Luck and sporting success

'Alackaday, and fuck my luck.'

‘Alackaday, and fuck my luck.’

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?

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A few new pages

I’ve made a few slight layout and editing changes to the blog, just to make it easier to access some of my old posts, particularly those I wrote as part of a series of posts. So, if you’re looking for my writing on any of these, you can now find links for them all on their own page to help guide you through the archive:

My 2006 walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End
The 2010 General Election
The 2012 Tour de France
Conrad Russell’s An Intelligent Person’s Guide To Liberalism

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I was pretty surprised when they announced that the start of this year’s Tour de France would be in Yorkshire. That it would come back to Britain was no surprise but the Yorkshire bid had seemed to come up quite late in the day and seemed doomed to lose out to Scotland. Edinburgh seemed a much better backdrop for a Grand Depart than Leeds, after all.

That, though, was to assume this would follow the format of previous Grand Departs outside France. The formula is pretty simple – a prologue time trial around the host city that shows off all its best sights, then one or two generally flat stages to take the race back to France. The Tour has started using road stages rather than time trials for the opening stage in recent years, but only when it started in France.

What Yorkshire showed is that you can use the Tour to promote a whole region through the Grand Depart, and that the race organisers are willing to throw in tricky stages as part of it. Stage 2 shook up the race much more than a prologue time trial would have done. Dozens of riders could have ended up in yellow after Sheffield, rather than the Martin or Cancellara battle in a time trial.

Having millions of people lining the route, and making the start of the Tour a massive event across another country means we’re now going to see more Grand Departs following the Yorkshire formula. The format for the next Grand Depart in Utrecht was already agreed as the traditional prologue and flat stages formula, but the next time it goes outside of France (likely to be in 2017 or 2018) I think we’ll see somewhere that wants to set up a much more interesting start. Barcelona’s been mentioned as a possible destination, but what we could see is stages that get to roam across the whole of Catalonia.

It also means the Tour’s next Grand Depart in Britain is a question of when and where, not if. I’d expect it either in 2020 or 2021, but there’ll be lots of places now thinking they could follow Yorkshire’s example. Imagine a start in Edinburgh that rolls out through the hills of the Borders followed by a stage in the Lake District? Or going to Wales for a thrash through Snowdonia or the Brecon Beacons? The Tour of Britain has brought out big crowds on Dartmoor for its stages there, and that could be the centrepiece for a bid from the South West.

Finally, what we also saw on Sunday was that the Pennines offer a great platform for a race. There’s surely the scope to build on the success of the Grand Depart and organise a regular one-day classic that could follow a similar route and create some great racing in the style of Liege-Bastogne-Liege? (You could even make sure the route takes in Lancashire and Yorkshire and call it the Tour of the Roses) Britain still doesn’t have a World Tour race, and as the Tour of Britain’s unlikely to make that step up, this could be a real legacy from the Tour de Yorkshire.

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Giro D’Ireland

We’ve already heard how the 2014 Tour de France will be starting in Leeds, but that might not be the first British Grand Tour of that year. Reports have come out today that the 2014 Giro D’Italia will be starting in Belfast, with the opening stages taking it from Northern Ireland into the Republic, probably to Dublin.

It’s all unconfirmed as yet, but perhaps another indication that the UK remains the largest untapped market for professional cycling in Europe. The other interesting part is that according to that Cycling Weekly report, new rules mean a Grand Tour must run for at least five days before the first rest day, which opens up the possibility of the race having some stages in Wales or England before heading back to Italy. Though there is also the possibility of them putting on a short stage around Dublin one morning, and using the afternoon to fly all the riders and teams back to Italy ready to start again in the morning.

One has to wonder now if the Vuelta a Espana will follow the path of the Tour and Giro in coming to the UK. Edinburgh’s likely interested, following it’s defeat by Yorkshire for the Tour, and as the Vuelta loves hilly stages, there might even be the prospect of it heading up into the Highlands. That might sound far-fetched, but a couple of months ago, so did the Tour de France starting in Leeds.

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-It’s been announced this morning that the 2014 Tour de France will be starting in Yorkshire. Yorkshire had been bidding for a while to bring the race back to Britain, but the expectation had always been that it’d be sometime later in the decade, so this is a welcome surprise.

