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Statistics and Emotion: Our Final Dispatch on the 2009 Spring Classics

The best spell of the bike race season is now done. Spring Classics season is where the tension between risk & reward is most acute. Unlike the incessant strategic hedging and energy-conservation intrinsic to the Grand Tours, spring is where dagger-in-the-heart aggression is the main ingredient for glory. They’re the most thrilling races, they’re the most visually dramatic, and it’s where our heroes seem most like ourselves: One 30-minute effort where the body screams no -- That one-time brief, impossible conquering of oneself -- Is anything else in life more gratifying?

2009 was an especially good Spring Classics season. In trying to make sense of who rocked spring and who blew it, it seems like there are two valid approaches: One statistical, and one emotional. Our goal here is to sort it all out.

I. STATISTICAL APPROACH. No sport is more resistant to statistical analysis than big-time bike racing. The primary reason is that other than wins, almost no one cares about anything else. What Bill James did to baseball, we have some lunatics (I say that lovingly) who’ve tried to do the same for cycling. But the truth is that few-if-any fans give a flip about UCI points and most would be hard-pressed to name the last 3 winners of the ProTour and when you see a ProTour leader in his leader’s jersey most people have no idea what it means and dismiss it as something akin to the Estonian or Canadian National Champion’s jersey.

Ours is a statistically deaf-and-dumb sport, which means that if we dare compile statistics we have no conventions for interpreting them, making it an doubly-dangerous enterprise. So accept our apologies up front for our methods.

I limited the data to the following: Top-10 results in Spring Classics (Milan-San Remo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold, and Liege-Bastogne-Liege); Top-10 results in major one-day races (Ghent-Wevelgem, Brabantse Pijl, Fleche Wallone; GP E3, Dwars door Vlaanderen, Grote Scheldeprijis); and Top-10 GC results in major stage races (Tour of California, Paris-Nice, Tirreno-Adriatico, and Tour of the Basque Country).

We attributed points to each placing: 1st = 40, 2nd = 25, 3rd = 21, 4th = 7, 5th =6….10th =1. In our estimation getting on the podium is a matter of life and death for sponsorship ROI, hence the precipitous drop-off in points from 3rd to 4th. We then applied a modifier of 5x for the Spring Classics, and 3x for stage races. So, for example, Mark Cavendish’s Milan-San Remo win got Team Columbia 200 points; Alberto Contador’s win at the Tour of the Basque Country netted Astana 120 points; and Pippo Pozzato’s win at GP E3 gained Katusha 40 points.

We did not give points for stage wins at springtime stage races, because in comparison to all of the other springtime opportunities out there, winning a single stage at a weeklong race isn’t a sufficient accomplishment Too many losers 30min down in GC win a stage because the GC contenders let them go. That ain’t springtime bike racing. That’s crying wolf. Maybe it’s good enough for the Tour de France, but in spring it might net you a sandwich in the face as you ride by.

So, using this methodology, here’s how things panned out for the spring:

Quick Step 659
Cervelo Test Team 574
Saxo Bank 558
Katusha 528
Columbia 394
Astana 360
Silence-Lotto 276
Caisse d’Epargne 267
Rabobank 185
Diquigiovanni 175
Garm*n 125
Liquigas 112
Euskatel 100
Lampre 86
Acqua Sapone 85
LPR 70
Francaise de Jeux 64
Milram 51
Skil-Shimano 34
An Post 25
Vacansoleil 22
Ceramica Flaminia 15
Ag2R 11
BMC 7
BBox 6
Elk Haus 5
Landbouwkredit 5
Andalucia 3
Topsport 1
Verandas Willems 1

What the statistics tell us: (1) The obvious thing is that Quick Step owns the spring. What makes their point total remarkable is that they didn’t do a darn thing in the stage races. Their dominance in the one-day race scene is impressive. Given the pressure on the team to perform in these races, their ability to deliver this spring was spectacular.

(2) Given the initial skepticism put on the Cervélo Test Team, the consistency of their performance this spring was a surprise to many. The most dramatic highlight was Thor Hushovd’s day at Paris-Roubaix. But in terms of Gerard Vroomen’s talent scouting, he killed it by signing Heinrich Haussler from Gerolsteiner. In 2008 Haussler won one stage of the Bayern-Rundfahrt, that’s it. His podium placings in Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders stunned everyone. And don’t forget his 4th in the Dwaars door Vlaanderen and 7th at Paris-Roubaix. We’ve seen the future, and his name is Heinrich.

