Archive for the 'bike racing' Category

Trait 9 of champions

July 16, 2012

I promised to several people I would finish this series of 11 Traits of champtions (see them all here), so here we go with number 9. Thanks again to Toby Stanton (@hottubes on twitter) for these:

Inward focus: The really great champions seem unconcerned about whom they are competing against. The riders in a particular event only provide a standard by which they will apply and measure themselves. The champion competes against their own abilities and limitations. The champion does not look outward, blaming others for a loss, but rather inward to those areas that can be improved for the future.

Still two more traits of champions to come in the next few weeks, so if you don’t want to miss them, subscribe to this blog here.

5 answers to: “Is the Tour boring?

July 13, 2012

The always excellen Inner Ring posted a story with this title. I have five answers:

  1. Yes, it is boring. At least usually. Remember the Indurain years? A month of magazines explaining why this year, Bugno, Chiapucci or Rominger would challenge for the win. Then the start, one week of sprints, a time trial, and the race was over. Or the Lance years? A month of magazines explaining why this year, Zuelle, Ullrich or Beloki would challenge for the win. Then the start, one week of sprints, a time trial, and the race was over. Sometimes that first time trial was instead the first up-hill finish, and one year the race was even exciting until the last weekend. I think.
  2. No, this is cycling. It’s hard to create a course that keeps the GC up for grabs until the last days. Sometimes a race organizer is lucky, often they’re not. Somehow the Giro seems to be decided later than the Tour, at least in recent history (and by later I mean towards the end of the three weeks of racing, not 18 months later once CAS has ruled). So the course has something to do with it, but as they say, “the riders make the race”.
  3. That said, if it is difficult to keep GC interesting, it should be possible to make the stage wins exciting. Flat stages with predictable sprint finishes are part of the race, but we don’t need 10. I’m sure race organizers started adding uphill finishes to the flat stages to prevent Cavendish from winning everything, but of course the problem is that Gilbert (last year) or Sagan (this year) win all of those. I think the best stages in the first week would have a 3rd or 4th category climb at 5-10km from the finish. It makes it hard to calculate catching the early escape, it allows some riders to jump away and maybe stay away, it will allow some sprinters but not others to pace themselves over the top and catch back on.
  4. Focus on the other classifications. Especially the best climber classification, it rarely provides the entertainment it should. I would really like to see time bonuses at the top of each climb, so the favorites are forced to sprint at the top of each climb. That would shake things up, reveal weaknesses earlier in the stages and maybe entice some riders to stretch their sprints out on the way down and create some opportunities.
  5. Change how the race is broadcasted. Nowadays, when the broadcast starts, we see a couple of riders “who were allowed to ride away”. Usually nothing could be further from the truth, getting into the break is incredibly hard work and very exciting to watch. Those who saw the stage to Lourdes last year will remember that Hesjedal was all out for the better part of an hour, one break after another, never gaining more than 15 seconds, until finally the break stuck. It would be much better to show the first (tape-delayed) and the last hour of a race, rather than the final two hours.

Skybotics

July 4, 2012

The approach displayed by Sky and Wiggins in the run-up to the Tour has been the target of much criticism. Too calculated, too robotic, etc. And to be sure, Sky’s approach of “marginal gains” involves leaving no stone unturned. But to pooh-pooh the approach and say Wiggins is boring and should be attacking in the mountains as if he’s a Colombian climber is misplaced.

Let’s first look at the race strategy of having your teammates set a steady pace while you follow. Maybe it’s not as exciting as attacking the climbs and trying to drop everybody, but that’s not Wiggins’ fault. It’s quite simple, the climbers yo-yo up  the climbs with one main objective; to crack riders like Wiggins.

So it would be rather dumb to ask of Wiggins to crack himself. He, like Evans, is at his best when he rides a steady pace. Maybe that’s “boring”, but it’s how he makes the most of his abilities and to do anything else makes no sense.

