Forecasts are for Fools

Stage 9 of the Tour de France and the end of the one of the most unpredictable days of racing in recent times. Perhaps, especially with hindsight, Dan Martin winning a Pyrenean stage is predictable but Chris Froome isolated whilst his team goes into meltdown with Richie Porte losing minutes and Vasil Kiriyenka missing the time cut? Who predicted that?

Race previews have a predictive element. Some aspects are known, the route of a stage of the Tour de France has been written down for months but other elements are less certain, like the weather. The greatest uncertainty comes with the race itself and picking the winner.

During the Tour de France I tipped some riders to win before the race and each day’s preview contained some likely stage winners. It turns out some readers were using the info to place bets and I got messages of thanks but also a few angry emails about lost money. Given real money is being spent, not to mention the anxious credit of fantasy cycling, I wanted to explore the idea and merit of forecasting. Forecasts are for fools.

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.”
-Nils Bohr, winner Nobel Prize for Physics in 1922

Nothing is certain. You can analyse the route of a race but this can change. See Milan-Sanremo with the weather or the Orica-Greenedge bus incident on Stage 1 of the Tour de France where the finish line was switched and switched back. In other words even the things we take for granted are not certain. But we have to make assumptions and these elements are the “known knowns” to borrow from Donald Rumsfeld and help us explore the more unknown elements, for example the weather, a road might be fixed but the way it is ridden will vary according to the weather, a headwind on the long, wide section of the new Tour of Flanders finishing circuit discourages breakaways and therefore changes the scenario.

Weather Forecasts
But predicting the weather is not easy. There’s a whole field of science dedicated to this – meteorology – and the experts get it wrong. During the Giro offered a dedicated forecast for the following day’s stage. It seemed to be wrong every day, when it said a dry start would be followed by rain for the finish the reverse happened and vice versa. As the race went on I used several websites to make an aggregate forecast. The same was true for the Tour de France where the official bulletin seemed to promise atmospheric apocalypse on the Alpe d’Huez stage but there was just light drizzle for a few minutes.

There are two lessons from this. First we struggle to predict the weather for the next day, all the supercomputing power deployed does not guarantee accurate forecasts. Second aggregating weather forecasts can help and we can deploy this technique for other forecasts. Put simply using different sources allows a wider view, a point essential if your after race predictions rather than the weather. For example see the forecasts on here but go and check Mikkel Condé’s race previews at C-Cycling and other sources.

Tony Martin Tour de France
Things don’t come much more certain than Tony Martin winning a TT stage

Follow the Money
Another way is to see what the market is saying. Rather than relying on a few bloggers, see what the expert bookmakers say and where the money is going. Websites like are very useful for comparing prices across the betting market. Bookmakers try to price the likelihood of an event occurring so this is a useful numerical source.

The odds for the 2012 Tour de France with Wiggins and Evans nailed on, only for Evans to finish 7th

But remember price is not always equal to probability, especially in cycling. It’s not a sport that attracts floods of money and therefore the betting market can be illiquid. Prices can also reflect the amount of money going in one direction. For example if Chris Froome was the obvious choice to win the Tour de France then this can attract more money which then drives down the odds, creating a self-fulfilling event.

The imprecision of the bookmakers means there can opportunities for betting, to spot mispriced odds. For example Rui Costa was 100-1 to win on the day of his first stage win in July, very generous offer for a rider well down on GC but with form from winning the Tour of Switzerland. But I suspect you’d have to have some kind of fund to punt on a range of underpriced events and hope that if you lost pennies on most bets you’d land a big win once in a while.

Rider Forecasts
How accurate were the picks? For the Tour my podium picks were Chris Froome, Richie Porte and Nairo Quintana, after discounting Alberto Contador because he’s still rated by many for his past wins rather than his actual performance. This worked out ok but for the Giro I saw Bradley Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali on the podium with Cadel Evans and Ryder Hesjedal fighting for the third spot. Wiggins and Hesjedal both flopped.