(3) Nobody was a tougher critic of Saxo Bank than me. And while Andy Schleck’s dominance of LBL more-than-redeemed the team’s spring, the stats prove that Saxo Bank’s spring didn’t need redeeming. They had no shortage of top-5′s and more podium placings than (in my heart) I gave them credit for. In short, their spring was a lot better than it appeared prior to LBL.

(4) Katusha’s fourth-place finish in our standings is another case of team over-achievement. Much of Katusha’s hopes for success this spring were put at the feet of specialist sprinter Robbie McEwen. Ghent-Wevelgem and the Grote Scheldeprijis were both races tailor-made for his finishing skills. And while he didn’t deliver the goods, his teammates were nonetheless sparkling, including a win at E3 and a 2nd at Paris-Roubaix by Pozzato, and a win at Amstel Gold by Sergei Ivanov.

(5) 100 reasons exist to exclude Tour of California from our list of points-earning races and we considered doing so. Disqualifying reasons include but are not limited to: The race is in North America; the race is in February; bibs 96-168 were worn by riders of suspect relevance nearly all of whom are either too slow, too over-the-hill, or too-stained-in-reputation to ever do a PRO race (i.e. in Europe against Euro PROS who’ve never heard of a ‘Sea Otter’); and, lastly, those dipshit ‘fans’ who sprinted up Palomar in sumo outfits who’d be best-served by being clubbed to a pulp then having their bodies burned in the desert still trapped inside their costumes and the heat will melt and marry them and their mylar costume into one flesh. Ah, yes, a boy can dream.

We’ll agree that the Tour of California is a spectacle, but calling it PRO is a loooooong stretch and if we rightfully excluded it from our list Garm*n would assume their correct destiny as the statistical equal of Team Elk Haus and Astana would fall between Rabobank and Caisse d’Epargne. But California is Competitive Cyclist’s #1 state-by-revenue so for the sake of being politic we’ll pretend the race is on par with Tirreno or Pays-Basque even though it absolutely, totally isn’t.

II. EMOTIONAL APPROACH. Little Rock is home of the Arkansas Travelers baseball team, the AA affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels. I love going to Travs games. I drink a lot of beer and eat a frightful amount of unhealthy food and my pleasure in being fairly drunk is intensified by the superiority I feel over the boxscore-keeping goofs in the stands who, instead of taking in the inherent pleasure of the game and the carefree-conversation-with-friends it induces and the relative closeness of the predictably mega-hot player’s wives -- instead of living these joys they’re glued face-to-scorecard, imprisoned by a fear of missing the remotest statistical detail. Data: It’s no substitute for joy and the other emotions that make us whole. Which is why the emotional approach is superior to the statistical one.

Hardest Race of the Spring: It’s gotta be Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Andy Schleck’s attack was courageous, but what made it successful was the fact that nobody could summon the will to chase. Silence-Lotto had 3 riders in the next group, Caisse d’Epargne and Diquigiovanni had a couple each -- and they wouldn’t organize no matter how big Schleck’s gap grew. It’s not that they weren’t tactically smart or motivated to win. Rather, they were a bunch of zombies. Shattered, all of them. The final 20km was, in fact, pretty boring because nobody would do anything but ride tempo. I have a new respect for LBL. There’s a reason why it’s called the unofficial World Championship for climbers. That many 4km climbs -- all at warp speed -- it slays even the best climbers in the world by the end of the day.

Seemingly Easiest Race of the Spring: The obvious answer, of course, is Tour of California due to the density of minor-leaguers in the peloton. But for the sake of interesting conversation let’s give the award to Milan-San Remo instead. It’s NOT easy, we know that. But 6 hours at 28mph without much in the way of stiff attacks before the Poggio -- the flavor’s a bit too much like a hard endurance ride, lacking in the repeated acts of desperation you get from the northern classics. 162 finishers? Can’t we add some rain & cobbles?