Looking at Sky’s approach as a whole, much has been made of their preparation, their incessant testing and their team of coaches, psychologists, course investigators and tire sniffers. But I would make two comments on that:

  1. It’s not that different from the approach that several teams take.
  2. If you had an ex-pursuiter as your main ace to win the Tour, what approach would you take? Just wing it, or try to control everything you can? Preparing a rider for the Tour is not about what “the best absolute approach” is. Rather, it’s about what the best approach for a specific rider is. And for Wiggins, it is very well possible that he derives comfort and confidence from a very structured approach. Does this mean Wiggins will win? No, but it probably means he’s got a better chance this way than by just winging it.

That said, I think these over-structured approaches do backfire spectacularly from time to time, as the structure can also drive somebody crazy. And of course, when you try to do things a bit differently (or at least talk about them more than other teams), you’re bound to be criticized.

It also means that when it goes wrong, we’ll certainly see a lot of ridicule (“that aero helmet didn’t save him from crashing into that cow”). Sky knows like no other that you cannot control everything (just think back 12 months), but should you therefore give up on controlling anything? Given the rider they have, I think the answer is no.

Annual kiss-of-death Tour predictions

June 30, 2012

As many a rider can attest to, if I predict you’ll do well, you’re already with one foot in the ambulance. So I apologize in advance to anybody mentioned here.

Wiggins is the favorite to win this Tour in many reviews. That in itself is a stunning development. We’re talking about a rider who has been very strong this season, who is among the best in the TT and is difficult to drop in the mountains when he’s on form. And the course certainly favors the time trialers.

But he’s also a guy who has never finished on the podium at the Tour, and who in his last Grand Tour (2011 Vuelta) wasn’t even the top Sky rider on GC or in the time trials! It’s not that I disagree with him being one of the favorites, and he has been impressive in the Dauphiné, but I’m amazed how he’s been thrust in the absolute favorite role over:

Cadel Evans. Maybe Cadel hasn’t had a spectacular run-up to the Tour, but it’s been solid. When he’s on-form, he can time trial with the best of them, also on the last weekend of a 3-week race (something Wiggins hasn’t shown to the same degree). In reality, he’s not that different a rider from Wiggins (when it comes to TT strength and steady climbing), and he’s got the experience of a Tour win and several Grand Tour podium finishes to back it up.

What’s more, I think Evans is one of the few riders in the modern peloton who has a keen tactical eye. He doesn’t need to wait for somebody to talk into his ear, he can spot opportunities and more than that, he’s willing to take them when they appear. That can really make the difference in Grand Tours nowadays.

Instead of burning through all your helpers in the lead-up to the final climbs, after which it is a fairly predictable mand-to-man combat between the leaders anyway, modern Grand Tours see a lot of activity on the descents and other unexpected moments. Quick math of who is gone and how to respond is paramount then, especially for those who are short on teammates. You saw this almost go spectacularly wrong at the Giro this year when De Gendt attacked towards the Stelvio.

Also note that when it really matters, everybody will be short of teammates. As impressive as Team Sky was in the Giro and Dauphiné, when the big boys start riding there won’t be 5 Sky riders hanging on.

So how about Hesjedal with his new-found confidence. Can he be the first rider since Pantani to do the Giro-Tour double? I don’t see why not, I completely believe it’s still possible to win the double. Last year Contador tried and failed, but there was so much going on with him, it’s hard to draw a definite conclusion from it.

I am afraid that Hesjedal will fall a little bit short compared to Wiggins and Evans overall, and also compared to a few others in the mountains, but confidence is a powerful drug. If he pulls this off, and with the World Championships on the Cauberg (where Hesjedal once finished second at the Amstel-Gold Race), Stephen Roche and Eddy Merckx could even get company as triple crown winners!

But as we now know, all of the above is nonsense. Trek has unveiled a new Madone that saves 2min per hour, so that’s around 3 hours saved over the entire Tour. I know Frank Schleck says he’s not a contender, but that’s a nice buffer I would think. So my final prediction is Frank Schleck as the winner of the 2012 Tour, with a 2 hour advantage over the rest of the field.

