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!

London 2012 tickets once more.

A short postscript to my previous posts on my attempt to land tickets for London 2012.

I got official confirmation that of the 14 sessions I applied for (mostly track cycling and swimming – things I really, really wanted to see some of) I was allocated four tickets to a Women’s Basketball session on the first full day of competition.

It appears I made a fatal mistake in my strategy. Whilst concentrating my initial application on the stuff I really wanted, and potentially committing a significant amount of money, I also put in a few filler sessions here and there. For instance, the women’s basketball falls between morning and evening swimming sessions that I’d applied for. The thinking was obvious – we’d be on the Olympic site all day so why not maximise the opportunity to see things.

However, this decision backfired in a big way.

After the initial storm of protest over the handling of the initial ticket ballot, LOCOG announced plans for a second round of sales in late June/July. Crucially, first preference for this round would go to people who got NOTHING from their initial application. Now, whilst there was no swimming or track cycling available in the second round, there were still some fairly choice sessions, including some athletics in the main stadium. The key difference to the second round compared to the first was that it was first-come first-served.

Hence, when tickets went on sale last week the most attractive events went in minutes (not withstanding the rather bizarre problems in people actually knowing if their order was actually successful.)

The key point for me was that if you were at all successful in the first ballot, as I was, then you have to wait until 17th July to take part in the second round. By that time, it is likely all that will be left is football tickets, primarily in places like Hampden Park, Scotland.

So, by choosing some filler material in my initial application I’ve effectively handicapped myself from having a second bite of the cherry. I’m happy for friends who have been tweeting about the athletics tickets they’ve had confirmation of over the weekend, and just to reiterate, I’m happy I’ll be seeing something of the games, especially in the Olympic Park. However, had I known how the full process was going to work before I made any application whatsoever, I’d have done things differently. I’d have gone only for the stuff I really, really wanted in the first round and been happy to fight for whatever was left at the first opportunity if I was unsuccessful in the first round.

Sadly, I doubt I’ll ever get the chance to put that into practice.

London 2012 Olympics ticket result

I’d previously blogged about my London 2012 ticket application. In brief, I applied for a fairly large number of sessions, focussed around track cycling as well as some swimming, one athletics session, a few other assorted choices and the opening ceremony. In total the application came to between £2,300 to just under £3k as I applied for a range of session prices (and in most cases did not go for the cheapest tickets)

Well, I now know the result. I’ve got tickets.

olympictx.jpg

Taking away the £6 admin fee, I’ve received £140 worth of tickets. it is clear that the only thing or combination of sessions I applied for that comes to that amount is four tickets to the Women’s Basketball on Saturday 28th July at £35 each.

Now, I am fully aware that lots and lots of people (including lots of friends) got nothing. It’s going to be amazing to be on the olympic site on the first day of full competition.

However, I also know I am not alone in being very disappointed that of the outlay I was willing to spend I’ve ended up with less than 6% of it, and only then because it is an early session in a very low demand sport that will certainly have plenty of tickets available in the second chance phase later this month.

I certainly did not hope for everything, but I longed for one of the track cycling sessions. I deliberately made applications for single tickets at the second highest price bracket for the midweek evening sessions as well as applications for nearly every other track session. I know the venue only seats 6000 people, but to get nothing is disappointing.

I do know, and understand, why the process worked like it did. On the flip-side I agree with a number of people I’ve seen argue about the imperfect information provided about the number of tickets at various price categories etc. Having moved back to the UK from Ireland recently, and started a new job, there has been some stress involved in making sure I had the funds available to cover my potential outlay for these tickets whilst juggling moving costs, rent deposits and other large outgoings before I’d even picked up my first pay packet. I would have been delighted to get everything I asked for – everything was there for a reason as the original blog post makes clear. However part of me wonders how many people played the game of making outrageous applications on the bet that their actual allocation would be of a reasonable value and worst-case if they “got” everything then their payment would be declined. In hindsight it seems that this type of gaming was the only way to improve your odds of succeeding from the system.

I’ll be applying for the track cycling preparation event which happens in February 2012 as well as taking a look at the Paralympic events. It must not be forgotten that there are truly awesome athletes that take part in the Paralympic Games. Track cycling itself can point to Sarah Storey who afterall is good enough to force her way into the able-bodied GB track team.