning is an act of devotion, as so many of these races do not become particularly exciting until the last 100km or so — in other words, a rather distant 158km from now. However, in the beginning, something almost always happens, and even though shrewd cycling fans know that the riders who attack at the start of a seven hour race have little chance to make it to the finish line as winners, that doesn’t stop a plucky few from trying. It also doesn’t make their attempts any less interesting.
The breakaway is perhaps one of the most beautiful configurations in all of cycling. To break away right from the starting line is an act of martyrdom for the sake of attention. In some cases — such as the recent 90k solo breakaway of Marc Hirschi in Stage 9 of the 2020 Tour de France (which he unfortunately got beaten out of in the final sprint)— it pays off, either in victory or (in Hirschi’s case) in fame.
Breaking away at the start of a race as long and grueling as this one is, to put it bluntly, suicidal. It’s not a matter of seeing who will win and who will lose, but rather who can and cannot hang on the longest. Still, against all odds, the breakaway inspires some hope. Often, the riders out front will gain several minutes on the main peloton, their lead seemingly impossible to chase down, cushy enough to propel them to the end, but it rarely is. This is simply because staying in the breakaway is exhausting. One does not have the comfort of one’s teammates to hand out food and water, nor the convenience of an entire pack of cyclists around to insulate one from the wind. This requires each of the breakaway riders to take turns at the front, an odd act of cooperation and solidarity inherent in their mutual undertaking of an all-but-doomed mission.
Most breakaway riders are unknowns — young riders trying to put their names out there; riders from lesser teams proving their worth by getting their sponsors airtime. In the case of Worlds, they are riders from smaller countries or countries without strong national teams. In all cases, most break away because they have no chance at winning. They don’t have the legs to beat out the top guns, don’t have the team infrastructure to aid and assist and put pressure on others, and as such, the breakaway is the best option for them. It guarantees that they will be talked about, that their names will forever be written in the narrative of the race.
Our breakaway consists of seven riders. Of the seven, three are their country’s sole representatives in the race — Yukiyo Arashiro of Japan, Ulises Alfredo Castillo of Mexico, and Eduard-Michel Grosu of Romania. These are the ones with nothing to lose and everything to gain from being out up front, their rides an act of heroic patriotism despite their unlikelihood of success.
The last four riders are serving a different role, the other function of being in the breakaway: taking the pressure off of one’s team and riding into a position that could potentially be of use later in the race. Such is the case of Jonas Koch of Germany, Torstein Traeen of Norway, Marco Friedrich of Austria, and Daniil Fominykh of Kazakhstan — none are a threat to their respective team leaders; each is seen as an expendable member of their squadron.
And the peloton? They’re content to let the break go. Why shouldn’t they be? Why waste the energy chasing down nobodies when there’s 250km left to ride?
This doesn’t mean that the peloton is asleep at the wheel, however. Allowing the first breakaway’s suicide mission to go away is one thing, but should a real contender try their luck with an attack, the race favorites would be wise to rein it in. Constant vigilance is required.
While the breakaway takes away the pressure to lead, a different pressure fills its void: the pressure to maintain control. If the breakaway is to be understood as a formation of heroic underdogism and self-sacrifice, the peloton should be read as escalating brinkmanship between powerful competing entities. Both have consequences for the other.
Let’s start our story at 185 kilometers to go.
At its longest, the lead the breakaway has over the peloton spans over seven minutes, but its glory days are numbered. Two minutes are shaved off already as the varying favorites’ teams begin to put the pressure on, the once-formidable mass of the peloton now stringing out around every corner, bunching up on every climb. Switzerland is the first to take the helm, Silvan Dillier eating the wind for his teammates, eating time by escalating the pace. He does his turn, and Luka Pibernik of Slovenia takes his place, pushing forward, putting the hurt into the legs of everyone else vying for control.
To be at the front of the peloton serves several strategic advantages. It enables one’s team to change or maintain the pace, be the first to respond to varying challenges such as technical terrain or obstructions in the road; allows them to set up their leader for a chance to attack while also being in a position to respond to and shut down the attacks of others. A strong team will increase the pace to inflict pain on their rivals, thin out the herd, create anxiety. A weak team will stay at the front to prevent the prior from happening or to protect the interests of their team members in the breakaway. One strategy is offensive, the other defensive. Both are valid. Both play off of and frustrate the other.
