We have more or less 3 days to go for this year's Tour de France. It is that time again when various websites, blogs, forums and paper publications devote many many words and pages in prediction of who will win the yellow jersey in Paris. The focus is often on a handful of men. The other 200 or so odd racers who participate with them never grab much media attention at all.
However unfair that may sound, there's some interesting things an astute observer can spot here. Most predictions will pick as favorites a band of individuals based solely on good results in the past. These ones then go into the Petri dish for review. Then one or two are picked and we tell ourselves or our friends, "You know what, I think he's so going to win because he can climb well, 'cause he won so and so stage in the mountains in 2003....and he can time trial like a beast because he won so and so stage at this pace in 2006 and 2007."
This sort of thinking to me is a little absurd. In fact, its a fallacy of the human mind. How do you know your theories about a certain individual winning a race are true? The first mistake of this fallacy is that you pick as your favorite already given their performance. You know something about him before making your decision. Then, you make positive attributions about that individual and even extend the praise to his team, his bike, his coach, his muscular makeup, his lung size, his pedaling style, his cadence, the support of his mommy. daddy and wife and possibly everything under the sun you could conjure up.
Extension of positive attributions based on performance : In this example of self-marketing, the message seems to imply that just because Fabian Cancellara won the Swiss Tour, the product offered must be great. Well, what are the odds that he couldn't have done the same on another competitor's setup? Courtesy : SRAM.
The point here is that it isn't very likely that one would make positive attributions about such things if past performance wasn't known. Because with no certainty can you say that your prediction for the Tour winner can time trial faster or 'hang on with the bunch' on the climbs better than say, rider number 9 in that obscure European team over there. Neither can you attribute with certainty that his team fares better than the other, or his coach is greater than the other, just because he won a race. All this can change. Follow on.
From a statistics perspective, every winning cycling performance should have two components to it. A) The racer's true ability. B) Chance. Chance can be any random event. It could be bad weather, mood fluctuations, an untimely crash, good luck (being in the right place at the right time), the presence of race radios, a mechanical failure... almost anything that could influence the race one way or the other.
The principle of 'regression to the mean' says that today if someone gets podium, tomorrow, they could finish somewhere back in the bunch closer to their true ability. By the same principle, someone who's having a slump can outperform his rivals in the next race, driving his performance closer and past his true ability. This is a scientifically validated phenomenon and I urge you to do further reading on it.
But a number of media journalists suffer from not heeding the role of chance. If someone wins once or in streaks, they'll go after him, his winning bike, his family, his coach, his nutritionists, his team mechanic etc and write excellent things about all of them collectively. This is journalism in retrospective - making positive comments about someone or something after a positive event has happened. In the process, the winner's bike, the bike manufacturer, his manager, his coach and his coaching service, his sports drink maker, his sun glass manufacturer...everyone are in for the limelight and big bucks.
There is a great deal of money to be made and lots of sales potential in this exercise. Sadly, the other folks who also raced in the peleton are veiled in absolute obscurity and we may never come to know who and what their backgrounds were.
There is a natural variation and fluctuation to events in our world that could be seen by sports analysts and fans as the true thing when its not. Random events can make one rider unexpectedly lucky on one day than the other. But the natural world has it that this luck will soon subside and an individual's performance will fall down closer to his actual norm.
Not many consider this role of sheer chance, and randomness in race outcomes. Why? Its plainly boring and too erudite, I suppose. There's no story in it, is there? I think in every sporting fortune, we as humans love to hear a good superhero fairytale. We're made that way. We like to make superheros, superhero stories, and idols out of these individuals. We also like to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about them.
There are also innumerable books written on superstars, their race winning strategies, their mental prowess, the odds they overcame, their nutritional preparations, the amount of detail and attention they devoted to their bikes etc. Some of these books promise similar results if their readers would stick to the rules mentioned in its pages, while failing to discuss or explore an important topic in our natural world, that of the statistical nature of performance.Having said this, I'm tempted to discuss the role of regression to the mean, and random events in the life of George Hincapie at the Paris Roubaix (where he tried to ride for himself to win). We could do that another day, I suppose. But feel free to take it upon yourself to analyze his past results. Find out what happened, and why he never won the Queen of the Classics to this day. Check out the variability in his performances. He probably rode as hard in every one of those races as the previous one, but something caused him to be in the top 10 one year, while pushing him beyond 50th place in another.
Its time we appreciated the hidden roles of these events before we stick the superhero label on one rider rider, or disapprove another for a poor show. Let's embrace everyone alike who's racing in this year's Tour. Its one of the greatest human endeavors of our time.
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