The 101st Tour will start in Leeds – presumably with a prologue time trial around the city – followed by another stage in Yorkshire, and then a third stage starting somewhere in the south of England and finishing in London. More details will come in January, but I’m sure people are already poring over their maps of Yorkshire to put together dream routes. A lot of the highest roads in England are in the North Pennines around Yorkshire, so it could be possible to put together a decently hilly stage, even if none of them would rank above a category 3 for the Tour.

I’m also curious to find out where the other stage will be – if it’s starting further south and heading into London, there’s a chance it could start or pass through somewhere in the East (Cambridge, maybe?) which would make a nice stopping-off point on the way home after a weekend in Yorkshire.

This will be the Tour’s fourth visit to Britain – in 1974, they had a stage racing up and down the Plymouth bypass, in 1994, the opening of the Channel Tunnel was marked by two stages taking them from Dover to Portsmouth, and in 2007, the Grand Depart was in London. The gap between British stages is getting smaller, and a natural progression (and the economics of going to what’s probably Europe’s fastest growing cycling market) suggests the Tour could return again this decade – and there has also been interest from Edinburgh in hosting a Grand Depart.

See you in Leeds in 2014!

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2013 Tour de France route

Eight months before Le Grand Depart in Corsica, we now know the full route for the 2013 Tour de France. It’s the 100th Tour, and the organisers have clearly set out to make it a memorable one.

It follows the approach the Tour organisers have taken a lot in recent years of letting the action of the race reach a crescendo in the final week, with the first two weeks as a steady build up to the finale. There’ll be lots of dramatic images in the first two weeks, but a lot of that will cover for the main contenders waiting in the pack, conserving as much energy as possible for the Alps.

The start in Corsica will be the first time the Tour has visited the island (meaning all of European France will now have been visited by the race) and the opening stage is designed to end in a sprint finish. Of course, a break could get clear, but it looks likely that it’ll be the first opportunity to see Omega Pharma-Quick Step working for Mark Cavendish in the Tour as he attempts to shed the record of having the most Tour stage wins without ever wearing the yellow jersey.

Unlike last year, the wearer of the maillot jaune could change a lot over the first week. The next two stages in Corsica provide opportunities for breaks to get clear over the mountains, and then the Team Time Trial in Nice will shake the order up again. If the favourites keep their powder dry in the Pyrenees at the end of week one, then there’s a chance for a climber to get away and put themselves into yellow for a day or two. The big names will be able to hide in the shadows until midway through week 2, when the first individual time trial arrives on the road to Mont Saint Michel.

After that, the Tour really picks up as it heads south towards the Alps. Bastille Day will be a monster for the riders – a 242km stage over bumpy terrain but with only one categorised climb: Mont Ventoux. Because after five hours of riding, your day’s not complete without going up one of the Tour’s legendary climbs, is it? With a rest day following, this is where the big names are going to be duelling each other to the top. A hilly time trial a couple of days after that will shake up the order some more, before we come to the undisputed queen stage of the 100th Tour.

There were lots of rumours floating around about the 2013 race going up Alpe D’Huez twice to mark the 100th Tour on its most iconic climb. I heard suggestions that it would be part of two different stages, that one climb would be a time trial, even that there’d be a descent of it, but I definitely wasn’t expecting it to be climbed twice in one stage. Expect lots of shots of anguished riders getting to the top at the end of the first climb and realising they’ve got to do it again. I’ve already made sure my diary’s clear for the 18th July next year, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the camper vans are heading there now to ensure they get a good spot.

There’s still more climbing for two days after that, and it’s possible that the race could be decided on the climb to Annecy Semnoz on the final Saturday. It’s a new climb and a new stage finish location, which means the roads round there will be packed full of pro cyclists on scouting missions next spring.

The riders get a few hours longer to recover before the final stage into Paris, though. They’re departing from Versailles and passing through the gardens of the palace on their way to the Champs-Elysees, but it’ll be as the sun is getting low in the sky. For what I believe is the first time since the finish switched to the Champs-Elysees, it’ll be an evening finish with the final sprint expected to take place at sunset (around 2145 local time, 2045 UK time). It’s almost as if they asked what could be a better backdrop for the finale than Paris, and realised the only possible answer was Paris at night. Or maybe hoteliers want to ensure that people coming for the finish stay for the night, rather than getting the evening Eurostars and TGVs back home.

