Is there a more impressive sight in pro cycling than one man riding away from the field to take a solo win? The further out he does this from, the better; think Tony Martin’s 175km solo ride on stage 6 of this year’s Vuelta Espana – with saddle sores, lest we forget – falling just 20 metres short of a scarcely believable win.
To make a solo break in a grand tour and hang on for the stage win is impressive, but the motivations of the chasing pack will always be many and varied. It’s not simply a case of everyone riding full gas until one guy – stronger and more tenacious than the rest – selects an extra gear and pulls away.
If the attacker is not in contention for the overall race win then some teams will ignore the solo break and let him go. For any other riders who also fancy a stage win there will be other days, and on the right day they can be thrown off the scent sufficiently to convince them to save the fight for another day.
The state of the race, the weather, the wind direction and the varied ambitions of team-mates can all come into play, so that the days when a rider breaks away to win have the sense that all his stars aligned and everything fell into place.
To ride away from the field in a one-day classic is a different matter. The top classics contenders have the big one-day races on their mind all year, and this equates to a lot of very strong, very motivated bike riders in fierce competition. If one guy pulls away at the sharp end of the race, anyone feeling even half-decent will chase, because if they don’t they will have to wait 12 months for the next chance; and that’s not many chances in a career.
Fabian Cancellara was so good at doing this in 2010 that rumours began to do the rounds that he had a motor in his bike (yes, you read that correctly), such was his ability to ride away from his rivals at will. Having won the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in impressive style he was accused by former pro Davide Cassani – ridiculously – of ‘mechanical doping’.
There was talk from some riders of a ‘strange whirring sound’ coming from Cancellara’s bike, which prompted, briefly, bikes to be x-rayed to check for anything untoward. Of course, common sense prevailed, and this non-story soon blew over. Team Director of Garmin-Transitions Jonathan Vaughters appeared to take it all less than seriously; when Dave Zabriskie’s bike went through the machine he commented on Twitter that ‘Zab’s bike is the first to go through the bike scanner. They didn’t find a motor, but they did find an old 8 track of the Eagles.’
Cancellara’s response to the accusations was ‘it’s so stupid I’m speechless’. As a certain Texan cyclist put it, ‘(he’s) got two engines…the left leg and the right leg.’ Hmm, on second thoughts, maybe he’s not the most reliable character witness.
Another man capable of leaving 200 of the worlds finest bike riders trailing is his wake is Tom Boonen. At Paris-Roubaix in 2012 the Belgian took his fourth win in this famously tough cobbled classic, by simply riding away from the rest of the field.
With nearly 60km of the race remaining Boonen attacked, and built a lead of almost a minute. As the other contenders responded desperately Boonen resisted the attacks, and even increased his lead further to win by more than a minute and a half; a masterly display of strength on the fearsome cobbles of northern France.
To attack from so far out seems suicidal but Boonen gloriously made it stick to win in style, and Paris-Roubaix is a special race to do this. By reaching the town of Roubaix all alone, the victor gets to ride the final kilometre around the famous velodrome and bask in the acclaim of the crowd.
As Boonen put it, ‘The velodrome finish line… it’s the only finish line where you have one kilometre where you can bond with the people that are there. It’s just just such a special race.’
After leaving the rest of the field in his wake, and riding alone for 53km, it’s fair to say that Boonen had earned his moment of glory.