7 thoughts on Flanders

April 2, 2012

After the first edition of the “new and improved” Tour of Flanders, what is the verdict. Seven thoughts dominate for me:

  1. I’m not against experiments, and I commend the organizers for having the balls to try something new
  2. Yesterday, I never had the feeling I was watching the Tour of Flanders. It could have been any race, and at the end of it I didn’t feel that “wow, Boonen has just won the Tour of Flanders!” My feelings were more similar to a week ago, as if he’d won Gent-Wevelgem or the E3 Prijs.
  3. You’d think that by doing the Paterberg and Oude Kwaremont three times, they become more important. But they weren’t. In the old version, it’s where the race started. There was always enormous participation about who is in front, how the road surface will be, etc. Now they had a trial run where it was still too early to do anything, and then a second and third run where you thought “hey, I’ve seen this before”.
  4. I felt real phantom pain for the Muur with about 40k to go. Of course the Muur was always much later in the race than that, but that’s where the anticipation would normally start. And I think people underestimate how much the Bosberg added to the original course, it’s not as steep and better paved than most of the others, but anybody who has ridden it knows it’s a terrible climb that late in the race. It often provided that wonderful tension of “can they still bridge up” and that was missing in this new format. Yesterday it was “out of sight, out of mind and out of the results list”.
  5. If you’re going to climb the Paterberg and the Oude Kwaremont three times each, wouldn’t it make sense to put 20 fixed cameras on those climbs and the 500m after so we can really see close-up what is happening? As it stood, the coverage was mediocre.
  6. Would it be possible to find a more depressing finishing straight? Seeing them ride that last kilometer there was only one positive thought popping into my head: “Thank goodness I don’t live there”. The old finishing straight wasn’t exactly in the most pitoresque spot in Flanders either, but this was rubbish.
  7. What was wrong with the original course again? If it was only about the money for the finishing town, that would be sad. If it was about creating a better venue for the VIPs, I’d think they’d rather see a good race once than a mediocre one thrice. The old course was pretty darn perfect, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that yesterday wasn’t as good.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below and subscribe to the blog for future posts.

5-point Vos preview

March 31, 2012

I was going to write a Spring Classics preview but let’s be honest, it’s all about Vos. She can win every race every which way (although luckily not every race every time every year, so it does keep things interesting. But as long as it’s not a road world championships, betting against Vos is like hoping for disgraced CEOs to forego their golden parachutes. Five unlikes for Vos at Flanders (not to be confused with dislikes):

  1. Unlike Cancellara, she doesn’t really have any weak spot. She can climb, time trial and sprint (second at last year’s World Championship sprintfest).
  2. Unlike Cancellara, she has team mates who can (and do) also win in these type of races.
  3. Unlike most other bike races, Flanders understands the value of women’s cycling and also understands how to integrate a women’s race into the overall program. So the spectators are in for a treat.
  4. Unlike Cancellara, Vos seems to be a mere mortal. It’s just been announced she’s sick and therefore out of Flanders for tomorrow. All bets are off, but my sentimental favorite is Lizzie Armitstead.
  5. Unlikely winner could be Sara Duester, who is taking over the leader’s role from Vos for Rabobank. She is a great rider (and a great person), although she does not always like dealing with pressure. Maybe the way she just became the team leader is a blessing for her.

Of course with Vos out of Flanders, her focus will shift to the next races. And with her talents, there’s still so much to choose from.

