The loneliness of the solo breakaway
Thierry Marie must like to be alone in the Normandy countryside. These days he is a professional gardener and back home in his native region, the 52-year-old spends him time trimming hedges, mowing lawns, and planting borders. However to us, Thierry Marie is the eager-faced 28-year-old who broke away for 234 kilometres on the sixth stage of the 1991 Tour and won, alone, in Le Havre, in what is the second longest lone break in Tour history. At the end of it, he put on the yellow jersey.
With that kind of achievement under his belt, not to mention the two other separate stints in the yellow jersey, he should be dining out on a career of after-dinner speeches, motivational talks, and TV punditry. But then the kind of guy who would break away and ride alone for the best part of six hours under the July sun probably isn’t afraid of going against the grain. You try telling Thierry Marie that he shouldn’t be spending his days in agrarian anonymity; just like they tried telling him he shouldn’t have ridden off alone after 25 kilometres of the broiling hot flat stage on July 11, 25 years ago.
“After I got away I spotted Bernard Hinault in the race organiser’s car,” Marie recalls. “I had two minutes on the bunch and he made a gesture to say I was mad.
“He’s mad, Thierry Marie, he’s nuts,” he imitates, before switching into English cut with his heavy Norman accent and adding: “He’s a crazy boy!”
“But I said to myself: no problem. I’m the only mad one, but never mind.”
The long distance solo breakaway used to be part and parcel of cycling. Were Thierry Marie racing 70 years earlier in an era when classics and grand tours were won with herculean efforts of individual endurance over more than 350 kilometres of dusty, unkempt roads at a time, he’d have been making an astute move. But by the 1990s – in fact any time after the Second World War – riding alone at the front of the race had become an anachronism. The long distance solo breakaway turned from an essential part of succeeding to the sort of lost cause that was only pursued by foolhardy idiots. Long-distance solo breakaway artists are crazy boys.
Naturally we’re not talking about the sort of solo breaks where a cunning rider chips off the pack with a few kilometres to the line in order to steal the sprinters’ thunder. Nor do we really mean the solo moves executed by climbers with less than half an hour until the mountain stage summit finish. We mean the sort of breaks where riders spend whole days in a personal purgatory with nothing but the slim chance of victory dangling in front of them like a very small carrot on a far-off horizon.
Five years before he would win the race outright, Bradley Wiggins chanced his arm in such an endeavour on stage six of the 2007 Tour. Off he went on a classic first week Tour stage where 199.5 kilometres of long, empty lanes rolled through the thick countryside of la France profonde like waves stretching from the coast to the sky. From Semur-en-Auxois to Bourg-en-Bresse, the bright red Cofidis-clad dot of Wiggins ticked off mile after mile on a dark grey treadmill framed by bright white lines, shimmering poplars and thick wheat fields buzzing in the heat. Behind him the bunch could chat, take a leisurely lunch, roll along in each other’s slipstream, enjoy each other’s company, and answer the call of nature in relative comfort, but up front Wiggins toiled under the hot sun. And it was hot: well into the mid 30s and hot enough to make the sweat ooze out of his arms and soak up the dust and debris from the road like he had been tarred and feathered for daring to shake up the natural order of the Tour de France peloton.
“I couldn’t sit up,” Wiggins said of the point where he realised he was on his own. “You can’t sit up in the Tour so I thought, sod it, I’ll continue and enjoy it.”
Did Wiggins enjoy escaping a bunch coursing with the likes of Andrey Kashechkin, Alexandre Vinokourov and Michael Rasmussen, not to mention the rider on his own team – Cristian Moreni – who would later bring about Wiggins’ abandonment of the Tour when the gendarmerie dragged him and his team out of his French motel as the bycatch of the Italian’s pharmaceutical transgressions? Maybe he just liked the time on his own: “It was like a training ride on my own at times,” he said afterwards.
