Most cyclists are losers

September 30, 2011

99.5% to be pseudo-scientific. 200 riders line up, 199 lose. If you’re lucky, your teammate wins and you feel like a winner too, leaving only 191 losers. Still, that’s not a good ratio.

But it gets worse. The course has certain characteristics. Often those characteristics suit a particular type of rider, and often you’re not that type. Now you’re chances of escaping loserville become very slim indeed. In other words, you know that if this race follows the standard “bike race script”, you’ll be nothing more than field-filler.

What’s the logical conclusion? In my view there could be three:

  1. Have a teammate with an above-average chance of winning
  2. Stay in bed
  3. Hatch a clever plan

The clever plan isn’t really that complicated. If following the script leads to guaranteed loserdom, you need to disrupt the script. Don’t follow the standard plan, create chaos. The race will still have only one winner, but in the chaos, the chances of the real contenders diminish. In fact, your chances increase not just because theirs are reduced, but also because as the instigator of the chaos, you have an analytical and psychological head-start.

This applies to any race, but to none more so than races predicted to end in sprints such as the World Championships this year. It wasn’t so hard to predict the winners of the women’s and men’s race this weekend in case of a bunch sprint (even I managed to name Cavendish and Bronzini as the fast-twitch-champs). If there ever was a race that called for chaos, this was it. And with most teams having multiple captains, the opportunities were enormous.

Too bad everybody followed the script. Therefore, Bronzini and Cavendish are worthy champions. They made the most of the circumstances which were known to all. Maybe the course wasn’t worthy, maybe some competitors weren’t worthy, but they are.

What do you think of the tactics you see in general in cycling? Impressive or snooze? Let me know via the comments section below. Next week we’ll talk about minimum wages for women riders and about the fall-out from the new UCI points ranking, if you don’t want to miss that you can subscribe here.

37 Responses to “Most cyclists are losers”

  1. Sarah Says:

    The reason the Italians have won the women’s RR for the last 3 year is because they seem to combine *really* not caring who wins, as long as it’s one of them, and truly opportunistic racing (that could also be chaos creation). I had to admire Cantele disrupting the Germans and Dutch sprint trains – and the perfect 2009 how-do-we-beat-Marianne-Vos tactics of Cantele and Guderzo wearing her down (and that’s hard as hell to do) – they seem to go in with a hundred possible plans, and that’s why they keep winning!


  2. gerard,

    this is the only blog i do read regularly (concerning cycling) and your opinions are clever, fresh and worth reading.

    thanks for sharing that with us.

    • Dan Connelly Says:

      I agree: Gerard’s blog is brilliant. It’s always refreshing when someone can strip away the accumulated dogma and analyze something using the observable facts. The conclusion may not always be correct, but by stirring up the sludge it forces a new look at old ideas.

    • Phil Foster Says:

      I agree. Not much different than basketball these days….last 2 mins

  3. dont buy the sun jft96 Says:

    the british team were far to strong for that to work, i think the other teams tried to cause chaos


    • It’s possible, but do you really think that with each Brit having to spend 30km at the front of the peloton, they can keep the pace high enough for no breaks to get away?

      • Mike S Says:

        That’s an interesting argument – 30km per man sounds simplistic but its not strictly true.

        The fact is that there were breaks out there and those breaks did not succeed.

        The difficult thing about breaks is establishing them. Take for example a peloton sitting on 45km/h. To establish a break of 30 seconds from such a peloton requires almost 5 minutes for a rider travelling at 50km/h. Now, assume that the threshold effort for most riders equates to between 45 and 50km/h on the flat. With this scenario a peloton only needs to have a small group of riders sitting on the front at a pace just below threshold ‘tapping out a hard rhythm’ and rotating regularly. For a break to escape they need to sit at or above threshold for long and unsustainable periods. This is exactly what we saw at Copenhagen. The GB squad simply needed to act as policemen. They allowed breaks to get away but not disappear over the horizon. Once a break has a couple of minutes on the field there is less incentive for new breaks to form. Its a combination of psychology and physics.

        We also need to consider just how close the GB squad’s plan came to failing. With 2km to go the GB train was swamped and Cavendish isolated.

        If you’d taken a snapshot at about 4.5km, shortly after Wiggins pulled off the front you’d have put the Australians and the Italians as being in better shape. In the top 20 or so were 7 Aussies, 6 Italians, 3 Spaniards and 4 Brits.

        At the final turn the stakes were pretty even with Cavendish in 10th.

        The surprising thing about Sunday, for me anyway, was that Cavendish won on an uphill sprint without a team lead-out. I didn’t reckon he was up for that.

