A basic guide to cycle road racing tactics (or why Cav didn’t win this time around)

This post may be a day late, but given the events of today’s Olympic road race from a British point of view and especially given the basic and inaccurate nature of a lot of the resultant media coverage, I felt compelled to try and explain some nuances of the sport. I am only an enthusiastic fan, not a racer so emphasis is on the “basic”…

Olympic sports tend to be individual or team based and a simple case of going faster, longer or stronger. Road cycling is unique in being an individual medal event undertaken by teams. In a football match or a relay race the winning athletes all get a medal. In cycling only the first man/woman over the line gets gold.

So, firstly, a basic physics lesson. As a human powered sport where the cyclist will cruise at anywhere between 30-50km/h and peak at over 70km/h, wind plays a big part. It comes in two forms – the natural kind, which may be in the form of a tail, cross or headwind and the self-generated kind, or air resistance – the faster you go the more air you have to push out of your way, which takes more energy.

Therefore the crucial thing to realise is that much like motorsport, there is a distinct advantage to sitting in the slipstream of another rider. In fact by sitting on a wheel as it is known, you can expend 20-30% less energy than the man in the wind.

Now a physiology lesson. Much like Usain Bolt is a sprinter and Mo Farrah a distance runner you get different types of riders. Mark Cavendish is a fast-twitch muscle sprinter – the fastest one out there. He is built for short periods of massive power within the last few hundred meters of the race. However he has to get there and that is where the teamwork aspect comes in. He needs his team mates to do a number of jobs, but one very important one is to shield him from the wind and give him as easy a time as possible through to the point where he can do his job.

Other types of rider revel in riding into the wind, on the front – they have massive stamina and are known as Rouleurs. Ian Stannard is a prime example of one but in this context so were the rest of the GB team. They are used to chase down breakaways and to keep a high pace going to prevent them in the first place.

There are then a number of variables about the race itself:

  • One day or stage race? The Olympic road race is a one-day event. The Tour de France is 20 stages day after day. Therefore one day races see more balls-out racing, more breakaways and risk taking as you don’t have to worry about what is coming up in the next days.
  • Stage length. In the Tour de France a stage of over 200km is considered long. However the World Championship and Olympic road races are generally about 250km in length.
  • Team size. A regular race will see teams of eight. The Tour de France and other grand tours have nine. The Olympic road race allows up to five (the exact number per nation is decided by ranking during the season)
  • The course (or parcours). Is it hilly, rolling or flat? Different courses suit different riders. The London 2012 course involved a punishing nine ascents of Box Hill. It is a mere bump in the road for these pros, but tackled nine times it takes it’s toll. However after the hill comes a 50km flat run in to the finish. It is therefore a stage that encourages breakaways over the hill repeats, but offers promise for the sprinters that everything can come back together for a sprint finish.

So, the Olympic Road Race is a single day race which encourages aggressive riding. It is also long, and you don’t have as many team-mates as you are used to. The course is a bit of an enigma.

So, as a team of five, with the best sprinter in the world, Team GB set out their stall to get Cav to the finish for a bunch sprint. This meant that they had to work to get him there fresh, as well as policing the peloton and managing any breakaways. Essentially what they did to great success in Copenhagen in 2011 to get the World Championship, just with less men this time and a hillier course, as well as every other nation knowing exactly what the plan was. On paper a suicide mission, but when your sprinter is the World Champion who rarely fails to deliver, and he is backed up by the Tour de France winner, runner up, British national champion and one of the most experienced riders in the pro ranks, and with a backroom staff that are not known for leaving things to chance, you have to believe.

In a typical stage race the first hour or so will see a group attempting to form a breakaway. Normally this will be policed so that the breakaway will only be let go if it contains nobody of threat to the overall leader. Breakaways routinely gain a number of minutes on the peloton before being methodically reeled in to produce a bunch sprint. This chase down may be down to one team (of eight riders) or multiple teams who work together in the interests of producing a bunch sprint.

