How to Win on the Tour De France: In-play and the breakaway

Peloton in Tour de France
It's a complicated, organic entity, this peloton... with a strict (or not-so-strict) code to boot
Join today

Understanding how a typical Tour de France stage unfolds is key to in-play punting, writes Jack Houghton, as is checking the quality of your information. The message: start cautiously...

"It's important not to over-romanticise the peloton: it exists out of practicality. On a flat road, it is estimated that a rider at the front - who punches a hole through the air for others to benefit from - can expel up to 40% more energy than a rider buried in the middle of the group, who profits from the communal aerodynamics..."

In our last article in this How-To-Win series, we explored how to go about picking a stage winner, looking at the various factors that need to be considered when picking one rider to triumph from a 176-strong peloton.

For some, though, the complexities and uncertainties that surround each stage - especially trying to assess the intentions of different teams and riders - mean that waiting until it has begun, and seeing what cards are to be played and by whom, offers a better chance of punting success.

To start with, what is the peloton?

The most important thing to understand in any stage is the role of the peloton. The term is ambiguous. It can be used to refer collectively to the whole field of riders, as in, this year's Tour has a star-studded peloton, but for the most part it denotes the main group of riders on a stage, minus any small groups who may have formed, either as a breakaway in a swashbuckling bid for stage glory, or as a stragglers who seek company in an attempt to survive, far behind the main action.

The peloton is a thing of beauty: an organic mass of colour sweeping through the varying terrain of France at high speed, and it's no surprise that it's a favourite subject of artists and photographers. In wide-angle television shots, where the individual faces of riders are no longer visible, it can seem more akin to a phenomenon of the natural world than to a human-made entity: a groupthink network of insects; geese flying south for winter; or dolphins working collectively to corral fish.

It's important, though, not to over-romanticise the peloton: it exists out of practicality. On a flat road, it is estimated that a rider at the front - who punches a hole through the air for others to benefit from - can expel up to 40% more energy than a rider buried in the middle of the group, who profits from the communal aerodynamics. In a mega-endurance event like the Tour de France, allowing the less high-profile members of a team - the domestiques - to act as sacrificial wind-breaks in this way, enables the stars to preserve their energy: whether they be sprinters wanting to keep their legs fresh for an all-out effort in the final few hundred metres, or contenders for overall race classifications aiming to keep a low-profile until the key climbs.

The peloton is governed by the official rules or cycling, but more significant are the arcane, unwritten rules: the code shared by riders which allows them to exist in harmony as they ride together over the three weeks of the Tour de France, and in other major races across the long cycling season. If you break one of these rules - by attacking when the peloton rides through a feed-station, or when a leading rider is taking a comfort break, for example - you risk being shunned by the collective group, with revenge delivered when you least expect it.

This code, though - if it ever existed to the extent that some old-timers suggest - is certainly waning. At some point during this year's Tour, a rider will meet misfortune - a puncture, a mechanical issue, a crash - and commentators will fill hours, debating the morality of the peloton's decision to attack or not. If punting in-play on a stage, it's worth understanding these ethical vagaries: if you see the Yellow Jersey crash, don't assume the peloton will take advantage; there's every likelihood they'll sit up and wait for him to recover. And who said sportsmanship was dead, eh?

How does a typical stage unfold?

In any stage, the main role of the peloton is to control the breakaway. We've briefly discussed the role of a breakaway before - a group of riders who form on nearly every stage and are allowed by the main peloton to build up an advantage, before (usually) being caught with a few kilometres to go - but it's worth spending some time thinking about the role and purpose of this phenomena, as doing so is crucial to being able to profit from in-play betting on a stage, whether in the Tour or any other race.

