The 61st edition of the Itzulia Basque Country takes place on the roads of Northern Spain this week, the first week of April. It is one of Spain’s great cycle races. The competition takes place over six days and attracts the world’s top cyclists. The Itzulia is one of Spain’s most prestigious and prized cycle races following Spain’s Grand Tour, La Vuelta Ciclista a España. The only other Spanish stage race with a World Tour ranking is the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya.
Given the prestige of this race it is remarkable that four Spanish riders, competing for second ranking teams, known as Pro Tour teams, threw away the opportunity of a career on the roads of the Basque Country on the first road race stage. Their folly was a failure to take advantage of the benefits of cooperation.
Cycle races often follow a typical pattern and this stage of Itzulia Basque Country started out no different. In the early stages of a race individual riders typically attack the main peloton to ‘breakaway’ and gain a lead. These attackers will hope to join forces with other attacking riders to form a breakaway group. The physics of wind resistance in cycling means that cooperation in the breakaway group is vital early in the race to ensure energy can be conserved and a distance can be put between the breakaway and the peloton. In this early phase riders take turns at the front, sharing the time in the full force of the wind. At some point cooperation must turn to competition in the battle for the prize of race victory. The clash between cooperation and competition gives rise to fascinating strategic interactions in breakaways.
The strategic interaction between breakaway group members can result in the classic economics problem of the ‘free rider’. In the breakaway, free riding may take the form of blatantly sitting at the back of the group and not taking a turn to share the workload at the front. A cyclist behaving this way might be referred to as a ‘wheel scrubber’ or a ‘wheel sucker’. More subtly, a breakaway rider might free ride by ‘glass cranking’. Glass cranking refers to a cyclist who makes it look like they are pedalling very hard but really, they are pedalling softly, as if their pedals are attached to glass cranks.
On stage two of the Itzulia Basque Country, the four-man breakaway group were successful in breaking free from the peloton after the first kilometre of racing. Their optimal strategy now was to cooperate to ensure they maintained a gap to the finish line, a hilly 207km away. The cooperation in the breakaway resulted in the four riders gaining a maximum advantage of almost 6 minutes over the peloton, with just under 80km of racing to the finish. This is not a time to stop cooperating as the peloton will speed up in the later part of the race and the breakaway riders will suffer increased fatigue. Indeed, the decline in the time gap from this point on is testament to these factors.
With around 13 km to go, the day was looking promising for the breakaway group. They still had a gap of just over 2 minutes and some downhill sections to the finish line. At this stage the breakaway were in with a real chance of staying clear of the peloton. Continued joint effort and cooperation would give them a one in 4 chance of taking victory. Failure to cooperate at this stage was likely to see them get caught by the peloton and their chances of victory would be almost nil. Unfortunately, cooperation broke down. In commentary, the recently retired rider, Nicholas Roche, frustratingly watched the crazy, unbelievable behaviour of the breakaway. They were throwing away a potential career defining World Tour victory.
Cooperation broke down due to the free rider problem. The free riding at this stage was of the more blatant type, with just one rider refusing to come to the front and take a turn. Consequently, this was to result in group cooperation to visibly break down. Words were being exchanged and arms were flailing as the riders sat up and even stopped pedalling to look at one another.
While three of the four were arguing and looking at one another, the fourth rider Ruiz, tried to lead by example by keeping the pace going. The others weren’t even paying attention to him, as he simply rode steady leaving them behind. It didn’t take long for the other three realised Ruiz was getting away. They quickly started riding hard again but cooperation was still lacking. Despite a valiant solo effort, the odds were now staked against Ruiz staying ahead of the fast chasing peloton. The peloton shattered Ruiz’s dream by catching him with just 400 meters to go.
A once in a lifetime opportunity was certainly lost to the breakaway group of four. After such a strong effort earlier in the day, the opportunity was squandered due to uncooperative behaviour. If only the free rider knew what damage his uncooperative behaviour was to have on his, and the breakaway’s chances.