I’ve just watched Chris Froome take the yellow jersey in stage 3 of this year’s Tour de France and it’s got me thinking about how much blind chance plays in sporting success. Froome’s luck, for instance, seems very variable – this year, he’s managed to avoid a big crash today, and be in the right place yesterday when the peloton split to gain time on a lot of his rivals, but last year he spent the first few stages watching everything go wrong for him, and ended up pulling out with a broken arm before the first week was done. In 2012, he managed to lose over a minute on almost everyone on one of the early stages when he punctured towards the end of the stage, and that lost time helped to lock him into the role of supporting rather than challenging Bradley Wiggins later in the race.
There is the old adage that you make your own luck and in some of those cases, that is true – he ended up in the lead group yesterday by knowing where to be in the crosswinds, for instance – but cycling is a sport where luck seems to play a huge role. Consider that getting a puncture at the wrong moment can happen to anyone, even without larger chance effects like this:
That’s from 2003, where Joseba Beloki was probably the closest of anyone to beating Lance Armstrong in a Tour, but chance had him at the front of the chase group (and he, Armstrong and the others would likely have been alternating that role) as they encounter the dangerous stretch of road. Beloki crashes, breaks his femur and is out of the race. Armstrong avoids him, travels through a field without coming off, rejoins the race and carries on to victory. It would be his record-equalling fifth win in the Tour (until they were all taken away, of course) but he could have been that guy who’d won four Tours, not seven, if luck had run differently that day.
Which brings me to the question – which is the physical sport in which luck plays the greatest part? Is it cycling, or does pure randomness have a greater role in something else? And what great sporting moments were we given or denied because of pure luck?