A sprint royale today in Tirreno-Adriatico with Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and André Greipel only IAM Cycling’s Matteo Pelucchi won and Arnaud Démare was second. Still it was an exciting race and if we know Kittel bounced out and bounced his bike, what else happened is relatively unknown. Where did Pelucchi come from? Who led him out? We know the winner but with the sprints there more are questions that can probably only be solved by finding the race on Youtube or another site because sprint analysis is rare. In fact cycling rarely gets the data, metrics and analytics that other sports get.
Play word association with sprint and as well as naming fast riders, many will pick words like “final straight”, “last kilometre” or even “200m to go”. But if this is the obvious culmination of the sprint it’s part of chain of events that started long ago in the race.
“It was really racing from, like, 30 or 40km out”
Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) speaking to the Humans Invent podcast
Everyone who has ridden a bike a few times will know the feeling of speed and most will know about burning legs after going “too fast”. But one aspect that can be harder to relate is the fight for space in the bunch, an athletic alleycat contest where fitness and nerves are tested. The French use the term frotter meaning “to rub” but there’s no single term or verb in English to describe it, think rubbing shoulders or touching wheels instead. We might see examples of this from time to time on TV especially during the final moments of a bunch sprint but instead it’s often happening with half an hour or more to go.
Why? It’s a vicious cycle. Riders know they need to be in position for the finish because when the bunch is travelling so fast it can be hard to move up. But because riders know this they all try to ride at the front only there is not much room. So the pace goes up and so on. We see the collateral damage with riders regularly falling or being “flicked” into the ditch. These accidents are not the result of a sharp bend or a pothole, they often happen on a straight section of road. Instead it’s simply riders crowding the space, of peloton density.
One problem for appreciating sprints is we simply don’t get the chance to see what is going on. Most TV coverage is formulaic, the riders cross the line and the following events happen:
- the victor is filmed coming to a stop and celebrating with team mates and colleagues
- we get a replay of the last 20 seconds, perhaps in slow motion
- pan to a helicopter shot of the finish to display the top 10 graphic
- an interview with the winner who says how happy he is and thanks the team and sponsors
- “that’s all folks” as the commentators say goodbye
And that’s about it. If we’re lucky the final kilometre will get a few replays, perhaps with two angles, one from the helicopter shot and one from the finish. But analysis is rare, the kind of graphics, data and tracking in other sports and other countries is rare. There are two potential causes here:
First is the innate conservatism of host broadcasters like France Télévisions and RAI who across all sports prefer a simpler form of coverage to the style you might get in English-speaking coverage. Analysis is rare, for example in France a break, say half time in rugby or a break in tennis means adverts, nobody is doing replays with touchscreen pens to outline player moves or analysing game data. Sport is sold as emotion and passion, not analysis.
Second even if these conservative broadcasters were to adopt modern analytics, the audience might not be waiting. You and I as cycling fans are a small subset of the audience. According to market research the largest segment of the TV audience for the Tour de France is tuning in to watch the scenery rather than the race. Those of us who want race commentary are outvoted by those wanting HD shots of valleys, chateaux and coastlines although these are still stunning scenes for cycling connoisseurs. And there’s the blunt fact that a TV channel like Eurosport is normally quick to cut to another sport once the race is finished, it believes viewers will drop off once the action is finished and pundits pontificate, 30 minutes of analysis cannot hold the audience to justify the airtime and bring in the adverts.
Maybe the two hypotheses are wrong. But if you want the analytics, it’s almost impossible. For example I’d love to have something that measured “peloton density” by scanning the road with, measuring the length of the bunch and the number of riders to calculate the number of riders per decametre or, N/dam2 or better still, to measure this count for the front of the bunch. Of course the human eye is a good guide and just watch a stage from the first week of the Tour de France or Paris-Roubaix peloton as it rumbles into Arenberg to see how tight the bunch is. This isn’t the only metric, just an example that could be used to measure something and with the healthy benefit that it’s obvious to viewers rather than VAM, watts and heart rates which bamboozle most viewers whilst leaving cyclists to argue amongst themselves. What other metrics are there? Well even the basics are missing, we’ve all see the “point-the-camera-at-the-motorbike-speedometre” shot in a bike race to suggest speed. But hang on, because if the imagery isn’t conveying the speed is a race in the 21st century is still reliant on the shaking needle on the dash of ageing motorbike as a proxy for rider speed?
Watching the Sochi Olympics I was impressed by the coverage of the downhill skiers. They’re doing over 100km/h but drone cameras and cable-mounted cameras were used to capture them in full flight. Can this be done in a bike race? It’s harder because of the peripatetic nature of a race but the answer is yes because the final stage of the Tour de France used a cable-mounted camera to capture the bunch on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. I understand this could be extended to other stages to ensure close ups on the bunch that neither a fixed camera or a helicopter can achieve.
As much as post-race analysis might be interesting, there’s something healthy about a sport that doesn’t dwell on what’s happened. Endless TV replays of a race incident are often reductive, think of the “clash” between Mark Cavendish and Tom Veelers in the Tour de France last year which, for me at least, was just an unfortunate accident. But the more it was replayed, the more it took on something akin to the “Two Minutes Hate” from George Orwell’s 1984, especially with a media keen to simplify rather than nuance. The result was Cavendish getting spayed with urine by a spectator in the following day’s time trial, something best left to the coin-throwers and flare-burning soccer fans.
The sprints are treated as a mere gallop for the line but they start from a long way out as tension rises in the peloton, something that TV rarely communicates and many viewers might not understand the stress during the final half an hour, thinking instead that sprint is merely about the final minutes or even seconds of the race.
As for the sprint we might get a replay and the top-10 on the day but our sport is woefully low on analytics. A sprint is taken as a high speed dash and nothing more, as if it was a random contest where a winner emerges but little else is seen.
To borrow from Gil Scott-Heron, every pedal revolution is not televised. There’s plenty to measure and discuss but cycling rarely has studio pundits to review the day’s action, talking heads able to relate events thanks to experience yet alone the data banks used by other sports. We’re still at the level of average speeds and motorbike clocks, at least in terms of TV coverage while the riders and teams have far greater analysis.