On luck

History is written by the victors
– Winston Churchill

When a rider wins a race or a general is victorious in battle, it is often easy to ascribe physical supremacy and tactical brilliance. We align a series of facts from the day into a story, the narrative of victory becomes self-evident. Only what of luck?

Napoleon Bonaparte

It makes you wonder about the tales and statues of war heroes, just how brilliant and superior were they? Or was an unmentionable stroke of luck involved too? This isn’t necessarily cynicism on my part, the last man to durably conquer Europe was Napoleon Bonaparte. When asked whether he preferred courageous generals or brilliant generals he replied “neither, give me lucky generals“.

I’ve often wondered about this when it comes to sport too. Do we ascribe particular skills and talents to some athletes and teams when in actual fact, they just got lucky? Before you leap to the comments section, I am not suggesting you fluke a win at elite level nor, I stress, suggesting that victories in warfare occur without guts and courage. No, this is not to deny the hard work and skill involved. Instead, what I’m trying to explore is whether luck is a bigger deciding factor that we might currently think. Are our heroes all conquering or do they get a little bit of luck along the way too?

Take last Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix. I think this is one of the most random races on the calendar. Crashes, mechanicals and punctures seem more frequent than any other race but we now know Johan Vansummeren rode the best race, strong up front when it mattered and soloing in style. We reinforce this with the observation that team mate Thor Hushovd and the Garmin-Cervélo team were correct not to help Cancellara bridge across. After the line any doubters about Vansummeren are reminded that he has twice finished in the top-10 and that he is an invaluable workhorse, able to lay on the power for hours. It all makes perfect sense.

Only the race result could well have been very different. Tom Boonen’s jammed chain the Arenberg forest stands out. The video is painful to watch knowing he is seeing the race slip away. Had this not happened then a myriad of alternative race scenarios opens up, he might well have worked with Cancellara to get to the lead group or Sylvain Chavanel would been involved.

Similarly we can rewind to various points in the race and imagine many other alternatives: what if Ballan rode with Cancellara? What if Maarten Tjallingii got caught by Lars Bak and Gregory Rast and the trio got Vansummeren back? What if Vansummeren’s puncture went down faster?

To a large extent these “what ifs” are just speculation, they never happened and thus never will. But that doesn’t mean the actual chain events is linked together by moments of luck.

To a large extent being “pro” means stripping out the luck. Teams employ special bikes with sturdy tyres and chain catchers. Sections of road are videoed, ridden and re-ridden to exclude the random. Riders train to ensure they arrive in peak form, to know just how their body will respond. Some of race radio debate is because team owners don’t want their valuable “assets”, the riders, getting undone by a dropped chain or other unlucky events.

Is it unlucky to puncture?
A tricky topic. I think you can ride in a way to minimise punctures. Riders battle with team mechanics over tyre pressures. They can avoid the gutter and if they spot some glass, it helps to put the hand (with gloves) or even a water bottle on the tyre to clean off anything sticking in the tread. But despite these preventative measures, bad luck can strike.

Cancellara dice
Lucky seven

If teams work hard to avoid bad luck, some riders need extra help. Pre-race rituals and routines happen, from always putting, say, the right shoe on first or even saying a quiet prayer. Lucky charms are carried, Fabian Cancellara has a lucky number, seven, and his bikes sport dice showing this number and he doubles this with a small angel in his back pocket and the Swiss rider always turns the number 13 upside down. You can see the Swiss rider’s lucky tricks detailed over at the Pedal Dancer blog, plus other things such as the way Italians pass the salt.

Is it bunkum, irrational nonsense? Not necessarily, if these items give a rider an extra support and self-belief then they can work and some research backs this up.

Sometimes luck is a marginal factor but it can be a deciding one too. You don’t get to the front of a race by luck but after 258km of cobbled roads, the first 18 riders in Roubaix were separated by 47 seconds. Some will have thanked their lucky stars to crack the top-20; others will curse the misfortune to have passed by the chance of a podium. Some never made it to the finish because of bad luck; most didn’t make it because their legs weren’t there.

Indeed this is not particular to Paris-Roubaix, it happens all throughout the year. But I wanted to explore this idea in the light of one of the most random races on the calendar.

I do think it’s possible to build a narrative after the race that rationalises the victory, stripping away the “what if” conditionality until it is clear that the outcome of a race was in fact a logical conclusion. I’m not writing this to diminish Vansummeren’s win, in fact I celebrate the circumstances that combined to help him win. Few of us can imagine the pain in his legs or the torment in his mind as his back tyre was losing air, to repeat this was no freak result. But run the race 20 times and would he win every edition? Of course not.

