Award-winning sports journalist and author
Award-winning sports journalist and author

Luck and bike racing

So how lucky do you have to be to win Paris-Roubaix, or any bike race? Look at those cobbles, gasp at those crashes, and you could jump to the conclusion that you have to be pretty damn lucky, with the degree of good fortune depending on the degree of danger and the number of riders in the mix: more luck required for Paris-Roubaix or the Dengie Marshes, or any race ending with a bunch sprint; less luck for something hilly and decent surfaced where a strong rider will make a difference.

It’s not that obvious though. We use the word luck to describe various things. First up, there is the act of God, the genuinely uncontrollable event which comes out of the blue and about which nothing can be done. Do Paris-Roubaix crashes and punctures fall into his category?

Occasionally, although I’d argue mostly not. More often, incidents stem from a rider being under pressure physically or mentally, be it only fractionally. It’s rare for the lead rider in a section of cobbles to crash or puncture; the victims tend to be the men who are further back in the group. The “luck” of Paris-Roubaix is natural selection in a brutal environment.

So too the “luck” that meant during 10 Tours de France we watched and marvelled as first Miguel Indurain then Lance Armstrong breezed through without crashing, and with no ill-timed punctures. The crashes happened to Big Mig and Big Tex’s rivals, the men under pressure. How lucky? Then why was it that both Armstrong, and Indurain, hit trouble for the first time in the Tours where physically they were under the cosh, for various reasons, in 2003 and 2010 for Armstrong, and in 1996 for Indurain. No coincidence.

There are other kinds of luck in bike racing. Take the opportunity seized or not seized. Again, Paris-Roubaix. Was Fabian Cancellara “unlucky”? Not in the slightest. He chased to within 25sec of the break and decided to stop riding on the grounds that Thor Hushovd might benefit. That’s not luck. Whatever Hushovd was doing, Cancellara made a decision which cost him the chance to win.

Most critical of all, however, is the decision to trust to luck, the point at which a bike rider gambles and say “I can get away with this, with a bit of luck.” Bike races are made of dozens of these decisions, some conscious, some unconscious. The crash that cost Mark Cavendish a possible win in Ghent-Wevelgem: very unlucky, surely? Yes, but it began with a decision. Talking to someone close to Cav’, it’s clear that he had opted to sit a little further back in the group, because he had only two team mates to shelter him if he sat closer to the front. He accepted the risk, made a gamble that was perfectly sensible and rational, but the dice didn’t roll his way. It’s a perfect example of making your own luck.

There’s another side to it. Countless bike races are won and lost by the elimination of bad luck, as per the film magnate Samuel Goldwyn’s saying, the harder I work, the luckier I get. Take one example: Brian Robinson’s decision to buy his own tyres for his first Tour in 1955, rather than trust to team issue. It was a career changing move, as Robinson avoided a plague of punctures that eliminated most of the Great Britain team, and went on to greater things.

Personal experience backs this one up. I remember one season when I had no crashes or punctures or illness and almost every race went my way. It just happened to be the one when I actually prepared properly over the winter, got the help of a good mechanic, and organized everything from nutrition to matured tyres. “Bad luck” that year was limited to a broken fork somewhere along the line. You can’t rule out the odd fluke, but you can make your own good fortune in cycling to a massive degree.

And what about superstitions, fetishes that bring good luck? The old teeshirt you always wear, the rabbit’s foot, the baby’s glove, the music that has to be listened to en route to the start? Chris Hoy’s take on these is the best. Forget them, throw them out the window. What happens when the t-shirt is lost in the wash, the rabbit’s foot gets eaten by the cat or the tape wears out? Uh oh.

There is another way of looking at it. Bike races are won by planning, physical strength, racing instinct, and right and wrong decisions. Luck? The last arrival at the party.

This column first appeared in rouleur magazine in May 2011, and was inspired by a piece on the website