Predicting the outcome of a bike race is a fool’s errand, says the Doc — far better to rewrite history and pretend you got it right
here are three immutable laws T of bike-race result prediction. The first is that if asked who’ll win any given race, I’ll get it wrong. The second is that the rider I almost committed to will, in fact, win. The third is that even if I try to outwit fate by swapping my first and second choices at the last minute, rules one and two will continue to apply.
Bike-race prediction is a fool’s game. I’ve learned the hard way never to say “Richie Porte” when asked for a pick for an upcoming Grand Tour. But then again, I thought I’d learned the same lesson about Geraint Thomas.
As I sit right now in the Cycling Weekly office, I can see a whiteboard that contains the staff’s old predictions for several stages of last July’s Tour de France. I can see that I got exactly nothing right. But almost no one did significantly better, other than an anonymous scribe who just wrote “That Welsh bloke” for every single day. There are no sure bets. Peter Sagan for the Tour’s green jersey is probably as close as it comes. Other certainties will let you down. I was completely confident that Alejandro Valverde was still going to be winning the uphill sprint at Flèche Wallonne well into that portion of his career where he’d have to be reanimated each morning by wiring him up to the team-bus battery, but then Julian Alaphilippe won it this year and I was back to looking like an idiot.
The easy approach is to name whoever won the same race last time. It worked well at the Tour de France through the eras of Miguel Indurain and Lance Armstrong, even if a retrospective check reveals that Armstrong didn’t win all those Tours after all. I’m not sure what betting odds you’d have been able to get on the winner of seven consecutive Tours being “absolutely nobody”, but if you’d backed it on an accumulator you’d be the George Soros of cycling punditry by now.
The only genuinely successful race
predictor I know is an ex-pro, who now works in the media. He goes round each bus before the start, asking all his old mates who from their team will be properly targeting the race today, who had a bad night’s sleep, who’s missing their new kitten, and who’s having a sulk with the team management because the logistics staff gave them the wrong pillow. He carefully avoids letting slip any information thus obtained. His public prognostications are of the decoy variety, so that the bookies’ odds are left undisturbed till he can get a sequence of bets placed. What I find most upsetting of all is that his deliberately wrong predictions are still more accurate than my completely sincere ones.
The sheer unpredictability of cycling is my only comfort. It’s genuinely hard. Predicting the result of a bike race is, I think, more akin to Victorian weather forecasting than anything else. You look at the way the wind is blowing. You sniff the air. You consider what happened yesterday, and what happened last year. And then you take a wild guess. And if, by luck, you are right? Well, then you must publicise
“Predicting race results is akin to Victorian weather forecasting”
your genius as widely as possible, among friends, family, and social media. No one should be allowed to forget the times you were right, because they will eventually drown out the times you were wrong.
Of course, there is an even more devious option. Take this whiteboard I’m looking at right now. It would be unethical of me to rub out all my predictions and replace them with the right result, then point that out to everyone. But not so wrong that I’m not about to do it.
Selecting winners at random is as good a bet as any