However a one-off race like the Olympic Road Race doesn’t follow norms. Today a breakaway formed and a decision had to be made whether to let it go or not. Not letting it go would involve expending energy in shutting it down. In Team GB’s case that would mean using energy they would need over the nine ascents of Box Hill, so the break was let go. Whilst it contained some good riders there was nobody seriously threatening in there early on.

In fact, the break came back to within three or so minutes after about four ascents of Box Hill. All the driving to bring it back had been done by Team GB with next to no assistance from any other teams. The other teams either had a man in the break, and therefore no incentive to work, or simply believed they could let GB do it all for them. The pace set by GB here had two goals: firstly to reel in the breakaway, but secondly to discourage further attacks by stringing out the main field and making them work just to stay with GB, let alone think of attacking.

Then more aggressive riders started to try to bridge across to the lead group. They had been comfortably sitting in the peloton doing no work and therefore had the legs to accelerate in front of GB. In theory however the effort to bridge across is high and would need to be paid back later.

Then on the ninth and final ascent of the hill one of the strongest riders in the peloton, Fabian Cancellara, attempted to bridge and took with him a small group of very strong riders. Suddenly the break had 20-30 riders of quality in it. The crucial fact here is that a small group needs to work extremely efficiently to stay away as each needs to take a turn in the wind more often. The larger a breakaway the higher their chances of success as they can expend less individual energy to stay away – they can work as a group as efficiently as the peloton behind them if they all co-operate for the greater good.

If there was a tactical error by GB here then it was at this point. However they could not necessarily work harder to bring the break back because there were only four of them so sending one up to the break would weaken the plan to ride for Cav. If they all went then they had to make sure Cav could stay with them. Whilst Froome, Stannard, Millar and Wiggins could have upped the pace and bridged themselves there is no guarantee that Cav could make it across with them – he’s not built for it. In some post-race interviews it has been hinted that Cav did actually have the legs at this point and that they possibly made the wrong call.

It is at this point that another difference between the Olympic race and regular season racing becomes apparent. In World Tour races teams are wired up with two-way radios to their Directeur Sportif in the team car. They can discuss tactics and make decisions with near perfect information and in real-time. In the Olympics race radios are not allowed so you are reliant on time gap information relayed by motorbikes or the officials. If you want to discuss tactics you need to go up and down the line, or even back to the car. The road captain (in team GB’s case David Millar) is absolutely key here, but it is simple fact that it takes longer to react to things that happen.

So, Team GB found themselves with 50km to go and a significant and strong breakaway group at 50-60 seconds up the road. The general rule of thumb is that you need 10km to pull back 1 minute of time so in theory everything should have been under control. However as discussed the Olympic road race, and this one in-particular is not subject to normal rules of thumb. So clear was Team GB’s strength they had been left to drive the peloton for nearly the whole race, which takes it’s toll as you are doing so much more work into the wind (well, everybody except Cav.) and you only have four riders to do it with. Secondly, the break was big enough that nearly every nation bar GB and Germany had at least one rider in it so the appetite for chasing down wasn’t one the peloton had. Finally, Germany as the one team who had a sprinter capable of challenging Cav in a bunch sprint in Greipel, seemed convinced that GB would be able to pull things back (again, lack of race radios may play a part here) so only made token efforts. Their main rouleur, Tony Martin, had also already dropped off the pace (he’d suffered injury in the Tour de France and would also be keeping focus on the forthcoming time-trial)

Thefore the rule of thumb was broken and the gap remained. Effectively Cav’s chances were already doomed at over 20km from the finish and the rest is a simple matter of record.

It is easy to use hindsight to say that there hasn’t been a bunch sprint in the past six Olympic road races, that GB should have had a Plan B and so on, but the truth is they used the resources available to them in the best possible way. It very, very nearly worked but because it didn’t it looked a lot worse than it was. The fact is, this is bike racing and it is unlike any other sport in this respect and that’s what makes it beautiful.