Meanwhile, at 176 kilometers with six laps to go, the breakaway is starting to hurt. Their lead diminishes, now looming around the five minute mark. They don’t talk to each other, and it’s not only because they’re speaking at least six different languages among them. The clouds hang low, ragged, milky and gray; the spectator-less stands of the autodrome a metaphor for the emptiness ahead of them, reinforcing the sheer daunting nature of their task. There is nothing left for them but their breathing, their legs, and each other.
Around 156 kilometers to go, the young Danish rider Mikkel Honoré gets bored. The bunch eases into a descent and Honoré, fed up with the bullshit job of peloton micromanagement, freewheels down the hill, tucks himself into his bike, and allows gravity to do the rest. It’s a lonely stretch of nothing but the wind and an almost certain burnout between him and the breakaway, but he figures that stretching his legs is at least a little bit more exciting than taking turns at the front of an overpowered weekend group ride. A leg stretch is all it is, for within the next ten kilometers (thanks to an effort on the front by his own team) Honoré is brought back and the commentators wonder what the point was of such an exercise. There is none, save for demonstrating that the bunch is indeed becoming restless. Mikkel Honoré may not be a contender — and his actions may have been rooted in impatience rather than heroism — but he is a harbinger of things to come.
137 kilometers to go and the peloton have decided to relax a bit, conserve their energy, fret about whether rain is imminent. The gap is elastic, seven minutes, then six and a half, push and pull, climb and descent. They’re not in a rush. After all, there’s nothing to worry about. The peloton’s relationship to the breakaway is that of a cat toying with a mouse before making the kill. Let the mouse tire itself out a little longer, let it be a little more afraid. After all, driving one’s prey to exhaustion only makes extermination that much sweeter.
At some point around 136 kilometers— and they don’t catch it on camera — Marco Friedrich of Austria is dropped from the breakaway. We cannot see how and why he’s failed, we only hear that he has. Finally, a lone camera shot shows him, face distorted, body slick with sweat as he pedals away, defeated and alone. He is the first to crack, and the fissure is permanent. There’s no coming back for him — all he can do is keep going at a resigned pace and wait for the peloton to overtake him.
Meanwhile, in the peloton, the first riders are starting to get left behind: one of the two Greeks, two Slovakians, and the sole rider from Azerbaijan. They don’t have the team infrastructure to hold themselves together, and with the kilometers ticking down, nobody’s really keen to help them. In reality, they were doomed from the start. Absent from the riveting death drive of the breakaway, their efforts are forgotten, relegated in the race footnotes as being the first ones let go. The commentators don’t even find the names of this quartet of losers worthy of looking up in their rosters. They’re simply national flags on a handful of jerseys, drifting off into anonymity as motorbikes and service cars pass by, leaving them in the dust.
At 128 kilometers to go, Eduard-Michael Grosu of Romania is dropped by the breakaway, unable to keep the pace on the Cima Gallisterna. He shakes his head in defeat as he watches his long-time companions leave him behind, not one of them turning to look back. Why would they? It’s not a race against each other, but rather a race against themselves.
The front group gets further and further away, leaving Grosu to suffer, each pedal stroke more agonizing than the next. The reality of being dropped sinks his morale like a stone. It’s not fun to watch him in this state.
A few dozen meters up, Castillo, the race’s lone Mexican, launches his body forward, bike rocking from side to side as he struggles to stay in the wheel of the rider in front of him. He’s looking like the next one to crack, but he perseveres, hangs on just a little longer, gritting his teeth.
One is not sure whether the German at the front, Jonas Koch, is making a concerted effort to attack and go for some greater glory or whether this is just the point at which legs start to give out, psyches are broken; where 130 kilometers of camaraderie inevitably disintegrates.
Every failure to sustain the momentum only makes it harder for those up front to keep it going. A breakaway is less like a single organism and more like a small ecosystem, each part dependent on the other. Remove one element and the whole system’s ability to sustain itself is thrown into chaos. It can limp along, but only barely. The question at this point is not if it will collapse, but when.
