Do not adjust your internets… You are reading a cycling blog; it’s just that I want to talk about poker for a moment… Poker is mathematical game, it can be played by the numbers – look at your hand, assess the odds and bet accordingly. If you play poker with limits on the amount you can bet, over time you can play almost robotically and be successful, providing you can do the sums correctly. Take the limits away – as in the famous Texas No Limit Hold ‘em format – and the game completely changes.
It’s only when everything is on the line, when in any hand you could loose it all, when a game can be won and lost based on a player’s understanding of how and why their opponents bet, that the game really turns into a battle. A game where a big set of brass balls can beat the odds; and sometimes does.
Recently, Bradley Wiggins retweeted a link to Adidas’ new campaign film: All In (or whatever). Whether this was through genuine appreciation or contractual obligation matters not; the relevance of that phrase really struck me whilst watching Milan-Sanremo a week or so ago.
The most exciting moment of this season so far*, for me, came in a few scant moments of the Tour of Qatar; when Bradley jumped off the front. Yes, shielded by the relative anonymity of the blogosphere I’ll admit that when, with a few kilometres to go to some poorly attended finish line in the middle of Nowheresville, The Desert, he put his head down and nailed it I was actually up off the couch in excitement. Whether he was really going for it, messing around for the cameras, winning a bet, stretching his pursuit legs or just got a little lost, for a moment it was still great. Because that’s what you want to see from him, isn’t it? As a figurehead for the team, right?
Okay, you think I’m exaggerating, well then I’d invite you to think of it in contrast it to the rather depressing sight of him and the other Sky guys riding tempo, as part of a deflated chasing group, up the Cipressa during the Milan-Sanremo. Now, let me suffix that with an appreciation of how fantastic a feat that actually is, and the physical demands that such tempos make; to still be in that company after six-odd hours is impressive in itself. But Scarponi, Chainel, Van Avermart, Gilbert, Goss et al? They weren’t just impressive, they were all in.
Yeah, so, Boassen Hagen was the stated lead man for the day, and had got himself in that front group after the split so Sky put their eggs in his basket, and weren’t as committed to chasing at they were to playing the waiting game. As Geraint Thomas has put it to Velonation:
“Before we knew it the group of 40 or so guys had 2 minutes. This meant the race ended up being a bit of an anticlimax. The situation wasn’t a disaster for us, as we had Eddie up there, so we just had to sit back and be ready to go if the group was brought back.”
I see that, but I don’t agree with it. What I want to see is the kind of lunacy I saw from Michele Scarponi: SCREW THIS, I’m off.
The team is meant to be supporting Boassen Hagen, so go support him or blow up trying – if your game plan is to lead out B-H, then send some poor sods up the road to go do it, that’s what they’re there for, surely? If they can’t make it, what’s to lose? Scarponi bridged the gap between the groups, and in doing so embarrassed everyone behind him – not simply by the fact that he managed it (that was just freakily good) but through his single-minded commitment to trying to do it. Had he not pushed his chips in at that point, we may have gone through the rest of our lives thinking that the pace was just too quick for it to be done. Imagine that, eh?
He had a team mate up the road, it didn’t matter, he didn’t wait; he buried himself, rolled up behind him, took the complimentary handslap and between them they proceeded to get him into a position where he was in with a shout at the line (well, maybe a whimper, but…)
Boassen Hagen finished 30th. With a little company, who knows? Even I’d bet on better than 30th, mind. Steve Chainel finished one place behind him, probably in tatters. Who rode the better race?
The world of track cycling, and especially at the British Olympic level, strikes me a being a pot limit kinda sport. As I understand it, British Cycling is a very ‘performance oriented’ organisation; it largely believes in concentrating on maximising individual performance – controlling the controllable, if you like. Road racing isn’t about that; you simply cannot control the uncontrollable. You have to gamble.
Watching Bradley Wiggins’ talk to the BBC after Manchester certainly made me believe his heart is in track cycling; there was such a contented grin on his face, that contrasted starkly with the comments about having to return to his ‘day job’ on the road.
It worries me that his flawless track mentality, that makes him so good when he puts the aero gear on, deprives Sky of the slightly unhinged quality that the road almost demands.
As the fact that they had to send Deloittes in to monitor the situation attests to, the relationship between British Cycling and Team Sky is a complicated one. Riders are being co-funded by tax-payer and corporate money – for potentially conflicting purposes. What I think is more important here, though, is a mentality thing. Numbers are important in road racing, but ultimately they’re not always as important as ‘balls’ – characterised as the ability to occasionally throw it all up the wall and gamble. It strikes me that a performance-orientated approach can teach a rider to play by the numbers that could conquer the track, but it can’t teach him to play with the balls that road racing demands at its decisive moments.
When you get into a game of poker, reputation can mean a lot. If a player feels he can read the table, it’s a massive advantage. Build a reputation as a tough player, and you can get away with murder. The reputation of riders is forged in races like the Milan-Sanremo. Made by the moments of bravery, idiocy, bravado and brilliance. It’s this reputation that will play on the mind of rivals. I wasn’t expecting Sky to push the chase into Sanremo on. I doubt many were. Short of a little three-wide pace slowing, they were a non-entity. They disappeared. What does that say?
While Francais Des Jeux sadistically blew it to pieces, they sat back and waited. Apparently that was the team tactic; what a waste of a chance to lay some markers down, even if it could end up being in vain.
Let me finish with this thought: if, next year, we find ourselves in a world without race radios, and the same situation arises, could you see Bradley mustering the troops to storm the Poggio in pursuit? Hmmmm… It’s an interesting one, that. I’d like to hope he would. At the very least I’d like Sky to be a team that would inspire him to try – and here’s why. It strikes me that only when they go all in, and really don’t know what the result of the gamble will be, that a talented athlete can find out things about themselves and their opponents that can be invaluable later down the line. That and it marks them out as a bit of a badass, which can’t hurt. If that’s not how Brad wants to roll, fine… But why line up in the first place?
A postscript, should you still be awake: if you’re looking for a reason to be happy about the potential Mark Cavendish-to-Sky scenario, think about how good for the team it might be to have a Brit on board who seems like he genuinely would kick his own Gran to the kerb to cross the line first.
*originally penned before Ian Stannard’s epic dig in the Gent-Wevelgem – which is EXACTLY the kind of lunacy that I’m looking for in a one day race. Who won? Who cares? Not me…