        On a final note:
        1. given that he won by less than a wheel; how much did his helmet cover and skinsuit contribute? [I have no idea] and;
        2. would he still have won if GB had, as in 2010, qualified a team of 3 riders? [quite possibly]

  4. Giles Drake Says:

    In general snooze-ville… Modern cycling tactics become very predictable or “Safe”… Riders/Teams don’t attempt to alter the script until forced alterations have taken place. We only saw exciting racing at this years TdF due to some of the big boys losing time.

    Maybe it is an indication of a cleaner peloton or maybe the risks to the team are too great. I don’t know if sponsors would rather have the “record” state that one of their riders finishing 8th in a mountain top finish where the favourites ride to the top together through fear or he finished 30th after taking an all or nothing flyer off the front with 70km & 2 HC climbs to go before bonking spectacularly.


    • One thing I know for sure, it has nothing to do with the sponsors. It may have a tiny bit to do with what team managers think their sponsors want, but nothing with what the sponsors actually want.

      • wisey17 Says:

        That’s interesting to hear that from a sponsor. I guess I just assumed that the sponsor would want the riders to play it safe. I think the perceived problem is that if you create chaos, you are gambling. If it doesn’t pay off then you are left with nothing, but like you’ve already pointed out you are most likely going to end the day with nothing anyway. I wonder though, what the sponsor really does think about tactics? Gerard, if a rider got out there and made some mighty chaos, totally animated the race until 10km to go, got caught, then jumped clear again in a 5km to go suicide attack (just for the hell of it) then got summarily blown out the back of the peleton and finished 198th. Would you as sponsor be happy that said rider was on TV for 4 hours straight, had the commentators talking and joking about his antics, and possibly even won the most aggressive rider prize (if there was one)? When I say happy, I don’t mean in terms of ROI, as you have already discounted that value in a previous post.


        • Look at it this way. Head-on shots on TV are useless for virtually all sponsors. The logos are impossible to read (the Cervelo e on the shoulders excluded). Bike sponsors and jersey sponsors need side views, which you get when people light up the race and escape.

          I think most sponsors are in sports because they want to portray a dynamic image, so playing it safe doesn’t sound like a good match for that. Unless you’re an insurance company or a bank of course (and there are a lot of those in cycling, but even there I think they are in sports to CHANGE that stuffy image).

      • Giles Drake Says:

        Ahh sorry, yes… I didn’t put that across as intended… Not for a second would I say that sponsors are responsible for defensive riding in the peleton but the DS/Manager of a team worrying about presenting a sheet of results to a current or perspective sponsor trying to convince them they’re getting their moneys worth.


  5. I think Contador may have felt the same as you in Stage 19 of the TdF… one of the best stages ever. Didn’t exactly work out but he did get some respect from folks that don’t usually like him.


  6. If the World’s race was long, drawn out game of Prisoner’s Dilemma, the British team played the role of the police perfectly, while the other teams kept betraying their fellow prisoners by not attacking convincingly.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prisoner's_dilemma


  7. a team’s results or race tactics are influenced by the management and/or sportdirectors. I think the last public error of judgement occurred during roubaix a few years ago, with the Mapei debacle Musseuw Tafi Bortolami.

    In general I think the racing is mostly snoozeville. Director’s tend to take the soft option, when dictating which, when or how their riders react, and that includes whether they ‘settle for 2nd/3rd/4th’ rather than just stick the balls in the wind and race for it all.

    It’s something that reflects their own cautious approach, rather as Gerard says, the sponsors opinion.

    From a team seeking business partnership perspective, its easier to ‘sell’ a team that races, rather than a brand that follows the sheep with ‘that’ll do’ which many do.

    Look at the way teams market themselves : count how many pocket the euros then concentrate on the racing, rather than how they got the money in the first place.

    HTC Columbia being a classic example, in marketing.

  8. Andrew Says:

    Gerard, Nice article and perhaps chaos could have indeed been caused in the mens RR to great effect. But only by a radical tactical rethink by the team managers and an acceptance by the riders themselves for what they would be asked to do. If the italians, french or belgians had accepted that a sprint was not going to work for them then instead of having most of their riders finish the race way down in a bunch kick they could have burned out all but one or two of them by making them go on early attacks. High intensity attacks that were there to put pressure on the sprinters teams and by riders that had no view of ever finishing the race, but were just there to ride for 100, 150 or 200km and would use their energies accordingly. The Brits, Germans and Aussies would have been chasing all day at a much higher intensity whilst a Gilbert, Voeckler or Visconti could stay tucked in the wheels and then make a last lap effort that nobody else had the energy to follow.

  9. justacyclist Says:

    In writing this, “And with most teams having multiple captains” and hearing of Thor Hushovd’s complaints in this regard, suggest that you could provide some expanded commentary.

