How self-confidence loses races

September 28, 2011

I alluded to this in my pre-Worlds write-up, but I was so amazed at how the race unfolded that I want to bring it up again.

First off, the Brits rode an incredible race and when Cavendish ended up in a lost position with 250m to go, he found the tiniest of gaps, went through it and became the deserving champion. They rode a great race, so did Ben King and the Belgiums. Unfortunately it’s tough to call it a great race when the other teams never participated, let’s say it was a great team time trial (maybe the other teams were confused because the team time trial is only a world championships event starting NEXT year).

Were the Brits so good that they kept the tempo high enough for 260k so that nobody could escape? I’ll stick with my original statement that that is impossible. If every rider spends 35k in the front, there is no way they can keep a tempo that prevents people from jumping away. Obviously they got some help from the Germans (and from Ben King) and they were able to take their rest during stretches where the pace “slowed”, enough so that in the last 60k they could dictate a blistering pace. Still very impressive, but why did the other teams allow that to happen?


For starters we have the first breakaway. Somehow when the first break of non-contenders is up the road, everybody follows the “group up the road” script. They grow their lead, it hovers around 5-8-10-15 minutes (whatever makes sense on that course), then their lead dwindles and when they’re almost caught the next adventurers try their luck. But the “group up the road” script gave the Brits a chance to conserve energy as the pace dropped, energy they put to good use in the last lap.

To their credit, the Belgians were the only ones who realized that the “group up the road” script – while standard – would not work be the best script for them and they sent two riders in a second group long before the first group was caught. But both groups were too small to really develop a pace that could rival the British time trial machine, so they never had to go too deep to stay within reach.

The second bit of psychology is the self-confidence abundantly present in sprinters. Ten riders fancy themselves bunch sprinters, and all ten figured they could win on Sunday. It doesn’t matter how often they’ve been beaten by Cavendish, because the selection process from 10 year-old boy to top sprinter ensures that all ten are convinced of their own capabilities. And so any glimmer of hope is used to convince oneself that Copenhagen will be different than the dozen recent losses they may have suffered against Cavendish.

And going forward, the same will continue. Goss will tell himself that if he had kept Haussler’s wheel, he would have won. Greipel will convince himself that with a better position, next year’s rainbow jersey would be XXL instead of XXS. Heck, Cancellara may have read yesterday’s blog comments and realize he would have won had he been in his drops or chopped them off!

Of course, none of this is true. Football used to be a game in which 11 play 11 with a round ball for 90 minutes and in the end, the Germans win. Likewise, flat courses give us races of 200 cyclists where 10 fancy their chances and in the end, Cavendish wins.

P.S. If Cavendish flats or he doesn’t find the gap, obviously this whole theory goes down the drain. But the reality is, he did find the gap and he rarely flats.

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15 Responses to “How self-confidence loses races”

  1. Donal Says:

    Also: Goss may be telling himself that if he’d jumped a second earlier, he’d have overhauled Cav, but in reality, wouldn’t Cav just have gone faster again? He often seems to do exactly enough to win.

    How easy is it for a national team – guys that don’t ride for each other very often – to execute *any* coherent racing strategy without team radios? Team GB were clearly pretty well drilled. Did any other team put so much prep into their campaign?

    • No, relative to the Brits, nobody else took these Worlds seriously. It’s really a joke when you compare them. Forget everything else, just focus on clothing. We have Cavendish in a skin suit and a more aero helmet sprinting against idiots with their jerseys zipped open. They should be ashamed to call themselves pro.

    • Anonymous Says:

      The Norwegian team showed up in Copenhagen with four riders and exactly 50% of the team wore the label “captain”
      The other half? Hushovd & EBH got to bring a teammate/training buddy/domestique each. I wish someone would’ve smacked some sense into National Team DS Steffen Kjærgaard a couple of weeks ago when he got the idea of sending two two man teams to the World Championships..
      On Monday Hushovd talked to Dagbladet, one of the largest newspapers in Norway: “If both Edvald and I had been there in the finale we would’ve looked at eachother and both of us would have said “I’ve got good legs” -Then what? Rock, paper, scissor wouldnt do much good at that point in the race”

  2. One of the most ‘telling’ comments afterwards, was when Goss was asked of his own result.
    He replied that he was ‘happy with 2nd place’ – which both puzzled & annoyed me.

    The team strategy ‘lets wait for a sprint’ because you never know….. was just dumb.
    He does not know how to beat Cavendish, or does anyone else..
    I accept that the GB team rode an outstanding plan, they knew that barring accidents, no one is faster than Cavendish, so the plan was to suit.
    Every other team simply ‘sleepwalked’ into the sprint finish, which no one other than Cavendish was going to win.

    Fabian Cancellara was my tip to win the race – i envisaged a last 3km or so attack (as in how he won Milan San Remo) but he sprinted with everyone else and got 3rd.
    I think he is worth a world road title at some point,

  3. Bob Says:

    Man, I disagreed with 75% of your blog, but I’m totally behind you in this!!!

  4. Pave Says:

    I was wondering if real confidence is exactly what the other sprinters are lacking. I’ve been starting to think that Cavendish is the Armstrong of our time (Lance, not Kristen). He wins races by showing up; he’s won psychologically before the first pedal stroke. When people are wondering “How do I beat Cavendish?” then they’ve already lost. I wonder if those slivers of doubt in an otherwise flawless display of confidence/arrogance doom them to follow Cav, to anticipate Cav, to ride their race around Cav, and not around the finish line.

  5. GB dominated the race, but rode a poor final k. Oz was really in the driver seat.

    Obviously the right side of the road was the correct side, at least 2 Oz riders pull the pack left, leaving the door open for Cav to save the day.

    If they had kept it pinned to the right side of the road, we’d be looking at a BIG year down under.

    • Damien Breen Says:

      I think Gerard’s assessment of the race is pretty spot on – although GB rode a fantastic race, and Wiggins did set a blistering pace during the last lap – they benefitted from no one seriously challenging them.

      Great Britain had targeted and planned for this race 3 years in advance – and it showed. The ‘marginal gains’ with skinsuits and covered helmets. And the selfless teamwork made Cavendish’s win all the more satisfying from a national pride perspective.

      The criticism that the final leadout fell apart, or that the GB team rode a poor final km is a bit misplaced. The priority was to ensure the race ended in a bunch finish and they put their resources into making this happen. Everyone knows Cav is not just a fast sprinter but a smart one too – he can jump onto other leadouts and find his way around a chaotic bunch finish. He proved this on Sunday.

  6. JT Says:

    Often Team Sky/British Cycling get criticised for having a plan instead of tactics but in this case it worked to their benefit.

    Seeing as the other Worlds road races had ended up as bunch sprints it’s even more surprising that the rest of the world let GB execute their plan perfectly.

    Can’t wait to see Cav at Paris-Tours – I’ll pay close attention the legality of his rainbow jersey!

  7. moskowe Says:

    This entry reminds me of the movie Hell on Wheels, where Zabel talks about how self-confidence is key for a sprinter. If you don’t believe that you’re the best, you’re never going to win a sprint.
    But at the same time sprinters tend to trust their own power far more than that of their teammates. Cavendish is smart enough to know that a decent leadout beats a good sprinter anytime.
    Second article I read and just as interesting as the first one…
    Although it’s the Brazilians that win all the time, not the germans.

  8. […] Psychology…. …… to read more from this article go to Gerard Vroomen’s blog […]

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