How I was almost in the London 2012 Opening Ceremony

This is a tough blog post to write…

It is the eve of the London 2012 Olympics, and tomorrow the opening ceremony, produced by Danny Boyle, will commence in front of 80,000 spectators and a live TV audience of 1 billion. It is estimated that 4 billion people will see some part of the ceremony via news clips, the internet and so on.

Last night I was lucky enough to see the final dress rehearsal which included most of the first half of the ceremony up until the athlete’s parade. If you are expecting me to divulge any details then sorry, I’m saving the surprise!

Watching it was an extremely bittersweet experience. On one hand I got to witness an absolutely spectacular display. However on the other I sat there knowing that up I was going to be part of it until the segment I was in got cut for timing reasons. Once again, if you are reading hoping to find some vitriol or speculation as to why then sorry but you’ve come to the wrong place. Cuts happen, it is essentially show-business after all. The only thing I’ll say to add context to this post is that the press widely reported the cut segment as “stunt” bikes or BMX, but there was more to it than that.

In mid April an email from the communications secretary of my cycling club arrived in my inbox. It didn’t give much detail other than the club had been offered about 10-15 places in a cycling related segment of the ceremony and that signing up would involve a fairly significant time commitment. It was also made clear (as it has been in the press around the cut) that the position was remunerated – we were not volunteers.

A month later fifteen of us went down to a rehearsal site in Dagenham for an audition, and all of us got through. Our first rehearsal was also at Dagenham in early June, and only then, after signing our contracts and non-disclosure agreements, did we discover what we would be doing. We had rehearsals at the Dagenham site before transferring to the stadium itself later on that month.

Rehearsing in the stadium was pretty awesome, as you would expect. Naturally information was on a need to know basis so we knew next to nothing about anything else other than the segment we were working on. However during evening rehearsals just seeing the testing of the sound and lighting in the stadium made it pretty clear that the event would be visually spectacular. Naturally there were props littered about in nooks and crannies under the stadium that gave us glimpses into what might be going on elsewhere in the show.

What was to unkowningly be our final rehearsal was really the first time that the entire segment came together with all of our equipment ready. I’d love to describe what I was actually doing, but I’m still under contract and NDA. Maybe after the ceremony itself more can be said, or maybe even become apparent via the Explore the Ceremonies site.

We had three rehearsals and then the two tech/dress rehearsals left to go. However the next rehearsal two days later was cancelled so I used that day to go down to the accreditation centre and pick up my accreditation pass. Sadly on the very next day we all got an individual call to explain the decision that had been made on the Saturday night to cut the segment almost entirely. Only one part of it remains, a part that is integral to the traditions of Olympic opening ceremonies. At this point it has to be said that personally, I really appreciated the way that the Ceremonies staff we were dealing with handled the whole situation. They could have done it a lot more impersonally, but didn’t and have been very helpful in finding us extra tickets for the dress rehearsal and so on. As I said before, stuff happens.

My initial feelings of resignation and realism were slightly turned to anger on the following Wednesday when the news broke, but only because of I spent most of the day reading Twitter and getting wound up by the number of curmudgeons and naysayers slating the ceremony and everything Olympic in general.

What was most notable however is that none of the fifteen of us involved from my club emailed around with any reaction to being cut. It is as if we were just internalising it and not wanting to spark any debate. That is until after last night when we all got to go along and see the dress rehearsal we should have been taking part in. Today the email floodgates opened as we exchanged views on what we had seen, which soon turned into discussion on how we felt after being cut. When I emailed the sneek peek news clip (Warning, don’t watch if you want to truly save the surprise) that includes a glimpse of the remaining part of our segment one person responded:

Strange feeling watching that. Not sure I am going to enjoy tomorrow night. Why have we all been so deeply affected by this?

Which, I think, sums things up perfectly. With a professional head on I understand that tough decisions need to be made sometimes. However, when speaking from the heart I can’t be anything other than truly gutted that I had the opportunity to be part of a global event seen by billions. A once in a lifetime opportunity and something that I would be able to recount to any future generations of my family that may come along.