At 113 kilometers to go, thanks in part to the pace-setting by Denmark and Switzerland, the peloton catches Austria’s Marco Friedrich, the first rider from the breakaway to be let go. It is an oh shit moment for the rest of the bunch. It means that the time to maintain dominance and strategize is upon them. The languid pulse checking and turn-taking of the last 113 kilometers is about to escalate into outright competition for the lead of the race, a suspicion that is intensified when they catch Grosu a mere five kilometers later.
The peloton knows that when one member of the breakaway is weak, it’s an indication that all of them are weak. They smell blood in the water and the tempo escalates. Riders in the back who have been able to relax until now have to start and work their way forwards in anticipation of the attacks to come, the climbs to come, each promising division. The favorites and the stronger riders will soon be ripping up the seams of the peloton, putting in seconds and meters of punishing distance that only get harder and harder to close as the race goes on.
At 108 kilometers to go, the breakaway is blown open. Koch and Traeen use the climb as an opportunity to make a small acceleration and that’s all it takes. Arashiro and Fominykh are both dropped like stones.
Arashiro, however, is not done. He knows that around the corner, there will be as much of a faux plat as this course offers, and he jolts ahead of Fominykh, trying desperately to catch up to the other two riders. It’s a fight, and Arashiro is struggling, teeth clenched, head rocking back and forth. He manages to gap Fominykh, who doesn’t have the legs to go with the increase in effort.
Riding a bicycle to the best of one’s ability often involves the highly motivating emotion we call spite. One wonders, for example, if Mathieu van der Poel would be as successful a rider without the lifelong rivalry between him and Wout van Aert to wind him up at the starting line. To speak from personal experience, I’ve frequently done my best times on trails after getting passed by middle-aged men with bikes twice as expensive as mine — and my carbon fiber Bianchi is nothing to scoff at. (As we will see later in this race, the desire for revenge can pull remarkable feats of strength out of even the deadest of legs.)
One could call Arashiro’s chase an act of courage, an act of desire, but beneath it all is spite — spite at having made it all this time in the breakaway, happy to have done the work at the front taking the wind over and over again only to be dropped by an attack that’s suicidal, wasteful, and anti-solidaristic. However, the spite goes deeper than pettiness — it is amplified by fear. The writing’s on the wall for Arashiro and perhaps the greatest source of his spite is not directed towards his breakaway colleagues, but rather the specter of the peloton inching its way ever-closer, its embrace all but shutting the door on any possibility of victory.
The time gap is coming down now; the whole race is a shaken-up bottle of champagne begging to be uncorked. The pace increases in the peloton, and riders are being dropped left and right, with no regard for rank or status. Luka Pibernik of Slovenia, the domestique who did several turns at the front earlier today falls behind, followed by Hugh Carthy, an excellent climber and a general classification contender at the Tour de France. One of them comes back a kilometer later and it’s not the Slovenian.
Meanwhile, at 100km to go, Arashiro is desperate. He appears lonely as he goes up the Gallisterna despite being surrounded by spectators both masked and (unfortunately) unmasked. He’s only 25 seconds behind the leaders and the possibility of catching up to them is not foregone yet. He’s focused. He doesn’t look to be suffering too much. This is a time trial for him, a time trial through wind and screaming fans and his reward for winning it is nothing more than being able to take refuge in the slipstream of the two riders by whom he’s been so cruelly betrayed. The sky darkens. The commentators say rain will be here within the hour. As Arashiro’s tires grind along the Cima’s ten percent gradient, its road painted with the names of riders who aren’t him, he hopes fervently that it does not rain. Rain’s about the only thing that could make this situation worse than it already is.
Castillo of Mexico has been caught by the peloton. Word comes in that Grosu has abandoned the race, unable to continue after the stress of being in the breakaway. Switzerland is setting a brutal tempo, allegro vivace at the front of the peloton, stretching it out behind them in one line which snakes around corner after corner.
The camera cuts to Arashiro because he’s not done yet, and he’s more interesting than the two race leaders. After all, he’s got the kind of story cycling loves — the underdog rider, the sole representative of his country who’s been out at the front for almost 200 kilometers and he’s close, he’s so close. Unfortunately, the gap does not come down between Arashiro and Koch and Traeen, but it does come down between Arashiro and the rest of the peloton. Somehow, six minutes has evaporated to under four. A few more kilometers and Arashiro’s comrade Fominykh has been caught.
