Ace of Spades

You know I'm born to lose,

and gambling's for fools,
But that's the way I like it baby,
I don't wanna live forever

- Ace of Spades, Motorhead

They’re known in some cycling circles as headbangers, those lords of the long break, the kings of kilometer zero, so maybe it’s fitting that Lemmy and the lads recorded the anthem that seems to speak for them so well. That the fatalistic lyrics of a blue-collar British metal band could fit a bunch of skinny, shaved-legged professional athletes so well seems odd, but when you stare at it for long enough, the reason they do becomes more clear. Like many of the down-and-out fans that song was aimed at, riders in the early break are often the cannon fodder of their own dirty little corner of the world, and that situation tends to change your perspective on risk a bit.

Of course, being cannon fodder, cycling or otherwise, doesn’t necessarily mean you have no purpose – as unkind teachers often point out, the world needs ditch diggers, too. Cycling teams don’t need shovelers per se, but they do need a sacrificial lamb to save the rest of the team from chasing, to bridge up to when the heavy climbs start, and to fly the flag at the front when those TV cameras click on with 2 hours to go. Hence, the long move.

Sometimes, initiating or covering that move is just an assignment, a good teammate’s given role for the day. Might be the same thing tomorrow, might be different. Whatever the DS says. But for some riders, going away in the first 40 kilometers becomes a specialty, every bit as much as climbing or sprinting. Unlike those more glamorous skills, though, the long raid rarely brings it's practitioners victory, and usually the only real suspense in watching it comes from the ghoulish delight of trying to predict just how the break will meet its demise. Will cooperation fail as the finish creeps closer? Will they succumb to a chase, or just crumble under the weight of a hundred kilometers of fatigue? Will they go quietly, or struggle on awkwardly until the field rushes past and spits them out the back? Will defeat come with 5 kilometers remaining, or right on the line?

Regardless of how or when, it’s fairly certain that defeat will come. So why keep doing it? What’s the motivation? That’s where the true breakaway specialists distinguish themselves from their obedient coworkers and snuggle over towards the compulsive gambler end of the spectrum. They keep doing it not because they think victory is likely, but simply because they know it’s possible. There’s a chance, however minute, despite team radios and perfectly timed chases and GC battles and odds. For them, that’s enough.

And like the poker players and slot jockeys that haunt Atlantic City and Vegas, they know the big payoff is possible because they’ve seen it done. Jacky Durand, probably the sport’s best known headbanger, made a career out of it after parlaying an early move (at 42 kilometers) into victory at the 1992 Tour of Flanders. That little taste was enough to hook the Frenchman, and for the next 12 years, you could mark the point where the neutral zone ended by when Du-Du made his move. Durand is a legend, but if the headbangers have a patron saint, it’s Eros Poli, the Italian leadout man who, at 6’4” and 180+ pounds used a 170 kilometer solo escape to score an unlikely win on Stage 15 of the 1994 Tour de France, which passed over the fearsome Mont Ventoux. He got to the bottom of the Giant of Provence with 22 minutes in hand, and was still over three minutes to the good when he plowed across the line in Carpentras ahead of Virenque and Pantani. There are actual saints who’ve suffered less.

While Poli and Durand are gone from the peloton, a new generation of gamblers is sitting down at the table, hoping that if they play enough hands, they’ll get dealt the right cards eventually. One of the best is Pavel Brutt (Tinkoff), a 25-year-old Russian who seems to be in the early move of practically every race his second division team gets an invitation to. All those kilometers off the front haven’t provided Brutt with even the slightest hint of a tan, giving him even more common ground with British metalheads we started out with, but they did gain him a good win on Stage 5 the Giro d’ Italia on Wednesday. He out-rode and out-bluffed the rest of the 12 man move he’d been away with for almost 180 kilometers. You can read all about it here, but that's old news by now and besides, another early move has already managed to reshape the race since then. What’s more important about the Stage 5 article than nitty gritty race details are Brutt’s comments from the post-race press conference, which provide some good insight into the mindset of a pure, unadulterated headbanger:

“I didn’t believe we’d make it to the finish, but then I was with some very strong guys and it made the difference to pull clear. I like to go into breakaways. That’s my best chance and I’ve done a lot of them. I do that as often as possible.”

Brutt knows that, without a killer sprint or serious high-mountain chops, his odds of bagging stage wins are slim, so he plays the cards he dealt and gambles on the long move. He knows that 99 percent of the time, he’s not going to win, and he’ll be wasted for the next few days. But because a 1 percent chance is better than nothing, he does it anyway. Frequently and wholeheartedly. And there's something endearing in that. After all, who wants to live forever?