So, to those ten thousand or so volunteers and cast that will be performing tomorrow night, along with those in the closing ceremony and Paralympic ceremonies – good luck, you are awesome and will put on a display that will made London and the nation proud and which will entertain and enthrall the World. I won’t miss watching it for anything.

My London 2012 Olympics

It is now only two weeks until the London 2012 Olympic Games begins. Here’s my personal itinerary based on the events I’ve managed to get tickets for.

Friday 27th July – Opening Ceremony. I don’t have a ticket, but I am in it! The how come? and doing what? and all other questions will have to wait to be answered as I am under NDA. I’ve been rehearsing for a while now, including in the stadium itself. Guess I am watching it on telly like everybody else 🙁

Saturday 28th July (All day) – Men’s Cycling Road Race. Despite being undoubtedly bleary eyed and possibly hung over, I will be trekking down to Surrey to take up a place on Box Hill to watch Team GB, led by Mark Cavendish, ascend the hill nine times on their way to what will be the first medal of the games, hopefully a GB gold…

Saturday 4th August (PM) – Diving. I’ll be watching the Women’s 3m springboard semi finals.

Saturday 4th August (Evening) – Men’s Basketball. GB v Australia and one other game.

Tuesday 7th August (Evening) – Track cycling. This is the final track cycling session and will see the Women’s sprint, Men’s Keirin and Women’s Omnium decided. All three represent very real GB Gold medal possibilities. I’ve got an AA category seat right on the back straight. This is the huge one for me.

Saturday 11th August (All day) – Men’s Modern Pentathlon. A strangely compelling chance to see three venues and five sports in one day. Fencing in the Copper Box, Swimming in the Aquatics Centre, and Equestrian, running and shooting in Greenwich Park. Historically the GB men are not contenders (unlike our women) but this seemed too good to pass up.

Sunday 12th August (Evening) – the final day of the games and the closing ceremony. I’ll be in Hyde Park watching it on the big screens, followed up with a concert featuring New Order, The Specials and of course, Blur.

Saturday 1st September (PM) – Paralympic track cycling. Including Women’s sprint that will feature Sarah Storey going for GB Gold.

In-between all that I’ll be glued to the TV coverage of course.

Can’t wait…

Monitoring London 2012 ticket availability

It isn’t often that my line of work and main passions co-incide, but the frustration of trying to land the London 2012 Olympics tickets that I wanted gave me cause to find a technical solution to my problem.

I’ve blogged before about my limited success in getting tickets for the games. Most of all I wanted tickets, any tickets, for track cycling. These are like gold dust as the venue only holds 6000 people and it is the sport which bears Team GB’s highest chance of medals.

A while ago tickets started to be issued as venue layouts became finalised. In addition the official re-sale process kicked in. This meant that an occasional drip-feed of tickets started to become available on the ticketing web site. There was no advance notice, it was pure luck/co-incidence if something happened to be made available when you looked.

This kind of scenario lends itself nicely to some scripting, so I started looking into the HTML source of the ticketing site to work out how to automate the discovery of ticket availability. The general approach is simple: each session has a unique code and you can perform a search for that session. It then either tells you that tickets are currently unavailable, or allows you to select that session and go on to the ticket selection process.

Therefore a simple script that could poll the session search results page and check for the indication of availability would do the trick, so here it is:

The starting point was this web site monitoring script found via google.

Usage is simply like this:

ticket_watch.pl -e <your email address> <session code>

I utilised an Amazon EC2 micro-instance running Linux then simply set up cron jobs to check the nine track cycling sessions every five minutes. Using cron isn’t perfect – if tickets for a session do become available for a period of time then your inbox might get busy with continual alert emails but that is a minor inconvenience. What’s more annoying is the way that the ticketing site works. There is a significant lag between tickets becoming unavailable and the search results page indicating this fact. These two issues can combine to mean that you continue to get alert emails for quite a while after tickets sell out.

So, does it work? Well I’ve had it running for about two weeks and there have certainly been a lot of tickets drip feeding in during that time. There is no pattern to when, so I could wake up to alert emails sent during the night, or receive them whilst walking the dogs or otherwise not being in a position to do anything about it. However, today I was sat at my desk at work and an alert email came through. I jumped on the site and managed to grab a top-price ticket to the very final track medal session featuring the Women’s sprint, Women’s Omnium and Men’s Keirin. All three events will have very solid possibilities of GB medals.