Three laps to go. The gap has shrunk to two minutes and thirty seconds.
The breakaway is not long for this world.
Arashiro begins to labor, his legs remaining anchored to his bike by a combination of sheer will and clipless pedals. His chest heaves. He’s had no break since he was distanced twenty kilometers ago. He’s been churning the bike forward, setting a relentless pace, one indicative of a man who plans to give this race everything he can within a very short period of time. It’s unsustainable, it’s burning through him, muscles aching from the build up of lactic acid, heart reaming against his ribcage.
It’s not enough. Over the course of a handful of kilometers, the twenty five seconds between him and the two leaders has ballooned into a minute.
Arashiro exists now only as a midway point between the peloton and the front of the race. Like so much in cycling, his is a herculean effort. Like so much in cycling, that effort is for naught. In the end, it is just a story; a plot-line among many, each rider his own protagonist of life.
At 78 kilometers to go, the Russian sprinter Viacheslav Kuznetsov springs out in front, and soon there’s a gap there. He’s nobody, so the peloton lets him go — they know he’ll come back eventually. The attack is smooth and coordinated. Kuznetsov isn’t riding full throttle, he’s just easing into the space in front of him like it’s his for the taking.
Kuznetsov overtakes Arashiro. It’s a short day out for the former and a long day out for the latter. The peloton claims them both.
In his mourning, as the rushing of hundreds of wheels fills his ears, Arashiro finds himself thankful that at least he’s finally been relieved of the wind’s burden.
The gap between Koch and Traeen and everyone else is under two minutes. It is in this last gasp of effort, futile if not certainly doomed, that this chapter of this story and the next one elide.
It starts at 71 kilometers to go. France puts out their feelers. A couple of riders sneak their way up to the front. There are no team radios in the World Championships. Information is communicated and decisions are made in the old fashioned way: road captains send their domestiques around to gather intel, and in response they bark out strategy off the cuff. Some fans believe that this is a more genuine form of racing because it lends itself less to micromanaging. In reality, the decisions are not necessarily better, they are simply more impulsive, and acting on impulse is often much more exciting than following out a well-made plan. Make of that what you will.
The French, however, are making a plan, and their plan will be executed to perfection in the long run. For now, it exists solely as a murmur between Julian Alaphilippe and today’s second-in-command, Guillaume Martin. At 70 kilometers to go, there are several Frenchmen peaking through to have a look at what’s ahead and Alaphilippe, the leader, is one of them. He sends Tour de France stage winner Nans Peters to the front with Quentin Pacher, one of the most aggressive riders in the peloton. Whether or not this move comes too soon remains to be seen; however, one thing is certain: France has no patience for the pace the Swiss and the Danes have set. France has no respect whatsoever for any of the bricklaying done by the other teams. France lights the race on fire.
We will discuss the French strategy in depth in the next installment of this piece. All you need to know about France and its team of riders is that they are riding their bikes particularly fast right now, and the first, long as hell arc of this race is about come to its conclusion. The Slovenians and the Brits are not far behind — the last thing they want is the French to launch another breakaway.
This has a domino effect, and soon everyone is suffering, legs spinning away at high cadences despite the gradient they find themselves on, tongues out, hands gripping the brakehoods, bikes rocking away as riders try to find comfort by getting out of the saddle. The gap between the two leaders and the peloton evaporates.
The breakaway, after persisting for a whopping 190 kilometers, is caught.
Whatever plans Germany and Norway had for their expendable domestiques do not come to fruition — neither country gains the upper hand against the strongest contenders in the bunch.
Despite the epic lengths to which the breakaway went to stay out in front for almost three quarters of this race, they win nothing for it. The UCI does not give points for perserverence, courage, or self-sacrifice, whether for one’s team or one’s country. Only literature rewards such feats of human stamina, and cycling, although poetic and imbued with literary themes, is not literature — it is cycling. It is sport — simple, if cruel — and there are no prizes for good stories, only for winning bicycle races.
Unfortunately for Friedrich, Fominykh, Grosu, Arashiro, Castillo, Koch and Traeen, there can only be one winner of 2020 World Championship Men’s Road Race, and it will not be one of them. In fact, with 68 kilometers to go, the man who will reign victorious has only just emerged from the shadowy mass of the peloton.
Part 2: The French Offensive