  10. Nigelf Says:

    Your not wrong or right – problem is getting enough other losers to disrupt the script with you at the same time.

    Teams always win – team of winners (Team GB) or team of losers who either get together adhoc or not.
    So, a TdF stage winner from a sucessful breakaway…is he actually just the first loser!…who won..?

    Ever tried selling the idea of winning to a group of losers?

    Other problem with losers is they tend to be or have team leaders. If they are the leaders, they think theyve already won as long as theyre in front of their team. If theyre not the leader, then theyve failed if they beat their leader (unless your in a team with anyone called Roche).

    Overall, your not right either – you cant really call any individual a loser, or individual. They are part of a team.

    So its the teams that lose – only a few will really consider being able to win, others will have other strategies or aims. Lesser teams will aim to shine or at least expose their sponsors names. Top teams will compete to win. In the middle they aim for top finishes, podiums or GC results on stage races. GT races attract other jersey comps as well as stage finishes.
    At this time of the year the individuals come out a bit more looking to show themselves for contract negotiation or new teams and the teams tend to let them do this more outside of a team role. Do we get better racing after the TdF? Nope.

    No matter how much the team matters, there always has to be one special rider, the one who can suffer the most, sprint the fastest, climb the quickest, outsmart the rest.

    Are you in a pack of losers not to be among these few good men? Or, are the only losers, the ones in this pack who dont win?

  11. Dexter Tao Says:

    For this blog, you have waaayyyy too much time on your hands! :D But, interesting nonetheless, esp. the responding comments. Thanks guys.


  12. In general, a DS is afraid of the team manager asking, “What were you doing out there?!” at the end of the day. To break out of the ordinary plan would require convincing eight fairly unimaginative cyclists to do something different, and not let the rest of the peloton figure it out for the first hundred miles – whatever it is.

    Cycling needs to have shorter, harder races. TV audiences don’t have the attention span for five-hour marathons of seventeen circuits of Copenhagen. Do three laps up the Muur (or equivalent) or one up Alpe d’Huez, or a point-to-point a la Paris-Roubaix – but again, keep it under three hours. IMO.


  13. As to most cyclists being losers, that’s true in all sports. It’s not if you lose, it’s when.

  14. Jack Mott Says:

    Sometimes the mind knows you need to get in a break but the legs say “I cannot”

  15. Chris Says:

    I think riders creating chaos makes for a more interesting race. Take Jens Voigt for instance, in Chasing Legends he talks about why he attacks. He says something along the lines of if he attacks there is like a 10% chance of winning, but if he doesn’t attack then there is 0% chance of winning – or something along those lines. And while he is past doper, his willingness to attack and create chaos is one of the reasons why I always have like Vino. The lack of of attacking or willingness to attack is one of the two reasons I am not a fan of the Garmin tactics or I suppose lack thereof. I still believe that had Thor been allowed to bridge the gap, even dragging Cancellera, that he would have beaten in him a sprint.

    As for the World’s yes very boring. I ended up watching the first hour and then fast forwarding to the last 25km.

  16. Toby Stanton Says:

    Hey Gerard,
    I agree. I have been on both sides of the fence. Sometimes we are the strongest, sometimes we are not but in both cases we try to create breaks that are non-standard. I can’t remember the last time we opted for a field sprint, even when I was fairly sure we would win. I read every one of your posts and enjoy your views. Glad you have time to write them.
    Cheers,

    Toby

  17. Andrew Says:

    Hey Gerard,
    Generally I agree with what your saying. And, who doesn’t love watching a race with chaos! This year’s Paris Roubaix comes to mind as a great example.
    In Copenhagen, the only person who left the script in their jersey too long so that it got all sweaty and unreadable was Clara Hughes. Maybe Voeckler too, but when the move is expected from him in the first place, is it chaos?
    I was at the race and remember thinking to myself “oh boy, GB is going to shit the bed here”. It’s fine to tap it out at 45km/h for a few hours, but at the end of those couple of hours when you’re on the last lap and the speed is up to 50km/h, you’re going to be pretty close to spent and sure enough, once Wiggins pulled the plug, GB was swamped and they completely disappeared. I suspect had they been riding for anyone other than Cav, they would have been lucky to get a top 10 with their tactics.
    The next question to bring up is how much do race radios play a part in creating the havoc? Have the riders become so used to having lots of info fed to them (and maybe even helpful suggestions as in “attack now!”) that without them (as in CPH) they just can’t remember how to race with the gut?
    Love your posts,

    Andrew

  18. Bill Says:

    I definitely agree with your analysis of “scripted” races. The TDF is extremely scripted and was scripted to the point of complete boredom for the audience during the Armstrong years. The greatest “chaos” creator, and of course the most feared competitor was Eddy himself. Next was Kelly and then The Badger. I think that with the right manager, the likes of Gilbert and Cancelara could wreak havoc in almost any race. Just like Merckx used to do. It’s all in the mind.