Rookie cycling fans are often perplexed as to why the peloton would allow a group of riders to disappear up the road with a significant time advantage. The reason they do is because it makes their life easier. If the whole field stayed together for the entirety of the stage, there would be constant attacks from individual riders seeking personal glory, meaning the peloton would keep having to accelerate to bring them back to the fold, making for a tiring day. With a breakaway up the road, there is no longer as much of an incentive for individuals to move away from the peloton, because nothing of value awaits them, except a huge exertion of energy, with the prize being simply to join a smaller, weaker, group of riders up the road. With a breakaway, everyone wins: the riders in it get their time on television, which pleases their sponsors, and the peloton get to ride at a consistent pace.

Controlling the breakaway is the job of whichever team (or teams) has designs over winning the stage. On a flat stage, this will likely be the team of the in-form sprinter. The job of his teammates is to control the advantage the breakaway has, timing the effort to reel them in as late as possible, before delivering their star to stage glory. Other teams may co-operate in the role of bringing a breakaway back, depending on their own tactics. What usually unfolds, though, is a game of kidology, where each team tries to do as little work as possible, hoping to force competitors to do a greater-than-fair share of the donkey work. When this bluffing goes too far, and the peloton start chasing too late, or with insufficient verve, is when the breakaway enjoys a rare success.

On mountain stages, a similar story unfolds, but this time with the teams who have a star grimpeur playing a leading role. Traditionally, this would be the Yellow Jersey team; however, especially in recent Tours where Team Sky has dominated, they have been happy to let breakaways go on many of these stages, meaning they can concentrate on their own race, only increasing the pace when they want to handicap their rivals, and with often little interest in riding for stage honours. What they won't allow, of course, is for any rival for overall honours to get any time advantage on the road.

Will the breakaway be caught?

Watching the Tour, you will notice an omnipresent graphic on screen showing the time advantage enjoyed by any breakaway groups over the main peloton. Staring at this graphic, watching it stretch and contract, is one of the strangely addictive aspects of cycling that fans love. Using it to calculate the chances the breakaway has of survival is more difficult.

On a flat stage, in normal conditions, a good rule-of-thumb is that a well-organised peloton chasing an average breakaway can gain a minute every 10km. So, if a breakaway has a minute-and-a-half advantage, and only 12km to go, it stands a chance... but things are rarely that simple.

A multitude of other factors play a role: the profile of the remains of the stage (the peloton can usually gain more time going uphill); the weather (rain and wind can be advantageous to a breakaway); the number and quality of riders in the peloton; the tactics and intentions of the main teams; and whether the peloton judge the chase astutely. They usually do, though.

If you're a fan of statistical approaches to such things, you could try using a 2017 development by Ghent University maths professor Hendrik van Maldeghem, who created a formula - based on past data - to work out the distance at which the peloton must start its chase to catch a breakaway:

X = Ap {3(p-x) + 6pAc+9 (p-v)2

X = distance at which the peloton should start chasing in kilometres
A = time gap between the breakaway group and the peloton in hours
P = speed of the peloton in kilometres per hour
C = 10-a
a = number of riders in the breakaway group

If spreadsheets aren't your thing, you could use the various calculators online, which use van Maldeghem's model, to ease the workload of a tricky formula.

Where's your information coming from?

Beware of the information you are using to inform your bets. A cycling stage can see riders distributed over miles of roads, and whilst the tracking of the action has improved massively in recent years, with more cameras capturing more of the action, you are still at the mercy of a television director to switch the picture to what you are interested in seeing, rather than the longing close-up of Romain Bardet that is more interesting to French viewers.

It's also worth being aware of the picture delay. What you are seeing could easily have happened a minute previously, so if you suddenly see the odds of a favourite lengthen, don't assume it's a value bet that can't be passed-up - it's likely you will see that favourite disappear out of the back of the peloton in the following seconds.

Putting it all together

Having in-play options is invaluable to any punter wanting to profit on the Tour, but my advice would be not to over-commit, unless you are confident in your advantage. Start small, perhaps by favouring riders in the final stages who you feel have expelled the least energy to get to that point, and only grow your bets when your in-play experience warrants it.

Join today

Discover the latest articles

Read past articles