It’s one reason why previews on here list many of the contenders for the day. Rather than pick a single winner I prefer to list the chances of several, even many, riders in a preview. It’s more cautious but also helps ID more riders, for example Damien Gaudin as the prologue pick for Paris-Nice and personally it’s more fun to weigh things up rather than cast out a name.

Multiple outcomes
Some sports have binary outcomes, for example tennis is either win or lose. Football can see teams draw. But cycling can have 200 riders each with a chance of winning, of course some have better odds than others. But the point is that this creates a lot of uncertainty. This is to be embraced, it’s what makes the racing fun to watch, an early breakaway on a mountain stage might allow non-climbers to build up a lead, creating a wider contest.

Who’d bet on Christophe Riblon picking off the Alpe d’Huez stage

Even during a race events are wonderfully unpredictable. Watch Stage 18 to Alpe d’Huez and Christophe Riblon’s odds must have fluctuated wildly during the day from total outsider to breakaway member to crash victim and then looking a lesser rider than Tejay van Garderen until clawing his way back and passing the American with the confidence of a stage victor.

In fact the more random the outcome the better the race. We can only give thanks that Eddy Merckx was at his peak 40 years ago because if he was racing today the fun could be sucked out of a lot of racing. It’s probably also why some want race radios and power meters banned, moves to make the racing more unpredictable.

Wider use
I can’t help noticing the way we long for certainty and hang on predictions for a range of things. There were complaints when I didn’t include names in race previews in the past, even if the forecasts prove wrong it’s still fun to weigh up the contenders and discuss their chances.

It can be hard to get next weekend’s weather forecast right but this doesn’t stop people making long range predictions for things like stockmarket prices, economic data or population numbers even if these things often, if not always prove wrong.

Wall Street indices predicted nine out of the last five recessions
-Paul A. Samuelson, Newsweek, 1966

We’re suckers for a glimpse into the future and the more certain the forecast, the more appealing even if rational thought suggests such certainty is really dogma and therefore more likely to be wrong.

Sometimes even the weather forecast goes wrong for a stage so picking the winner of a race is a much harder task. Even the bookmakers, backed by the crowd and the market forces often get it wrong.

But if forecasts are for fools, they’re still fun and whether it’s sport, finance or anything else, we’re always trying to look ahead. In race previews, it’s a form of story-telling, a way to establish the characters who will feature in a race. This is what makes watching a race on TV for hours so compelling as you can see the story unfold, each turn in the road is a new page, every climb a new chapter and with time the narrative of how the race was won develops. Just don’t bet your shirt using the predictions on here.

50 thoughts on “Forecasts are for Fools”

  1. What? People actually complained about “poor” tips?! Oh my, that’s really quite childish (at best). Next they’ll be complaining the bookies don’t give them good enough odds either…

    • I think it was more frustration at the loss rather than the prediction but all the same I wanted to set out something to refer people to in future, as well as to explain that if it’s pointless being accurate, it’s still entertaining to try.

      • Of course it’s fun to make predictions, hence why fantasy football/F1/cricket/cycling/etc is popular.

        I guess the sort of people who get frustrated by losing at real gambling also need something or someone else to blame – it surely can’t be their fault.

        Me? I expect to lose almost every time! So much so, that two months ago I got an email from an online betting site to say I had money in my account. Confused, I went in to check and realised I had won £100 a year ago from a £1 e/w bet on Webb Simpson for the US Open golf – bonus :-).

  2. Love the piece, and the “prediction” quote above is great. Only one question: why would you want to borrow anything from Donald Rumsfeld? 😉

    • Ole Rummy did a good job spinning fabrications on CSPAN that were useful to justify blowing stuff up, but I don’t see much other use in his historical quips.

      Now, Yogi Berra! There is a historical personality that contributes to this INRNG bard’s tale on prediction… “The future ain’t what it used to be.”

    • Oh no! Donald Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns quote has to be one of the most useful lines for anyone with a client demanding certainty about an uncontrollable event.