  19. Bill Says:

    Another thought Gerard. I believe very strongly that radio contact between rider and DS has been a large factor in creating these scripted races. TT are especially ruined by the rider knowing exactly what he or she needs to do to just stay below the time of the riders who started before them. That’s why it is such an advantage to start last. It’s no longer a race against the clock, based on sensations in the body, it’s now a race against the data. Either one’s own or the rider ahead. I say remove all technology from race bikes, at all times during a race. No power meters or computers.
    cheers
    Bill


    • Well, there were no radios at worlds. In general, if you look at the 2011 season where some races had radios and others didn’t, I don’t see any correlation between radios and “race quality” (admittedly a subjective measure). In fact, it seems to me that races with radios were better. I don’t have an explanation for that either, although it’s not completely unforeseen either as I wrote about it before: http://gerard.cc/2011/03/25/22/

      • wisey17 Says:

        Wiggins rode the TT without an earpiece, so no on-course feedback. He did ride with a power meter though, and rode to a pre-planned schedule. He argued that the time splits from other riders was more of a distraction than a help. I’m not convinced that it is the fault of radios for the boring racing. It seems that we are focusing on one factor among many and attributing causality to that factor alone. This particular column has highlighted another potential factor: The unwillingness of riders or directors (for undetermined reasons) to take risks in regard to winning/losing.

  20. Bob Says:

    Snooooooze!!!

    roubaix is the only big race this year that do not follow script…

    • Neil Says:

      If there are 20 teams in a race, each with their own “script”, then of course a race goes according to the script: the winning team’s! What about the 19 scripts that the race didn’t follow?

  21. Paddy Says:

    I enjoyed watching CTT as a small team punching above their weight in the peloton. I followed your blogs and have usually respected your views. However, since the amalgamation with Garmin and I am not sure what Cervelo stands for now. I cannot decide whether some of your comments like this are tongue in cheek to provoke comment or serious. I appreciate the invite to comment on your latest blog and I trust you will respect my views.

    I cringed at your comment on the 191 losers. I have worked with young people in various sports and encouraging them, that, to win well and in the spirit the competition is far more rewarding than to win at all costs or cheat. Getting that concept across is not easy. Your comment that all the non winners in a race are losers is a fast track way to encourage cheating and doping. When does a clever plan, looking for marginal gains turn into cheating? With the Olympics next year, can I remind you of the Olympic Creed.

    “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph, but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered, but to have fought well.”

    Those 191 ‘losers’ are among the top 250 riders in the world (taking into account team selection, injuries etc.). According to you, these ‘losers ‘ in Copenhagen where a joke, unprofessional because they rode with their road racing jerseys undone and were ill prepared. Those 191 riders prepared for, dressed for and rode a road race to win the individual road race title in the spirit of the race, . The 191 ‘losers’ where not a joke; it is a joke the so called ‘winner’ is now entitled to wear the rainbow jersey.

    So if any of the so called ‘191 losers’ read your blog, please carry on racing in the spirit of road racing because those tactics are impressive and are what the sport is really about.
    .
    I can imagine I will be ridiculed and insulted by some of the readers who comment on this blog for being out of touch, old fashioned and idealistic. But reading the comments I think there are a number of people like Chris, who appreciate real road racing.


    • Hi Paddy, thanks for your thoughtful comments. My use of the word losers was not meant in the societal/self-respect sense, but just in the concept of race results where the goal of the race is to win. I fully agree that you can personally grow (and therefore “win”) even when finishing last. You may have seen my comments in the past that with CTT, I really didn’t care about winning. That was meant in the same way, I didn’t care about having riders stand on the highest step of the podium. But I did care about “winning” in the sense of achieving the maximum possible and being happy with that, regardless of how that shows up on the score sheet.

      But thanks for pointing it out, I could have been more clear about that. BTW, since Charlie Sheen adopted the term “winning”, being a loser seems to be the way to go for any self-respecting human anyway.

    • Steve T Says:

      Paddy, why is Cavendish a ‘so-called winner’? He prepared for, dressed for and rode the race to win – and did so. He does so on many occasions throughout the year, and not always where people expect the course to suit him. I fail to see why that makes him unworthy of wearing the jersey, and I expect he will do the jersey proud next year by winning in it as often as possible.


  22. […] worlds. So naturally, a lot of the same logic applies, see in particular the piece “Cyclists are losers“, it’s worth another read in my humble […]


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