Archive for the 'bike racing' Category

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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World Championship bar height

September 27, 2011

Earlier this year I spoke about bike set-up, and how handlebars are being placed lower and lower these past half century. Of course evolution doesn’t go that fast, riders today are no more flexible than Merckx was. Rather than “regular” riders trying to get as low as some of today’s pros, it would be better for pros to go higher (like Merckx, not exactly a chopper in his hayday, was he)?

Of course this topic always leads to all sorts of macho nonsense like “slam that stem” and other (sometimes tongue-in-cheek) efforts to look “pro” when you’re not and remove any pleasure from riding a bike. This is not to say that a low position doesn’t work for some, only that people should look for their correct position, not their lowest position, and that in many cases – pro and “regular” – that correct position is higher than people often try to squeeze themselves into.

Recently, somebody commented that apparently I know Cancellara’s position is wrong and somebody should tell him. But it’s not a matter of his position being right or wrong, it’s about the bars being so low you lose the benefit of the drops. If a rider puts his hoods where his lowest comfortable and aero position is, then why not have flat bars?

Don’t take my word for it, just look at the photo and tell me if you see anything odd:

Fairly unorthodox sprint for Cancellara

World Championships men’s race

September 23, 2011

Yesterday we looked at the women’s race, now let’s look on the other side of the gender-fence.

First of all, what type of race will this be? Yes, the course is flat, and the level in men’s racing is very even, at least among the top 15 countries. Sounds like a recipe for a mass sprint, doesn’t it? I’m not so sure.

The problem is, if the whole groups stays together, Mark Cavendish wins the sprint. Maybe not every time, but at least 11 times out of 10. That logically means there is one team that should want a mass sprint, and the rest of the world doesn’t. And one team, even if it has Wiggins, Millar and Thomas, cannot keep a bunch together for 266km.

Of course, there’s one mechanism that can help Cavendish. You see, one of the attributes you must possess to become a pro cyclist is a huge belief in yourself, so even those with no chance whatsoever in a mass sprint will think they have a chance in a mass sprint. Even team managers con themselves into such thoughts – witness the 10 teams waiting for the final sprint on the Champs Elysees after being royally beaten by Cav on four previous stages.

Lets assume that sanity will prevail, and that all teams but one will work to break up the group. Which riders have a nose for the right group and can win a sprint when a few of the top sprinters are missing? Hushovd and Gilbert.

Much has been made of Hushovd’s non-selection for the Vuelta. The comments that followed were quite unfair I think (if you want I can write about that some other time), but the point for this race is that IT DOES NOT MATTER. As I saw in 2009 and 2010 at the Cervelo TestTeam, if Thor puts an X on his calendar, he is ready on that date. He can prepare in the Vuelta, the Tour of Britain, at home or in your local spinning class, it does not matter. Thor will be ready, and a ready and focused Thor can win anything. If Edvald Boasson Hagen is on form too, the Norwegians will have a formidable 1-2 punch that will be tough to control if the field is thinned out sufficiently.

In a way, Gilbert is a lot like Hushovd. Both have a great focus and a great sprint especially on slightly rising roads, although Gilbert seems to have a longer jump in him and get stronger as the road gets steeper. It’s tough to say how Copenhagen would work out, the finish is definitely uphill but not quite tailor-made for Gilbert (I should say that it is made for Gilbert but it’s at an incline that other sprinters on-form can also master, if it was 3% steeper Gilbert would be in a class of his own with no competition).

In a sense this race has a few levels. When the group is complete, only Great Britain and maybe the US (for Farrar) will try to keep it together. If it breaks up in smaller bits and Gilbert and Hushovd are in front, more countries will fancy their chances in a sprint against those two, especially if the Aussies have the right people up-front. That means there is a better chance of such a group making it to the finish. If the group on the front becomes too small, too many behind have their own agenda and it will come back together.

Logically that means a first escape of non-contenders will go early, followed by a contendor group bridging up in the later stages. If that contender group has to work hard to stay ahead of for example Cavendish, Gilbert and others who fancy a sprint will need to use up their domestiques, opening up the possibilities for a small group to jump clear in the last few laps. And who knows, out of that may even come a last-lap solo effort, the tactics at Worlds usually become so complicated that riders turn into on-course spectators who forget to pedal.

That’s what makes the World Championships the best race of the season. National teams, trade team ties and the ultimate skill of “finishing everybody else’s plate before starting your own” means that even with a boring course, the race can prove anything but. Especially when the weather turns foul.


World Championships Women’s race

September 22, 2011

In cycling as in investing, successes from the past are no guarantee for the future. But they aren’t completely meaningless either. So what do the performances of the past few weeks tell us for this weekend? Since few media ever bother to preview the women’s race, I thought I’d do that first. So today the women’s race, tomorrow the men’s.

First off, since many of the top women road racers also do the time trial (much more so than on the men’s side), Tuesday’s TT tells us quite a bit. Arndt was superstrong, and likely will be able to translate that to the road race. That could see her in a small break and if everything is still together, the Germans have a super-impressive lead-out for Ina Yoko Teutenberg (they also have for example Charlotte Becker for that). Since Teutenberg, Becker and Arndt have ridden together the entire season at HTC, not just in the national team, this is a difficult nut to crack.

One country that could possibly break the German dominance is Great Britain. Emma Pooley’s third place finish at the TT has not gotten the credit it deserves, as given the circumstances (dead flat, strong winds) it was the stand-out performance of the day. Many may view the defending champion finishing third as a disappointment, but when Marianne Vos complains that she was too light to perform on that course in that wind and Emma, who was the smallest contender in the TT by a country mile, finishes third, that’s a good indication she’s on form. Add to that her win in the Tour de l’Ardeche and it’s clear she’s ready.