The big question, of course, is who’s going to win it? There’s great anticipation about Wiggins getting the chance to take on Contador and Schleck, but he’s also talked about attempting the Giro/Vuelta double next year and leaving the Tour to Chris Froome. As the course looks nicely balanced between time trialling and climbing – with the prospect of climbers having to attack on the last few stages to claw back time lost in the TTs – it does look very open. Will Nibali centre his season around it again, or will he switch back to targeting the Giro? How much will the young challengers – Van Garderen, Rolland and Pinot – have improved over the winter?

Whoever gets to wear yellow in Paris, it looks like it’ll be a fantastic race and hopefully will the spectacle and drama the Tour needs to remind people that cycling has always been about more than just Lance Armstrong.

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Tour de France 2012: Before the gold rush

Wiggins, Froome, Cavendish, Boasson Hagen, Eisel, Rogers, Porte, Knees, Sivtsov. Just as dedicated football fans like to recite the England team that won the 1966 World Cup, in years to come those nine names will show you know your cycling history and can name the team that rode Bradley Wiggins to Tour de France glory.

And in the spirit of professional cyclists for over a century, they’re already focusing on their next race. For Wiggins and Froome, that means riding in support of Cavendish in the Olympic road race on Saturday, then trying to repeat some of their feats of the last few weeks in the time trial next Wednesday. Others will be there – notably Edvald Boasson Hagen trying to get one over his team mates – and the road race especially will be an interesting tactical battle.

Crossing the line on the Champs-Elysees also signals the start of professional cycling’s summer silly season. Under UCI rules, no contracts can officially be signed until September, but that hasn’t stopped the rumours starting as riders who’ve shone in the Tour look to cash in on their moment in the sun. Vincenzo Nibali is reportedly off to Astana, with Roman Kreuziger making way for him by moving to Saxo Tinkoff. RadioShack-Nissan-Trek appears to be on the brink of collapse which raises the prospect of just where their riders will go next year and which team might step up to take their place on the World Tour (my guess would be Europcar).

There are also rumours about some Sky riders as well – as has been pointed out, many of their riders would be leaders at other teams, and some may want to take that opportunity. Lots of teams are showing interest in Chris Froome, though Sky aren’t showing any desire to release him from his contract. Conversely, Dave Brailsford has said that Mark Cavendish can leave if he finds a team that will focus on him and sprint victories in a way that Sky won’t. My guess would be that he’ll end up at either Omega Pharma-Quick Step or Orica-GreenEdge, assuming either of them can afford him.

After the Olympics, it’s the third Grand Tour of the season, and there’ll be a lot of attention on this year’s Vuelta a Espana. It’s the return of Alberto Contador to competition after his doping ban as well as (hopefully) Andy Schleck’s return from the injury that kept him from the Tour and Joaquim Rodriguez’s attempt to win a Grand Tour after Ryder Hesjedal pipped him to the pink jersey in Italy. On top of that, Chris Froome has already said he’ll be riding it, presumably as Sky’s leader, which makes you wonder if after waiting 109 years for a British Grand Tour victory, two will come along at once.

As an interesting aside, the last seven Grand Tours – from Andy Schleck’s 2010 Tour victory through to Wiggins yesterday – have all gone to first-time winners, though part of that was caused by Contador being stripped of the 2010 Tour and 2011 Giro as part of his ban.

Wiggins doesn’t appear to be riding the Vuelta this year, which does raise the prospect of him riding the Tour of Britain, which could turn into a very long victory parade. However, that would suit British Cycling very nicely, as the increased public interest in professional cycling in the UK could (and probably should) result in a lot more interest from sponsors and investors. In my opinion, one of the important tasks now is to try and boost all the levels of professional cycling in this country, be it looking at ways to get a one-day World Tour race in Britain or getting more backing for the smaller teams to help them step up a level. For instance, it’d be great to see Endura Racing having the finance to be able to move up to the Professional Continental level.

By the way, I won’t be writing about the Vuelta as I did the Tour because I’m away for part of it. However, I expect it will get a lot more coverage in the British press than it’s had before. ITV4 took the risk of showing a lot of coverage of it last year, and I’d expect they’ll be doing the same again this year.

Thanks to those of you who’ve read my ramblings about the Tour this year, and see you all next year for the 100th edition. All we know about it so far is that it starts in Corsica with three road stages, followed by a team time trial in Nice. The rest will be announced in October, but expect the 100th edition to contain a lot of legendary stage locations. At the very least, I would expect the Tourmalet, Alpe D’Huez and Mont Ventoux to make an appearance. I’m getting excited already…just 342 days to go.

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