5-point Cancellara preview

March 31, 2012

I was going to write a Spring Classics preview but let’s be honest, it’s all about Cancellara. He is the best rider by far, and can win every weekend of April: Flanders, Roubaix, Amstel Gold and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. Things to consider:

  1. Unlike the races so far, his only “weak spot”, the sprint, won’t hinder him as much in these races.  By the way, he’s actually quite a good sprinter, note also his fourth place finish at the World Championship sprintfest last year. And at the end of a race as hard as those four above, he’s a force to be reckoned with when sprinting against anyone.
  2. The courses suit his strengths much better. If he is “on”, I don’t see people stay with him on the repeated climbs of the final stretch of Flanders, also not the much touted Boonen. If you’re in the same group as Cancellara with 30k to go, you will lose. He will take 10m on the climb, and good luck closing that gap. Same story in Roubaix, just replace “climb” with “pavé”. Last year Hushovd could match him stroke by stroke, but who can this year?
  3. Many people may not associate Cancellara with Amstel or LBL, but they should. Amstel is the perfect race for him to jump on the second-to-last climb, and if he starts the Cauberg with 10-15s, you won’t see him back until the podium. Then finally we have LBL, which may suit his strengths even better. LBL is a unique race in that up to a dozen riders may have a shot at the win with 2k to go, nothing separating them for the first 250k+ of the race. But then in that last stretch uphill, which isn’t even an official climb but more a false flat, the lights go out for almost everybody. That long drag up is ideal for Cancellara, and I don’t know who could follow him.
  4. Of course, in the past it has been difficult for Cancellara to remain in top form past Roubaix, but he seems leaner this year and I wouldn’t be surprised if Amstel and LBL are real goals for him this year. There is no doubt he wants to win all the Classics at some point in his career, he’s got the first 3 of the year in his pocket already, so it’s slowly time to look at number 4 and 5.
  5. In my eyes, the best chance to beat Cancellara is with long breakaways full of 2nd and 3rd team leaders. Leopard doesn’t have any of those, it’s Cancellara or nothing. If a group of 20 riders takes 10 minutes and the team leaders are willing to give the glory to their luitenants, I’m not sure how Cancellara would get back into the race. Luckily for him, Boonen c.s. seem pretty confident in their own form, which should be a boon for Cancellara. If they really feared him, like many did last year, they would concentrate on how to beat him (let’s not get into the discussion about “negative racing again”). But this year, many riders (mistakenly) feel they are on equal footing, just what Cancellara needs. All the other teams will set up the race as a battle between the team leaders, and then he can dominate.

In the end, the only man capable of Cancellara may be Cancellara himself, like he did last year at Flanders or if he loses interest before Amstel and LBL. Let the races begin!

Your bag of tools

March 22, 2012

What’s today’s obsession with  “racing negatively”, “stealing the win”, “not showing heart” and other such comments? These statements usually involve a race where Cancellara finishes 2nd or 3rd, and the gist of it is that Cancellara rode his heart out, others sat on his wheel and he got beaten. I say utter nonsense.

You’re at the start of the race, you have a bag of tools and you need to figure out how to get to the finish first. Not everybody has the same bag of tools, so judging other riders by how similarly they ride to Cancellara makes no sense to me.

Let’s put it some other way, say Cancellara challenges you to a 100k ride you will be judged you on how you finish and your “heart”. So what do you do? As Cancellara takes off and winds up to 50kmh, you catch his wheel (if you’re lucky). Good for you, but of course you’re just a wheel sucker now, you’re showing no “heart”. So what do you do? In the first few k, do you take equal turns to show “heart” (assuming you can even get past him), only to blow up and be reduced to a sad little pile of pain by the side of the road? Or do you hang on to his wheel for dear life for as long as you can, and then ride the rest by yourself? I would suggest the latter, it’s not only the best way to achieve the best finishing result, it’s also the best way not to make a total fool of yourself.

While Gerrans and Nibali are no amateurs, they don’t have the bag of tools that Cancellara does either. They can’t show “heart” the way Cancellara does because they don’t have his “legs”. It seems unfair to me to deny riders the opportunity to show heart by making the “heart” test something only Cancellara can pass. Instead I would suggest you can show “heart” in many ways, by trying to keep up with a descending Cancellara even though you don’t have the same descending skills for example.