If cycling became a pure test of brute force we might as well use stationery ergobikes with pre-programmed courses. The random element is what makes for drama and excitement. As much as riders and teams might want to stamp on it, surely we should embrace it.

17 thoughts on “On luck”

  1. Really really fantastic post. You hit the nail on the head with the essence of what can bring success in a sport with so many variables. You can train for hours, study races until you have a seamless tactical nous but at the end of the day luck rules all. You can only hope that it’s because of the hours of training and racing smart that the better teams and better riders are those who are in a greater position to exploit what chance throws their way.

    I defy any DS or rider who doesn’t thank lady luck amongst the bravado of what decisions, skills and actions led them to success.

  2. a fantastic read. they say you need to buy a ticket to win the lottery and that’s true, you make your luck but I think it’s common for people to play up their skills because they don’t want to admit things happen by chance.

    i work in medicine and “brilliant surgeons” are not necessarily more skilled, they can just have good manners and some post-operative good fortune.

  3. Luck is everything but also preparation so that chance of failure is diminished. Armstrong said last year he had ‘seven years of being the hammer’ when his luck ran out. If a car had got to Boonen quicker or a suitable bike then he may have been able to get back. For Andy Schleck, one instance of bad luck poss. cost him the TdF

  4. I echo what everyone has commented thus far. If one pays attention to detail whilst doing all the things that every other rider does on the way to being prepared for a race then in affect they’ve made their own luck. In essence they’ve put themselves in a situation where success is possible………luck is part of all that. The difference between the Crash 5’s and the Pros beyond the obvious is the margin of error.

  5. I agree and make the same argument in an extended feature on Paris-Roubaix published in Rouleur a couple of years ago.

    “Riders like Jacques Anquetil, ‘Monsieur Chrono’, and hour record-breaker Chris Boardman saw too much of a role for a chance in the race. The greater role of unexpected events, mechanical failures, punctures and pile-ups reduced the appeal of the race for men who liked to measure every pedal stroke and carefully ration out their power to achieve clinically precise victories. The great modern champions Indurain, Armstrong, Ullrich, Bugno and Basso chose never to risk themselves over the cobblestones. Francesco Moser saw things another way, explaining his third straight win: “I attacked every time I could and if you tell me I was lucky I would say that I went looking for it. That’s all.” Jacques Goddet, who witnessed more Paris-Roubaix than most, wrote in the editorial of L’Equipe that that “It needs the excesses of Paris-Roubaix for a champion like Francesco Moser to express himself completely.” There is luck and there is, as the saying goes, making your own luck.

    Can it be chance that so many riders have performed better and better with advancing years? Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle fell in love with the race when he finished second to Moser in 1980 but the Queen of the Classics left him standing at the altar for more than a decade. By 1992 he was 37 years old and must have thought it would never happen. But he won that year with a long and stylish solo breakaway, and again in 1993 in a photo finish becoming the oldest ever winner at 38 years and 8 months. According to former L’Equipe correspondent Philippe Bordas, French cycling stars fall in to two categories: the noble anarchist and the doughty and faithful ‘bad-luck guy’, perhaps reflecting two facets of the French self image. Two bad luck guys stand out above the rest: Eugène Christophe and Raymond Poulidor. Both contested L’Enfer du Nord into their forties.

    The role of chance in Paris-Roubaix presents a fundamental question about what it is that we are looking for in professional sport. Are we trying to create a pure measure of athletic performance, or should sport present us with exaggerated and compelling likenesses of real life, with all its pitfalls and imperfections? Chance and uncertainty are underestimated elements of human experience. Scientific method has sought to explain the unexplainable, to rationalise a world that is too complex for the human mind to fully comprehend. When Boardman said that Paris Roubaix was ‘a circus’ and he didn’t want to be ‘one of the clowns’, he couldn’t have been more wrong. In a circus everything is carefully planned, rehearsed but ultimately a deception. Paris Roubaix may be the last great folly of cycling but, just as in Shakespeare, a wise fool speaks the truth. Can it be any wonder that Jorgen Leth’s ‘A Sunday In Hell’ stands as the greatest ever film about a cycle racing? Putting to one side the revolutionary cinematography, the film chooses as its subject the sport’s most visceral, captivating, cliffhanging spectacle.”

    In the years since I wrote that it seems as though Cancellara has taken on the Moser role. I wonder if Fabian would ever have a tilt at the Athlete’s Hour? Probably not for a few more years.

