On February 23 every single piece of the puzzle came together for Frenchman Julien Bernard
He achieved his first victory as a professional, and he did it on home soil. The win forged from the breakaway, and Julien wouldn’t have had it any other way.
What’s the secret of being a master of breakaways? That’s not an easy question to answer. Over the years, with experience and a lot of heartbreak, some riders have fine-tuned their techniques and became experts in the art of joining a breakaway. Making it stick and end in a victory? Well, that’s another matter altogether.
Below Julien breaks down the anatomy of a breakaway using Stage three of the Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var as a reference. It was a special day in the breakaway for the 28-year-old Trek-Segafredo pro that ultimately ended with a climb to the top step of the podium on the iconic Mont Faron, the same finish where his father Jean Francois Bernard had won in 1986 and 1987.
The anatomy of a breakaway by Julien Bernard
There are two key aspects when you’re considering going for the breakaway: the first is you need to be 100% committed from kilometer zero, and your legs need to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Sometimes it can take up to an hour for the breakaway to form, but usually it goes in the first kilometers. Your mind needs to be focused and your body alert. You can’t hesitate because if you do, you may miss your window.
The second key aspect is to analyze the parcours. For sure it’s nice to be in the break, but to be in the break for the win is the best. In a stage race, it’s not ideal if it’s a stage you know the GC riders will want to win or a stage that the sprinter teams will work to ensure a bunch sprint.
Then it’s a numbers game. If it’s a break of, say, 15 riders from 15 teams at the front, this means only a few teams will be interested in bringing it back. In that scenario, it’s super hard for the peloton to control the race and make it a bunch sprint. So it’s important to pinpoint those stages where more or less it’s not guaranteed the sprinters can play for the victory, and they prefer to have some guys in front and not control the race. Often these are what we call mid-mountain stages.
But then there are exceptions – Stage three of Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var was such an exception. It was a three-day race, and the team asked me to go in the break and give it a try on that final day. It wasn’t the ideal stage because it was a difficult uphill finish, and most of the time when you have a summit finish, the pure climbers and the GC contenders want to win the stage. So, in theory, it wasn’t the ideal day, but since (Nairo) Quintana had shown such dominance the day before, Kim (Andersen), my DS, thought that perhaps no teams, except for Arkéa-Samsic, would be willing to control. Why pull all day to be then beaten by Quintana on top of the climb?
So it was really strange because normally in this kind of stage I wouldn’t take the gamble to go in the break. But today we thought maybe the other teams would send a guy with me, so it was a big opportunity. In the end, we were more or less 11 riders at the front, and it was a short stage of just 140 km. I knew it really well because the previous year I had raced the exact same stage, so that knowledge gave me a bit of an advantage.
In the Vuelta and the Tour de France, I was in breakaways of 40 riders, and this is the worst-case because it's almost like a second peloton.
On longer stages, like 200 km, you for sure need more than 10 riders in the breakaway, but if it’s short stages, six or seven riders can be enough. If they are strong riders, there is enough energy between them for the breakaway to make it.
Then there are situations where 20, 30 riders break clear. In the Vuelta and the Tour de France, I was in breakaways of 40 riders, and this is the worst-case because it’s almost like a second peloton. Some guys won’t work, or there isn’t much cooperation during most of the stage. In this scenario, you must be really, really smart and make sure you’re there when the selection is made. You need to focus on some guys and perhaps even force a new breakaway.
In Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var we were 11 riders, and that was the perfect number. Everybody was working well together, and with 40 km to go, we really accelerated to keep a good advantage to the peloton.
One of the biggest mistakes I've done in the past was I didn't eat or drink enough when I was in breakaways, and that cost me dearly in the final.
RIVALS BECOME COMPANIONS
When I have the idea to go for the breakaway, I try to focus on some riders, like Thomas de Gendt or Alessandro De Marchi. These are two guys I like to follow because they are really savvy riders and very experienced. I’ve lost count of how many times I have been in the breakaway with them, but it’s always a good break because they work perfectly. They are committed, and you know there is a good chance the break will be successful. Then, of course, you must find a way to beat these guys, which is not easy, but at least you have a shot at playing for the win.
In the breakaway, it’s important to keep your temper. You have to understand that sometimes your tactic and your team’s tactic is not the tactic of the other riders. Sometimes a rider is not pulling or working as hard as the others because he has different goals, but you cannot get nervous or angry because you need to keep 100% of your energy and focus on the bike. The calmer you are, the more efficient and smarter you’ll be. This is crucial to make the right decisions in the right moments.
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve done in the past was I didn’t eat or drink enough when I was in breakaways, and that cost me dearly in the final. When you’re in the breakaway, you typically expend much more energy than when you’re in the peloton. Often, in this scenario, you’re so focused to pull, pull, pull, you can easily forget to eat at regular intervals or even hydrate properly. You’re happy, you’re on TV, you are in the race, and everybody’s focused on you. You feel like you’re flying until you aren’t, and then it’s too late.
In a stage race, this is even more important because if you finish the day empty, you’ll lack the power the next day as well. Usually, my Sports Directors keep reminding me to eat and drink, but this is something that you yourself need to be aware of, and always on top of, to achieve the best results.
Once you make it to the decisive point of the stage with a good gap to the peloton, you need to figure out how to get rid of the competition. In Tour des Alpes Maritimes et du Var, Gregy (DS Grègory Rast) was in the car behind me, and he asked me to attack on the second to last climb, and that’s what I did. I went alone from this point. It was quite far, but that was the moment when you have to stake a claim and send the message to the peloton that maybe it’s impossible to catch the break this time and play for the victory.
I reached the summit of the penultimate climb with 22 seconds gap on the chasers. I felt really good, and it was important for me to open a really good gap so that even if they went full gas from the back, they wouldn’t be able to catch me. I then had 10 km of downhill to recover and save some energy for the last push to the summit.
At the bottom of the climb, I had 20 seconds, so I started at a steady pace; I didn’t go too deep because I wanted to have something in reserve should someone from the break bridge across to me. I had been pushing more or less 400 watts the entire climb. I knew it would take a huge effort for someone to achieve this solo, so when I saw Nans Peters coming across, I didn’t panic because I knew I had enough energy to beat him in a final sprint.
You don't realize you're winning because you've lost so many times, and it almost feels impossible. You're waiting for that moment that you're passed. But that moment never came.
When I saw him coming around the corner, his face was really à bloc. I kept my tempo under the flamme rouge because I knew I still had the legs for one final effort. I knew that when he caught me, he would attempt to attack straight away – that’s what I would have done myself in his position – so I was ready, and when he went, I followed. Then he attacked a second time, and that was my moment. I counter-attacked 200 meters to go. Gregy told me I had to take the last left-hand corner first, and I did. In those last 75 meters, I was half expecting to see someone coming from behind and beating me to the line. You don’t realize you’re winning because you’ve lost so many times, and it almost feels impossible. You’re waiting for that moment that you’re passed. But that moment never came.
When I crossed that finish line, and I realized I’d won, it was just an amazing experience. I thought about all that I did leading up to it, all the hard work, and I just enjoyed the moment. One of the first people I saw after the finish line was Nino (Daniele, Trek-Segafredo Head Physician), and when I saw the emotion in his eyes, that’s when I realized what I’d actually done. After so many breakaways, I had finally achieved what I’d been dreaming of for such a long time.