      • Apparently Rumsfeld got the whole “known unknowns etc” thing from management speak. It’s actually quite a useful way of thinking about future events, but, sadly, forever tainted by being associated with Donald Rumsfeld. I’m about to walk to work, and there are risks. The traffic and crossing the road is a “known known” – I know that I’ll need to cross the road and I know it’s a risk. The weather is a “known unknown” – I know it might rain, but I don’t know if it will rain. Bumping into an overly talkative friend on the way is an “unknown known” – I don’t know if it will happen, but I know that if it does, I’ll be delayed. And then there are the “unknown unknowns” but I don’t know either what they are or if they’ll happen – I’ll just have to deal with them when they arise.

        And to come back on topic, the wonderful thing about cycle racing is that it has all of those, all at once, and often happening in beautiful places!

        • Slavoj Zizek talks about the ‘known unknown’: ‘the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about’.

          I think a few people in the cycling world can relate to this.

  3. Occasionally watching eurosport coverage after the event you notice quite how much Sean Kelly predicts correctly in the race. Feels almost clairvoyant at times

    not quite what you’re getting at here though

    I did profit significantly at the tour with Marcel Kittel and Orica Greenedge brgining home the bacon. Matt Goss was a repeated waste of money though 🙂

  4. Part of the fascination of bike racing are the surprises and unpredictability that it represents. If we could predict the winner all the time, there would be little to keep us watching the developing drama. The drama would undoubtedly be a lot more intense and dramatic without the infernal radios !

    Maybe a wise man has some ideas based on the course and riders, together with a group of possible winners. A wiser man keeps them to himself.

  5. Good analysis, nice read. I would never dream of blaming the blogger for gettin gmy bet wrong (if I wsa interested in betting). One precision, though:
    It is not exactly sheer unpredictability that banning power meters and other information systems is about. It is about forcing the rider to replace that information with self-knowledge and other psychological skills. Just imagine a TT where a rider doesn’t know if he’s going well or not, and has to pace himself according to sensations. Or a climb where he doesn’t know if he will be able to follow his rivals for 5 minutes longer, and has to dig in his heart for the conviction that he’s able to go on. Don’t you think we’re missing something inmensely valuable here?

    • +1 In a sport that’s in reality, very low tech (imagine some kind of racing vehicle where the driver must also be the engine..if the bicycle in its current form was invented last week people would be laughing at it) sport/competition, why do we need all the high tech stuff? I fail to see how any of the so-called evolution has made bike racing more entertaining to watch or read about. I’d say the reverse is true. As to gambling (on cycling or anything else) I prefer to look at it as a tax on stupid people.

    • >> Just imagine a TT where a rider doesn’t know if he’s going well or not,
      >> and has to pace himself according to sensations.

      Sort of. As an amateur’ish racer I’ve ridden one or two TTs and always ride them on sensation (even with a power meter at my disposal). I have wondered though, that if given live-information (i.e. if I’m on the pace or off the pace), I’d be able to TT _that_ much faster. I’m not so sure.

      Maybe for a certain amount of time I might be able to give more if a DS/Coach was telling me I’m only 10/20s off the pace (particularly in a TdF TT for example) but other than that, if I don’t feel I’ve given absolutely 100% at the end of a TT, then in my view I’ve ridden a sub-optimal TT. Conversely, if all has gone well, I should feel I couldn’t have given any more at any part of the TT without inducing the risk of dying early.

      I guess what I’m trying to say, is that if you’re really want to win (or do well in) a TT then it doesn’t really matter what you’re being told over radio – you’re either cooked, could be cooked any time soon, or your current pace is good to finish strong. A fine balance.

      That said, and in reality, I recognise a good motivator for me in a TT is my minute man/woman – so maybe knowing how far you are from the front runners would also make a deciding difference to your performance (where fractions of a second count, then perhaps more so). Would be interesting to hear the opinion of more professional racers if anyone is reading this though?