  6. The question of luck is addressed very well in Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”, in which he analyses the cases of people such as Bill Gates, Mozart, and the Beatles. Some accuse him of oversimplifying, but I think his general ideas are correct. Basically, he says all of the people we think of as outliers got to that point with a substantial amount of preparation, and then were in the right place at the right time when the opportunity came along to make use of it. There are no undeserving winners of Paris-Roubaix, but all of them had to benefit from luck at some point. Anyone who made the top 18 at Roubaix this year could have won it under the right circumstances, and nobody was in that group who didn’t earn it. The same can be said of the final 12 in Flanders.

  7. Branch Rickey once said “luck is the residue of design”.

    and such the preparations undertaken at the PRO level of anything can make a triumph appear as luck. but luck won’t make you a better rider. preparation plus luck… now that’s the ticket.

  8. “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go oft awry.” ~ John Steinbeck

    Cyclists spend big money trying to control all outcomes: gear, route, nutrition, training, planning. But in the end we are all vulnerable to chance, to circumstances beyond our control. This is what the Pro is pro at – learning to come back, and have faith again, after bad luck visits. You are so right, whatever it takes to keep our minds off of the reality of luck is worth the comfort. Thanks for the link!

  9. I agree with Ken, this is really about risk and probability, Paris-Roubaix has more chances for random events and crashes than most, hence a more unpredicatable outcome. However looking at previous results most years sees one of the main favourites win. Every so often there is a surprise winner, e.g. Guesdon in 97, O’Grady in 07.

    I find Lance Armstrong’s 7 consecutive Tour victories as amazing given the possibilities of crashes, illness, etc both before and during the event. How close did he come to crashing out with Beloki on that tricky descent, history could have been very different.

    Interesting article.

  10. I think a good question would be, “what is luck?”

    No one wins races by being lucky (something unexpectedly good happening to them). You are a potential winner if you make it to the start line; these are the worlds best riders, period- you don’t make it to the Pro Tour if you are not a top rider. You win by having the form and tactical sense to seize the moment in a manner advantageous to your abilities as well as the evolving situation, and likely scenarios.

    In P-R, I don’t think too many riders benefit from what would be seen as being “lucky” , but more likely things go well for them based upon their preparation and actions within the race (being at the right place at the right time). I think the “luck” factor here (as in all other races) is more of being able to capitalize on the misfortunes of others; your rival punctures/crashes, while you didn’t; your team car was there quickly when you needed it, and your rivals wasn’t.

    As others have already stated the chances of something going wrong in P-R are greater due to the nature of the parcours. Is this luck/chance? No, it just is what it is. One can’t control all of the variables, and sh*t happens. Luck (good or bad) is just a term used to try to explain something unexpected or unexplainable. In P-R mishaps and failures are somewhat predictable (they are going to happen to someone); it is just that their effects are harder to overcome, the result of which is “unfortunate” for the one that suffered the problem.

  11. “The best laid schemes of mice and men / Go oft awry.” ~ John Steinbeck

    It was Robbie Burns actually. He was unlucky because he wrote in broad Scots, and someone else got the credit . . .

  12. Are luck, confidence and superstition all intertwined or the same thing? You still see plenty of power bracelets being worn despite being debunked as worthless. It comes down to confidence, if you believe 100% that you can win, that your preparation is complete then you will more than likely be ‘lucky’. Boonen was unfortunate to suffer a bike malfunction in the Arenberg, but by chasing back like a madman he wouldn’t have felt he was having a lucky day. Further mishaps were surely more likely. Self belief by any means necessary may be the key.

  13. “JACK” does a great job here. Life’s not always fair and neither is sport, especially when practiced in the European way, as in most cycling events. Football (soccer) doesn’t have instant-replay where they delay the game to find out if the guy’s hand actually touched the ball, unlike the NFL where they stop the damn game countless times to “make the right call”. Luck is certainly a part of race results. Boonen’s bottle cage falls off and ends up in the rear wheel? Certainly not HIS fault, just as George Hincapie’s bike breaking underneath him was not his fault. Both those things were human error (insufficient securing of the cage or bad choice of fork) so bad luck for the riders but not their fault. If someone wants all the variables removed, they could just set up trainers in Paris and see who can crank out the most watts — Spartacus would probably win every time! The “Hell of the North” is probably the most famous because of this luck factor added to the sheer spectacle of watching the pros race bicycles over these ancient roads..as the video clip shows so well.

Comments are closed.