But enough about the heart, the worse one for me is “stealing the win”. Other than through cheating (as in breaking the agreed upon rules), there is no such thing. All 200 riders starting in Milan knew the rules, and knew where the finish was. They agreed that whoever got their first would be crowned the winner. They agreed you could ride in packs, in small groups, solo, anything goes. They specifically didn’t make a rule that forced you to do a certain percentage of the work when you were in a group, or that you can’t work on behalf of a teammate, or anything like that. They all agreed to that, set off, covered the whole distance and in the end Gerrans crossed the finish line first. End of story.

OK, one more thing, and I’ve written about this one at more length before. When a rouleur and a sprinter are in a breakaway, they both understand the rules of the game. The rouleur has to try to drop the sprinter, and the sprinter has to try to prevent that. Who ever succeeds wins, unless the rouleur generates an upset sprint (Vanmarcke over Boonen in the Omloop). The rouleur understands the sprinter won’t do much work, both because he doesn’t have the engine and because it makes him vulnerable for a jump from behind by the rouleur. It seems it is often the rouleur’s fans who don’t see it that way. Don’t get me wrong, I love watching the rouleur too, but I won’t fault the sprinter for playing to his own strength.

Don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone

March 19, 2012

Dear Milan-SanRemo organizers,

Please don’t screw around with your beautiful race! After one of the most thrilling bike races in a long time this past saturday, it’s disheartening to read that you’re not happy with the result. So you wanted “the strongest” one to win or even better, an Italian with Nibali. A few thoughts:

  • If the strongest rider DID always win, we wouldn’t watch the race anymore, because it would be, let me look for the technical term here; BORING!
  • You can’t device a route where Nibali has a chance of winning. Actually, you can, but it would have to go to North from Milan instead of West, go around Lake Como, cross the Ghisallo. And it would have to be held in the fall.  Oh wait, you already organize such a race. It’s called the Giro di Lombardia.
  • Aside from that, cycling isn’t about being the strongest anyway, we have stuff like this for people who love that sort of thing. Cycling is about strength, endurance, tactics and bluff. As Hennie Kuiper said so perfectly, it’s about finishing off everybody else’s plate before starting your own. Gerrans did that beautifully, not because he’s an asshole but because that’s the only way he could win.
  • People who say Gerrans should have taken a few pulls should go work for the United Nations, not watch sports. If Gerrans and Cancellara both have “lactate acid coming out of their ears” (as Cancellara put it), Cancellara will win the sprint. Gerrans’ best bet was to make sure only Cancellara’s ears suffered from this infliction. Gerrans analyzed what his highest percentage play was, executed and won.
  • So are people really saying Gerrans should have fatigued himself to the point where he would have lost? How does that make sense? Or are they suggesting a few fake pulls for the camera, which not only would have been lame but could actually have gotten them caught, as the pace will drop whenever Cancellara is not at the front. Not only should these people not watch sports, they shouldn’t be a coach either. “OK guys, listen up, I’ve devised a strategy to reduce our winning chances, but the twitter comments will be awesome!”

The bottomline is that Milan-SanRemo is one of the most perfectly balanced races on the calendar. Unlike virtually every other race, it has a near perfect split between mass sprint and small group/solo victor. In other words, throughout the race, in fact usually until the last meters, we have no idea who will win the race, we don’t even know what type of ending we’ll get. How is that not awesome?

And even if for some reason you don’t think that’s awesome and you want something else, how will the suggested solutions solve anything?

  • There are suggestions to end the race immediately at the bottom to prevent people from coming back from behind. Aside from the fact that that would take a lot of the suspense out, how would it change anything? Gerrans still would have beaten Cancellara and Nibali.
  • Some say they should climb the Poggio twice, pointing to Nibali’s jump to prove that climbing the Poggio just once isn’t enough to make a difference. Shouldn’t the conclusion be that Nibali’s simply wasn’t good enough? You could have done five laps of the Poggio, he wasn’t going to drop Cancellara or Gerrans. In fact, he was the one who almost got dropped the only time up.

Don’t get me wrong, I too am disappointed that Gerrans won, but not because of the tactics.

Sincerely,

Gerard, cycling fan

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.

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