Expect Emma to place one of her trademark solo attacks. And while the other teams work to bring her back, fast finishers Nicole Cooke and Lizzie Armistead can relax. The Germans may have trouble controlling the race if Nicole Cooke is on form and tries something in the closing kilometers, especially if the field is thinned out considerably by then. But how well Cooke’s form is is anybody’s guess.

The Americans disappointed on the TT, which after the bickering about who should be allowed to race was hardly a surprise. It’s hard to see how they can do better in the road race, as team work will be extremely important on this course. Their continent-counterparts from Canada performed extremely well in the TT, but both Whitten and Hughes are true TT specialists (not surprising given their backgrounds of track cycling and speed skating).

But don’t forget that Clara Hughes was a very successful cyclist BEFORE she was a very successful speed skater. She already medalled at the Atlanta Olympics. The only person Clara can outsprint is probably Andy Schleck, so she’ll need to think of something special. On this course, that may be a long shot.

On the other end of the fast-twitch-fiber-spectrum we have Italy. With Bronzini as their top sprinter and young Elena Cecchini quickly climbing the ranks, they could spell trouble for Teutenberg and Armistead. Whether they will ride as a team is the perennial question. Emilia Fahlin is also among the faster finishers, plus she has good endurance and TT skills. She could launch an attach with 50, 5 or 0.5k to go, or rely on her sprint. She’s won stages in the Tour de l’Ardeche recently, so she’s definitely on form.

The great thing about women’s cycling is its unpredictability. Above we have a dozen or so contenders, and we haven’t even discussed the woman who has won everything this year: Marianne Vos (everything except that TT on Tuesday of course). Vos has finished second in the World Championship Road Race for the past four years. Imagine that, Silver four years in a row.

She definitely doesn’t want to win another Silver, and somehow I doubt taking the Bronze is the solution she came up with. So expect a very motivated Vos. Maybe the season is too long, maybe the TT indicated she’s not on top form, but only a fool would write her off. Like Fahlin, she can win any which way she wants, but unlike Fahlin, she’s done so many, many times at the absolute highest level of the sport.

While everybody may be watching Vos’ orange jersey, it’s the orange of VanVleuten that should not be ignored. She’s really broken through this year and proven she is a force to be reckoned with in the one-day races. Fahlin also has a countrywoman to be reckoned with in Emma Johansson (thanks to @Campy007 for pointing out my failure to mention her).

Even if you don’t normally follow cycling, pick your favorite and watch it. This course in Copenhagen may very well make for a better women’s than men’s race. And with most countries having two contenders with very different skills, the tactics are bound to become a difficult puzzle to solve.

Trait 8 of champions

September 9, 2011

I’m merged out for the moment. And although there are plenty of other cycling dignitaries making outrageous comments which deserve some scrutiny this week, I decided instead to end the week on a high-note. So here we go, trait 8 of champions from my good friend Toby Stanton (@Hottubes):

Consistency: Champions seem to demonstrate a great deal of consistency, both in temperament and performance.

HighRoad lessons learned

August 5, 2011

I wanted to write a blog about the demise of HighRoad, but it’s too depressing. Whatever you may think of Bob Stapleton (and certainly I have some positive and some negative thoughts), I’ll remind you of two things:

  1. He was and is a huge supporter of women’s cycling. Even now that the team will fold, he’ll find a way to keep the women’s program going. I’m sure of it.
  2. He took a team that had become a mess in the public eye and turned it into an exciting team with lots of antics on the road and very few off it.
Maybe next week I’ll muster the energy to go into the lessons learned. For now, I hope you all enjoy a good ride on the weekend.

Trait 7 of champions

August 3, 2011

Self-direction: This does not mean the champion is self-coached or self-centered, but rather that the champion knows where he or she is going and will use the best available means at their disposal to achieve that end.

Trait 6 of champions

August 1, 2011

Patience: Part of being a champion is the realization that patience is an integral part of success. Patience is not just a trait, it is a tool that a champion uses to a definite advantage.

Trait 5 of champions

July 28, 2011

Not afraid to fail: To a degree, we are all afraid to fail. The champion seems to be willing to risk it in spite of the possibility of catastrophe.

The glue

July 25, 2011

As you can deduct from my post about handlebar width, the real question should not be about bar width, but rather about the position of your arms. The two best pieces of advice I can give come courtesy of two great riders, both rather underestimated. In my story remembering Xavier Tondo, I talked about some riders being stars and some riders being the glue. These two guys are also the glue.

Aside from being great people to have “in the locker room”, I believe there is also something else about these types of athletes. They are observers. As students of human relations, they understand how to bring out the best of people. Oftentimes they keep the mood light when the pressure is on, sometimes they provide a much-needed kick in the butt, but always they have the betterment of the team in mind.

As observers, their study doesn’t stop with the human relations. Xavier and these two guys are also scolars of cycling technology, tactics and/or technique. You may have heard how Xavier worked in a bike shop for many years while he was a pro rider, because he loved the equipment (and he liked to help out a friend who owned the store).

As a result, these are the guys we can learn from. Never trust the advice of a supremely gifted athlete, for he has never had to study the game. Go to the one who always had to work his butt off, for you can be sure he has looked everywhere for the tiniest little edge to raise the game. You see the same in many other sports, the best football coaches were often mediocre players (Mourinho, Hiddink, etc) whereas the superstar players usually fail on the bench (Maradona, the entire Dutch national team of 1988 except for Frank de Boer).

Sorry, I got sidetracked. I’ll leave the two pointers for tomorrow.

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