So, mission accomplished and my EC2 instance has now been retired. There’s still tickets coming in though, and time to grab them so if you are also a bit of a geek feel free to make use of this script!

The rest of the Tour

Despite best intentions of blogging a daily update on my trip to watch some of the 2012 Tour de France, wine and the difficulty in typing out long prose on an iPhone means I’ll simply write this single summary now I’m back in Blighty.

Stage 6 – Epernay to Metz

After staying in Epernay overnight we got up to discover a bright, sunny day. After packing up the camping gear we headed out on the bikes into the town centre to the stage depart with the idea of nosing around the team buses and generally seeing what was going on. Unfortunately we arrived rather earlier than the teams so ended up doing a couple of trips up and down the cobbled start on the Avenue de Champagne before having a quick coffee and watching the caravan go past (something we’d already tired of seeing to be honest)

By the time we made our way back to the depart numerous buses had arrived and were setting up. We wandered around and took in a little bit of the signing in stage before concentrating on the Garmin and Sky buses, both of which were handily parked facing the barriers keeping the general public out of the invited guest only area. Others to do so were mainly the French teams. It was notable, and admirable, on the day after the leak of the names of those who testified to the USADA in the US Postal/Armstrong affair that Garmin (Vaughters, Zabriske, Van de Velde) were still opening themselves and their riders up to the public.

After catching long (Dan Martin) or short (David Millar, Brad Wiggins, Cav, etc) glimpses of riders and their bikes (including admiring Tom Danielson’s stealth Cervelo R5 Project California which later ended up broken in two after a crash) we headed back to the Avenue de Champagne to watch them roll out on the netralised start.

It was then a case of getting back to the campsite quickly and heading the 170 miles to our next destination in the Haute-Saone. Unfortunately getting out of Epernay in the direction we wanted proved tricky thanks to road closures and we ended up trailing the tour for a couple of hours until we managed to break free from the route. Nevertheless we made it to Saint Maurice sur Moselle that evening to find a lovely campsite to act as our home for the next three days. We also met a couple of fellow Brits out with much the same idea as us.

Stage 7 – Tomblaine to La Planche des Belle Filles

This day was always going to be the highlight of the trip. To see why, watch this preview from Dan Martin:

On the morning we again headed out early and were climbing the Ballon d’Servance towards Plancher les Mines. We then cycled slowly up the steep slopes of the Belle Filles along with thousands of others on foot or bike. At the 2km to go point we were told we had to walk so opted to descend a couple of hundred meters and choose our spot for the day. Unfortunately by this time it was only about 11am and the race would not be with us for another 5 1/2 hours! The constant stream of people at least meant there was something to look at, but even the caravan seemed like a welcome sight in the end. Eventually though twitter informed us of the approaching riders and soon the sound of helicopters signalled their arrival at the foot of the climb. When they passed us Richie Porte was pulling Brad and Froome along. Being on a section without barriers gave us that unique chance to see the action up close and of course being a mountain finish the action carried on for a while as dropped riders, the grupetto and the injured kept coming for twenty minutes or so.

As soon as the broom wagon passed we hopped on the bikes to descend through the masses, finding pros coming past us down the mountain to their awaiting buses. Cadel made it down pretty quickly and stopped to chat to some Aussie fans along the way. In general though they didn’t mess about and shouted to get crowds out of the way which also made it quicker for us!

The journey back involved heading back over the Ballon d’Servance from the more difficult side.

Stage 8 – Belfort to Porrentruy

We woke up after a night of intermittent and sometimes heavy rain to find overcast skies and a fair wind. This confirmed our idea of taking the opportunity to watch this stage from the campsite bar. The original idea had been to ride in the morning but the weather put us off so we jumped in the car for a ride back to Belle Filles to see what the finish ramp looked like in the flesh. All in all it was probably the right call as those that did go to watch the stage said it was basically a long day of driving into Switzerland and finding a decent point to watch was hard.