      The lack of race radios in a normal stage/race however, I’d probably agree make a big difference – simply from the fact that you potentially have no idea of gaps, riders in the break and therefore pacing strategies, tactics etc. So yes, self-knowledge and race awareness could, and can, make a big difference, which in turn makes it more exciting/nerve-wracking for anyone watching – or in fact racing!

      • Of course, about the latter, it’s the “battle fog” element that we’re after. But concerning TTs, and lacking information on your performance, or depending on what your DS mught tell you, truthfully or not, is about creting uncertainty in the rider. Which should penalise the mentally weaker ones, and boost the mentally strongest. Mental strength has been belittled as a skill, I think, especially with the SRM (also with the heartrate monitor). Just imagine Chris Froome not knowing how many watts he’s putting out on a flat TT…

    • All the new wizz bang tech we are now relying on takes the gut knowledge out of the racing.
      I refuse to use my computer etc when racing and just ride from the heart, pity this would not revert back to the PRO Pelaton

      • Suppose a rider can ride at threshold pace at 300 W, what happens when the temperature rises (say from 20 C to 35 C) can he sustain the same effort? What about humidity? At what altitude has he been tested ? If the testing was done at sea level what happens at 2500 m altitude, or as the elevation progressively changes ? So many factors influence an athlete’s performance (in any sport) that no gadget can possibly provide us with accurate feedback. However, there is a fine multipurpose instrument that can give us extremely accurate feedback on athletic performance; with which we are all endowed (except those betting serious money based on Inner Ring’s forecasts) called the brain.

        P.S. For those wishing to learn more I would suggest to familiarize yourselves with professor’s Timothy Noakes theory:

  6. who was it that said, “A fool and his money are soon parted”

    I’m frustrated here in California trying to watch ” the story unfold” minutes before the first Cat 1 climb in the Tour of Utah. Video feed is down!

    Thanks for the perspective, one day races should be easier to “guess” who might win.

  7. The Rui Costa strategy is actually good. With the right stage and such favourable odds, you can bet on a basket of riders in similar situations (in form but down on GC) for stage wins.

    But obviously, the strategy changes the odds. Hence the lowering the return on the bet.

  8. Not to mention crashes!

    I put money on early in the season for Wiggins to win the tour in 2011 when the odds were still relatively long – one innocuous first week crash and its all over.

    I must say I tend not to bet on sports where I have a real interest. I find it can colour my view of an otherwise exciting event just because the ‘horse’ I backed is not in contention .

  9. Cycling is a mug’s sport to gamble with real money on IMO.

    There’s far too much backstage intrigue. Insiders have far too much information (who’s designated to go in the break that day and is therefore worth a longshot bet) and there are no regulations (unlike horse racing) about what needs to be disclosed to the public. Hence there’s too much opportunity for inside knowledge to give an unfair betting advantage.

    It’s actually something that a new President of the UCI should look at, as well as the broader question of what types of collusion are acceptable in cycling.

    • I disagree strongly. Cycling is a brilliant sport to gamble on. There isn’t alot of money being bet, illiquid markets and little sophistication in setting odds. If you think that there is more ‘insider’ betting in cycling than horse racing that disadvantages the outside punter, you are nuts. Clearly betting on stages where a break is likely to win is a total lottery. But you have stages which are far more predictable, such as the TTT, which INRG correctly assessed Orica as one of the contenders (even though they were 20-1). What is good about cycling is that it far easier than many sports to ask the question “what does xxx need to do to win/ get on the podium and what are the odds of them doing this” and then assess whether the odds the bookies are offering match that assesment.

      • Yeah agreed, I don’t flutter l the time on races but the Orica TTT tip was a good one and a number of bookies had some stocking odds, so good I put money on and the winnings made a significant contribution to my new bike fund.

        Half the bookmakers have no clue about cycling etc, so there are some good prices to be had. You just have to be smart.

        • For now maybe.

          Just wait until the dodgier bookies and the out-and-out crime gangs figure this out and start splashing money around in the peloton.

  10. The weather would probably be a “known unknown” actually. You know weather is unpredictable but you don’t know what it will be any given day.