Most Overrated Monument: La Redoute in Liege-Bastogne-Liege. When was the last time this climb was anything but a late race dick-measuring contest? Even the legendary Bartoli vs Vandenbroucke spectacle in ’99 was little more than foreplay. La Redoute causes tons of guys to get spit out the back, but remind us the last time when the winner was launched from La Redoute. And the runner up is Milan-San Remo’s Poggio. Again, when was the last time the eventual winner sprung loose there?

Most Monumental Monument: The Arenberg Forest lived up to its reputation yet again this year in Paris-Roubaix. It distilled the field to a handful of true contenders. The scrum leading to the entrance; the explosive crashes within it; the purity of the visual beauty throughout -- Is it bike race Mecca?

Most Dominant Team Performance: Team Saxo Bank at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. They took absolute authority over the race at 90km to go, and on every climb their goal was to obliterate the field. They literally sacrificed one of the riders per hill on each hill in the last 90km. It’s this tactic that drained the legs and the motivation from Cunego, Rebellin, Valverde, and the rest of the favorites. And while the counter-attack by Phillipe Gilbert with about 30km to go was vicious, the ease with which Schleck soloed up to him then flicked him proved that Gilbert, too, was suffering from Saxo Bank’s murderous pace on the climbs for the previous 2hrs.

Most Pathetic Team Performance: The lads at Garm*n-Slipstream in Tour of the Basque Country. They’re a team of time-trialists, which is another way of saying they’re trying to be a team for the stage races. What better opportunity to show off their mad stage race skillz than at what’s maybe Europe’s most long-lived weeklong stage race? Ernest Hemingway spends 3 pages in ‘The Sun Also Rises’ talking about it (it’s Pais Vasco or Pays Basque in the book…I forget…The race passes through San Sebastian as Jake Barnes detoxes post-Pamplona fiesta, which in Hemingway’s world means that the drinking strictly occurs from 3pm-til-bedtime, not a minute earlier.) Garm*n rewarded American fans of bike racing & of Hemingway with a signature performance where only 2 of their 8 starters finished. The boys in argyle got tummyaches, they wilted in the rain, they missed the long sessions of Wii back in Girona, fuck I don’t know why but there are days where I don’t want to go to work but it doesn’t matter.

Best Photo: Jeremy Dunn of Embrocation Cycling Journal snapped this right after Johan Van Summeren got off his bike at Paris-Roubaix. He gutted himself for Leif Hoste. He doubtless harnessed some secret hope that maybe oh maybe the tactics would play out in a way where maybe he could win. And then he fishtailed into a crash with Hoste and Flecha in the Carrefour d’Arbre. He looks empty here in 1,000 different ways. Graham Watson and Cor Vos and Sirotti get beautiful photos where the race looks like landscape and other shots of bikes that serve as nice fodder for component geeks. But emotion -- interestingly, it’s something they rarely capture, certainly not intimately like this.

Best Journalism: Gotta give it to Embrocation Cycling Journal one more time. The physical Embrocation magazine is a bit too cyclocross-focused for my interests. But they did phenomenal blogging for their week in Belgium where they took in the Ronde, Ghent-Wevelgem, then Paris-Roubaix. They did something like 15 posts during their week in Europe. They’re one part sociology, one part comedy. Great writing, revealing photos, some excellent short videos. These guys nailed it so well that I’ve gotta wonder if they should give up on the magazine thing and go whole-hog into online bike race culture journalism. The perma-hibernation at the Belgium Knee Warmers blog gives Embrocation the opening it needs to become the go-to online site for all things PRO. Great job Jeremy.

MVP of the Peloton: Johan Van Summeren of Silence-Lotto. I mentioned above his awesome self-obliteration at the service of Leif Hoste in Paris-Roubaix. But, amazingly, did you see how he did the same exact thing for Cadel Evans up to the final approach of the Mur de Huy at Fleche Wallone? Name me another rider as versatile. He’s like a Cuisinart, What would you like him to do to the peloton? Slice, shred, chop, or grind?? You name it, he’ll do it exactly to your specifications, Mr. Directeur, and it doesn’t matter the terrain or the weather. While riders like Quick Step’s Sylvain Chavanel showed equal selflessness, nobody was nearly as useful to their team in every flavor of spring terrain. He rocks our world.