At one point putting 17 minutes between himself and his pursuers, which worked out at around 10 kilometres of empty road, there can be no doubt Wiggins’ inner anti-hero enjoyed tearing up the script. There’s a wonderful shot from that day of him looking back at the amorphous kaleidoscope breathing down on him, realising that the game is up and that it would be a matter of minutes before he was trampled under the pounding hooves of the peloton, but pressing on anyway. After he was swallowed up by the sprinters’ trains, all jostling for position and eager to be the ones who benefitted from ruining the fairy tale ending (Wiggins would have had the seventh longest solo break in Tour history) the stage culminated in a win for Tom Boonen. However it could have been any of the sprinters who spent most of the day in relative comfort and emerged out of the roulette wheel of a sprint finish to claim the stage. Wiggins was dead last.
Not everybody loves Wiggins, but everybody loves an underdog. The solo breakaway is like a little pet Chihuahua living in a WAG’s handbag facing up to a drooling pack of wolves. Of course it is never ‘supposed’ to win, not like a mountain goat is supposed to win an alpine summit and a sprinter is supposed to gobble up a flat finish. There are stages that are better hunting grounds for a breakaway, but the chances of riders even attempting a solo move, let alone succeeding, are never more than slim. Simply in terms of physical firepower; the peloton can always throw more bodies to the coalface to pull for the common good of the bunch. The lone rider has no one to fall back on.
You have to be a little bit mad to be a cyclist. We don’t need telling that ours is not an activity whose rewards come easy. But being a professional rider? That defies most people’s logic. And being a professional who voluntarily runs himself through the tumble dryer and hangs himself out to dry is about as crazy as you can get.
“You have to be unafraid of totally emptying yourself,” Thierry Marie now says. “If you think about it, being a rider all alone in a breakaway could be quite scary. You know that you are taking a big gamble and you are almost certainly going to lose.
“Only one break in 100 actually succeeds. When you have four of five riders in the break you suffer four of five times less. On your own, it’s 100% all the way. People don’t understand that you can actually be OK with that.”
Mad suffering. Remember the sweaty mess that rode solo over Mont Ventoux in 1994 and went by the name of Eros Poli? That most unlikely hero; the bulky Italian leadout rider built up enough of a head start on the flat approach from Montpellier that while he hauled his bike and his body (with his speedometer reading single figures) over the peak, even Marco Pantani, who went up the mountain like a loose helium balloon, couldn’t bring him back. Sport isn’t predictable – and don’t we love to be reminded that a Hollywood production company hasn’t already written the ending – but can you think of any other sport where such bravado and futile recklessness is tolerated, and even applauded, rather than ridiculed?
Maybe we appreciate the long distance solo breakaway because it brings professional riders back to a sort of cycling that we know and understand. Amateur cyclists like nothing better than to try to step into a pro’s cleated shoes – just look at the popularity of events like the Etape du Tour. While most of us will never reach the levels of physical and mental abnormality required to compete on a world stage, anyone who has ever swung a leg over a road bike can empathise with the struggles of the lone riders battling against time, the odds, and themselves. When we watch a lone break we see someone riding for the sake of riding, someone pedalling alone through fields, past farmyards, over hills and in and out of woods just like us. He or she is returning to his or her youth, back to a time of carefree, simple solitude. In the case of Thierry Marie’s famous breakaway east to west across northern France from Arras to Le Havre, the man from Normandy was literally riding home. Who doesn’t empathise with that?
Marie was never going to touch the record for the longest solo break in history because that record will eternally belong to Albert Bourlon, who rode 253 kilometres alone from Carcassone to Bagneres-de-Luchon in 1947 and whose 16 minute advantage at the finish would have been enough for him to shower, change and clap his rivals across the finish line with a brandy and a cigarette. Bourlon was an experienced escape artist. Several years before his Tour stage, the former Renault assembly-line worker and card-carrying communist broke free from a German PoW camp during WWII after three failed attempts, eventually swimming through icy water to freedom. He was also one for longevity – he passed away in 2013 at the ripe old age of 96 – and thanks to the relative brevity of modern grand tour stages and classics, not to mention the fact that GPS transponders and race radios help the bunch to reel in the breakaway more successfully, his record will undoubtedly stand the test of time.
But out in front on that day 25 years ago, Marie could still be his own boss. He had of course calculated that a peloton missing a yellow jersey (incumbent Rolf Sorensen crashed out the day before) was unlikely to organise a concerted chase, but he also did it for the simple reason that he could ride back to the land of his birth, in the Tour de France, on his own terms. After all he was a prologue specialist, and when asked to reflect on the notion that he did it because it allowed him to get something done on his own, he agrees.