    Milan-San Remo’s break and the OGE bus incident fall squarely in the “unknown unknown” category.

    “Known knowns,” “known unknowns” and “unknown unknowns” are actually very common principles in stuff like project management. You budget for the stuff you know and even stuff you think may possibly occur. And then you adjust it by an additional safety factor. Engineering works the same way – you design for unlikely conditions (hurricanes, earthquakes, etc) and then you add an additional safety factor on top to make even safer than the unlikely conditions.

  11. people complained? – now that is hilarious!

    I did the Cyclingnews/Bike Radar Fantasy Tour game this year and found it pretty uninspiring as it was clearly designed to get the maximum ‘clicks’ for the website rather than actually resembling managing a pro-team (24 intra-tour ‘transfers’ for example). Did anyone play any other similar games out there that were a bit more rewarding?

  12. Forget the money bit entirely…I think your “predictions ” sometimes throw up some interesting people to watch…for instance the mountain TT at this years Giro, Stage 18 i think, you tipped Mouray to do well as an outsider, as it was he came 18th but it made the stage so much more interesting seeing him ride and comparing his time to others….far more interesting to look at more than the top three of the event !!!!

  13. Sounds like people like to complain about stuff, riders you suggest might win, then not suggesting riders gets complaints too. The Inner Ring is one of the few ‘must read’ daily updated cycling websites out there, they’ve really nothing to complain about.

  14. A few people complain because they lost money on your tips. Ha ha tell me, how much do we pay to follow this website? Tell these IDIOTS to get stuffed, the stupid pillocks. And if your one of these PILLOCKS reading this then get a life you sad tossers.

  15. Apologies for my outburst above, but these sort of people REALLY get angry. Its always someone else’s fault. The modern day failings of man Oh it wasn’t my fault.

  16. It’s been a while now but I still regret not putting money on JTL to win last year’s Mediterranean Tour

    Definitely now time to move on! 🙂

  17. I was thinking about put some money on Vino with 50/1 odds in the Olympics. He had a few good breaks in the Tour and figured if he found himself up the road he’d do something stupid like buy a win. Of course hindsight is 20/20, but I really wish I put $100 on that one.

  18. A solution would be to board a De Lorean, travel a bit forward, purchase the
    Sporting Almanac for the next few years/decades, return, place your bets!

    Or, spend some time having fun writing a predictive algorithm employing
    quantum mechanics!

    Good luck with that one!

  19. Back in 2006 I was very impressed with a young British rider and thought he might be a serious medal contender by the time the 2012 Olympics came round. I’d have got pretty good odds back then. “Mark who?” They would have said.

    I spent every year since cursing my indecision (slightly less so since 29th July last year) but such is life!

    Best sporting bet ever would have to be the guy who bet on Denmark to win Euro92…despite Denmark not qualifying for the tournament. Turns out the punter had a feeling that the former Yugoslavian team would be ejected and had eyed Denmark as a possible replacement. I forget the odds, but they must have been generous.

  20. Can’t believe people are stupid enough to rant at you for their failings, its not like you are telling people to gamble money, unbelievable really but not suprising, one of the main negatives about the internet is that it gives every idiot a voice.

    I made some profit on the TDF, backed Purito each way around Febuary/March time when he was around 25-1, i agree with the people above who say there is value to be had if you know a bit about cycling, the Giro TTT i bet on Movistar at 50-1!, insane odds, they came 2nd so a great each way bet.

    I’ld go as far as saying cycling has the most value out of any sports to bet on because the bookies really do seem clueless when it comes to it.

  21. Hard to say whether if it is the articles, or the comments, that make this site so great. An excellent reunion of (for the most part) intelligent people. Kudos INRNG.

    Larry T. on gamblers: “to look at it as a tax on stupid people” QOTD! Gold.

  22. This whole thing about Knowns/Unknowns, whether it stems from
    Rumsfeld or management speak is simply philosophy’s Empiricism;
    A Posteriori versus A Priori knowledge. Rumsfeld and management types
    have just ‘dumbed’ it down.

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