Cycling analysis: Bicycle stage racing is chess on wheels
August 21, 2011
ASPEN – Standing dumbfounded watching the great rugby games that frequent Aspen, I become confused and frustrated. I simply don’t understand who the players are, the tasks they perform, and the strategy of the game. It would be a lot more fun if I knew more. Given my involvement with bicycle stage racing, which I have become very familiar with over the years, people often ask me to explain the game. While teaching my young daughter chess recently, it occurred to me that there are a lot of parallels to bicycle stage racing that can be used to better understand and appreciate the sport.
A bike race might appear to be quite simple. The first one across the line wins. While this is true for a single-day event, bicycle stage racing (let’s just call it “Racing” for short), takes place over many consecutive days and the rider with the shortest accumulated time wins. Making the podium requires strategy, patience and nerve. It can be much like a game of chess.
At the highest professional level, Racing is played out by teams of six to nine riders. They are among the world’s highest-paid, best-trained athletes. Worldwide, cycling is second in popularity only to soccer. A lot is at stake. Races are typically on paved roads and last from four to 21 days through varied terrain on the steepest hills a continent has to offer. There is a great deal of organization and strategy needed over many days for ultimate victory.
The teams are made up of a variety of “pieces.” The riders are of varied skills and best at specific moves. Each has strengths and weaknesses, and each focuses on tasks that help the team win. Many teams have a leader who hopes to win the overall victory.
Unlike chess, with its weak king who is hobbled to the simplest moves, the team leader is the alpha with the greatest all-around ability. Also unlike chess, Racing is composed of many teams rather than just two. This makes the game all the more challenging. Beyond these and a few other obvious differences, a lot of parallels can be made between the two games. With this basic knowledge, watching the Tour de France, or the upcoming USA Pro Cycling Challenge, can be a lot more fun.
Each team is put together and controlled by a team director. The directors build their team so it has all of the best pieces. They are responsible for most of the strategy, tactics and “moves”.
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Comparing chess pieces with a team roster of well-known riders presents many parallels. Clearly, Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck, and Alberto Contador are kings of cycling this year. They and their director control the team and call the moves. The kings must have superior capabilities in many critical disciplines, such as hill climbing, power on the rolling hills, and time trialing. More importantly, they must be the best calculators of their personal energy and abilities, in order to dole out effort efficiently day after day.
The chess queen is a very powerful and critical element of success. George Hincapie and Fabian Cancellara are great examples of queens in Racing (though they might not appreciate the analogy). Every great team has a very powerful and effective second-in-command that makes huge efforts and takes risks whenever needed. They sacrifice themselves heroically but can never be a king themselves.
Each team has their knights, bishops and rooks. The sprinters are like the knights, with their ability to jump and sprint past all others for a short period. Bishops have the ear of the king, and sacrifice themselves in the time of greatest need. The rooks are solid riders who protect and harbor the king much of the way, then fall off early as the going gets tough.
The rest of the team is made up of the valuable yet expendable pawns. They don’t have the major skills of the others but tirelessly advance the game forward, fetch water bottles and protect the king. Occasionally a pawn can win a stage, much like reaching the far side of the chess board to great benefit for their team.
A key for the top three finishers is that their teams perform the best day after day through the grueling event. The director looks ahead and plans every move and decides who should sacrifice and when. He also directs the king on critical days to expose himself and take risks to get into contention. It is all about riding the total distance day after day the fastest.
With this understanding of how the teams operate over the many days of a race, one can begin to understand how the game is played. We all know mistakes can spoil your chess game. So does a missed critical breakaway, or expending too much energy at the wrong time, or not feeding properly. Riders must come back day after day at or near their peak. Every mistake is amplified as the race progresses.
This year we saw some great examples of the chess game won and lost at the Tour de France. The top contenders all miscalculated, and let crafty Frenchman Thomas Volkler gain several minutes in a breakaway. Crashes and other events broke their concentration, and he was able to wear the yellow jersey for many days and he even had a shot to win the entire race, mostly due to the errors of others. He rose to the occasion and raced heroically.
We saw Mark Cavendish, the strongest knight, joust and use his team “pieces” to win day after day. Many pawns had their day and some of the great kings were thwarted in battle by terrible crashes and mishaps — all part of the game.
The greatest battle was between the favorites — Andy Schleck, Alberto Contador and Cadel Evans. If you watched closely, their strategies and team pieces contributed greatly to their final place in the game. Alberto had some bad luck crashing early, but this great champion could not make up the difference largely because he did not have a strong enough team. Without an effective queen, bishop and rook to protect him and help him make up time, he weakened as the race progressed. When things go wrong, the team plays the largest roll pulling you along, sheltering you and delivering you to the end of each day the freshest.
How did Andy Schleck finish as runner up again, instead of winning? He had such a strong team and is a superior climber. And he had his brother Frank and the likes of Fabian Cancellara, who is perhaps the strongest helper in the sport. What went wrong for him? The answer is quite simple if you understand the game.
Everyone knows Andy’s weakness is the time trial, a solo race against the clock that occurs near the end of every grand Tour. He absolutely had to put a lot of time on the others before the time trial to win. Many feel he and his director did not play the right strategy to put him into this position. Much like in a chess game with a strong opponent, one must be very aggressive at the right times to prevail. He simply did not take the risk of making a sustained effort to put time on his rivals because he was too cautious. Many believe he could have won had he risked more.
The winner of this year’s Tour, Cadel Evans, and his director played a perfect game of chess. Cadel was supremely fit, but what he really showed this year was the confidence to take many more risks than he has in the past. He laid it on the line day after day. He was aggressive early on. Later, as breaks occurred that could have ruined him, he and his “pieces” went to the front and gave every ounce of energy until he was chasing solo so he could catch back up or limit seconds of loss. His persistence and risk-taking kept him close enough to win with the time trial, his strong suit. Had he played it safe at any of those risky times, he likely would have lost the race. Often, winning takes this type of performance, characterized by persistence and risk taking. This is what made Lance Armstrong such a great hero.
Think of bicycle stage racing as a chess game, and it will be a lot more interesting and fun to watch. But you may still be dumbfounded at how they do it!
Mark Joseph volunteers as the technical director for the Aspen stage of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge. In the ’80s, he was the founder of the Hub of Aspen bike shop, worked with pro teams in the Coors Bicycle Classic, and organized several of its stages in Aspen.