“Yes… that seems kind of true,” he says. “As a rider I was very chatty, I talked a lot, but sometimes I liked to be a bit of a loner. I’ve noticed it in my life that I’ve worked on a lot of things with other people, but I do also like to do things on my own.”
However the notion of a monastic, spiritual solitude only goes so far; Marie was flanked by motorbikes, TV cameras and a car with his second DS, Bernard Quilfen. By a curious twist of fate, Quilfen was then the man with the third longest solo breakaway in Tour history, just 12 kilometres shorter than Marie’s would end up being, and the following year he would go on to steer Marie’s teammate Jacky Durand to his memorable solo win at the Tour of Flanders after a 217-kilometre break.
“I actually managed to sing a Norman folk song – if you ask any Normans that’s all they remember because I winked at the camera while I was doing it,” Marie adds. “I didn’t want to do that, it was a journalist who asked me to do that for the camera.
“When you start to realise that actually you’re very tired – that you’re riding flat out – you start thinking about how much effort it is. But before you get to that point, it’s a different story. For example my DS kept rolling up to me and saying, ‘how’s it going?’ and we were joking around a bit and laughing. I mean, remembering all that after 25 years isn’t easy, but it happened.”
Chatting and joking with your manager? Singing and winking while leading the Tour de France? Surely the solo breakaway is an act of rebellion. As with Wiggins, the lone rider is able to break free from the drudgery and risk of riding in the bunch. He or she ceases to exist as a moveable billboard – a body to be instructed and operated by a higher power, whether that be fetching bottles, shepherding a rider or simply exposing the sponsor’s name on the shirt. We all can empathise with that motive: the lost cause that you still believe in, despite fate, form and everybody else telling you otherwise. We want the breakaway to succeed in order to see a rider reclaim their own personal liberty and prove that sometimes the establishment can be beaten.
That earnest pursuit of victory, despite the odds, is extremely endearing. But consider Tony Martin, who in 2013 came within 20 metres of victory after over 170 kilometres alone on stage seven of the Vuelta a España. The thing about Martin was that he didn’t set out to win – he wins plenty of time trials anyway – but to get a big effort under his belt for the upcoming world championships and to allow his teammates in the bunch to enjoy a day off from putting their noses in the wind. He had even hoped some other riders would join him, and it was only inside the final 10 kilometres that he realised the extent of his lead meant a stage win might be on the cards. However his last minute capture by the bunch sprint – with the win ironically going to the rider who had spent over 2,000 kilometres breaking away the previous season, Michael Morkov – was no less cruel. Regardless of whether a rider is actually trying to win or not, we still respect the romance and panache of attempting to upset the status quo. Multiple breakaway protagonist and perpetual purveyor of panache Thomas Voeckler goes so far as to call it a communion with the public.
“Your legs are hurting and you have gone as far as you think you can go, but then you stop thinking about it all,” he explained during the 2015 Tour. “I love to look back to 2012 when I won into Bagnères-de-Luchon and on the final climb, the Col de Peyresourde, when I broke away and I knew I was going to win the stage. I still get the shivers when I think about it now. You’re almost in a second state, a communion with the public. There’s always so much noise. That moment when you get to the finish, solo; you can try to explain what it’s like to people but really it’s a personal moment, what you’re feeling then, so it’s difficult for words to do it justice.”
“Emotion is very important; you need to be able to feel something about what you’re doing,” adds Marie. “A friend said to me recently that you still get really excited about all sorts of things. But it’s like love: if you have to ask the question of why you’re doing it then that defeats the whole point.
“That madness, that panache, it makes me think of Laurent Fignon. In 1989 he had the yellow jersey and when you have the yellow jersey, the only thing you think of is defending the yellow jersey. You do not think about getting in a breakaway! But what I remember about him the most was on the bicentenary of La Révolution, 14 Juillet 1989, he got in the break. Normally he would never, never have done that. But he had his mad side too.”
The logic-defying, long-distance solo break is the preserve of lunatics. But win or lose, every minute captured on TV – every strain of every sinew and every wobble of Thierry Marie’s chronically unstable right knee – remains etched into our memories. These solo breakaway artists are mad. But wouldn’t you do the same?