A Champion Almost Never Wins

Friday, 16 April 2010

Bike racing is a hard sport. A normal season will include its share of crashes, weather conditions that go from snow to sidewinds to searing heat, on road surfaces that include everything from cobbles to melting tarmac. All this whilst you gasp for air and your legs can burn with pain or are stunned numb from the effort.

Rouleur or roulette?

But what is the cyclist’s worst enemy? It’s not what you think: it’s probability.

Why you almost never win…
Cycling is a sport where you almost never win. It’s win, lose or draw in sports like football and other sports offer even more certainty, take tennis where the tie break ensures a binary outcome: a match ends with one winner and one loser. Everything else being equal, you have a 50% chance of winning. Easy!

Not so in cycling. With 200 riders on the start line, the probability of a win is 1 in 200, or 0.5%. Yes, the chances are not even amongst the riders. But even the favourites find the odds stacked against them. Take superstar Tom Boonen, he won seven races from 84 starts in 2009, one in twelve and he’s considered a champion. Fellow Belgian Philippe Gilbert had a great season too but he won even fewer times, “just” 7% of the races he rode. Or take World Champion Cadel Evans, at ease in one day races and Grand Tours alike. But his success rate is about 3%. A pregnant woman has a 3% chance of giving birth to twins.

Now before you leave comments saying all this is way too simplistic, I know. Personally I would have said that Cancellara had, say, a 25% chance of winning last Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix instead of 0.5%. And the other way around, one fifth of the field (38 out of 200 to be exact) on Sunday were French but you could replay the race five or ten times and I’m sure a Frenchman wouldn’t win. All trying here is to give some numbers so you can place things in context, after all this is bread and butter for a bookmaker. It throws up some interesting points, name me another sport where the World Champion is as likely to win as a women is likely to have twins?

It is a crushing thought to know that most riders will spend the season chasing an elusive win. As someone living in a French-speaking country, I feel the French frustration when they field so many riders but win so few races.

You don’t have to win
So is a bike race an exercise in futility, the triumph of hope over experience? I’d argue not. Cycling is a sport where if you don’t win, you can to find satisfaction elsewhere. Look how proud Team Sky were to have Juan-Antonio Flecha on the podium in Paris-Roubaix. Even training can be great. I race but enjoy training rides in a way that I would not enjoy practising for tennis or swimming in a pool, the variability of a ride in the hills is a reward and just look how many pros ‘tweet’ with pride about their training rides. Plus finishing in the top-10 can be satisfying, especially if it’s in a classic or the overall in a recognised stage race. You know you’re a contender and can plot ways to win.

Indeed at the pro level, every rider will have a job to do on the day. You might not win but you can set up your team leader, this way you maximise your team’s chance of success and when the “boss” wins, it can be as good as winning yourself.

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