We did get on the bikes to tackle the nearby Ballon de Alsace before dinner.

Stage 9 – Time Trial

The plan here was always to head to the finish in Besancon and then it was a case of heading straight back to Calais. However, the timetable was amended to include an earlier start and a stop off to cycle the Planche des Belle Filles on the way. After packing up we drove across the Servance to the foot of the climb, unloaded the bikes and headed up. After a hard ascent, a quick coffee and a fast descent we were off for the 75 mile journey to the TT finish.

We ended up on a 90 degree corner at the 3km to go mark. Numerous riders had already gone, but we got their just in time to see Dan Zabriske in full Captain America national TT champs uniform, and soon after him Tony Martin in the rainbow bands. Whilst the lower order riders had a two minute time gap things were fairly active. At one stage a gaggle of three riders came past. However once the higher order starters were on course the time gaps went up to three minutes and all of a sudden the realisation of the sheer amount of waiting around in quite strong sunshine was at the forefront of our minds. Nevertheless we stuck it out, with regular checks of Twitter to follow the action. Once it came down to the top ten, with all riders on the course things hotted up and of course the rest is well known with both Froome and Wiggins blowing the field away. It was definitely a good decision to choose a tight corner and the techniques and speed of riders varied quite dramatically.

After Wiggo passed we immediately jumped on the bikes and cycled about 5km back to where we’d left the car, just by the motorway. This again proved wise as we had to negotiate an already large amount of standstill traffic. Less than 30 minutes from leaving we were on the motorway and heading back to Calais, a mere 398 miles away.

So, what are my feelings about watching the tour in real life? Well firstly, it was something very special to be there when Wiggins took Yellow and hopefully I’ll be able to say that I watched the tour the year of the first British winner. However, there’s no getting away from the immense amount of waiting around involved in tour watching, and if you intend to follow it for a number of days, the large amount of transition involved. Mountain stages are definitely the way to go, especially mountain top finishes. Also, I’d probably do more to incorporate catching a stage or two as part of a cycling holiday rather than hoping to fit in some cycling as part of a trip to follow the tour, if that makes sense.

All in all though, an awesome experience.

Tour – day one

It is currently 10pm French time and I’m sat in a campsite in Epernay sipping a beer and, prior to writing this blog post, reading Laurent Fignon’s autobiography. Life doesn’t get better.

We started out this morning as I picked Paul up from Brookmans Park station at 0650. A swift and uneventful journey to Dover was only broken by the realization that our journey to this campsite would take us right past the finish of today’s stage 5. This unexpected bonus was impossible to ignore and so we parked up on the outskirts of Saint Quentin and unloaded the bikes to ride into town.

20120705-220330.jpg

Spectating at a sprint finish is always a strange affair as things pass you by so fast. After a nice lunch we found ourselves positioned about 900m from the finish on a slight uphill drag. The wait for the peloton was punctuated by the publicity caravan and then regular checkins with Twitter and the BBC for updates as the riders approached. Only the appearance of helicopters indicated the imminent arrival of the tour as a lone Cofidis rider appeared into view, closely pursued by a small gaggle of fellow breakaways. Then the peloton appeared, thinned by an unknown crash 3km out from the end. At the front Boasson Hagen appeared confused and looking round for Cav. From my viewpoint it appeared the bunch had conceded the stage. We watched as team cars and trailing riders went past, trying to decipher the French commentary and desperately checking Twitter.

GREIPEL WINS!

Nothing made sense on hearing that news but later reports filled in the gaps. Needless we decided to retire quickly to the car for the transition to Epernay, our home for the night and the start of Fridays stage. And here I write this with belly full and anticipation risen. We’ve got the tour bug…

The grand plan for tomorrow is to catch the stage start the head directly to our next camp at Saint Maurice sur Moselle in the Vosges mountains, hopefully in time to see a sprint finish and to climb the Ballon d’Alsace to tip things off.