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How to be a road cycling fan.

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The average football fan spends their time roughly equally split between unhappiness (because their team lost), happiness (because their team won) or indifference (because their team drew), thatís an oversimplification but bear with me. If you took this attitude to cycling and picked a protour team to support you would spend an inordinate amount of your time being unhappy, even if you supported Sky. New and old British fans assembled to watch the menís road race on Sunday with the expectation of victory for Cavendish and it didnít happen, the crowds around the giant TV screens fell silent with 20k to go and everyone silently plodded home. If you reacted that way for every race even Sky did this year you would get clinically depressed.

Sky and GB have forgotten that road cycling is a test of physical ability, willpower and tactical nous, itís also a poker game on wheels. Sky and GB have in recent times tried to reduce the psychological and tactical elements of road racing in order to control the entire race, recently they have succeeded. What remains is a purely physical battle, something that can be measured, controlled and for Sky: manpower can even be bought.

There were about 140 starters in the menís Olympic road race yesterday, 5 of them were British and 4 of them rode in such a way as to give the remaining one a chance at victory. They had a rigid, inflexible plan and everyone else in the peloton knew it in advance (because they told them), they stuck to that plan and it backfired. You couldnít blame them for trying though, it almost worked, it also actually worked for Sky in the Tour de France and when GB won the World championship last September.

The odds are never good in road racing, even when youíre the favourite you can never be the overwhelming favourite, however talented you are (See Marianne Vos in the Womenís race). This evening-out of probabilities is one of many things that makes road racing such a great spectacle. It isnít an individual test of physical ability like the 100m sprint, Javelin or shooting. Every single competitor is competing against each other in an interactive way; this makes the event an intensely tactical and psychological battle in addition to a physical one. Three disciplines are tested, not one.

What is so amazing about the Sky and GB tactics in the tour and 2011 World Champs is that they worked at all. What they did was akin to playing chess without even looking at your opponentís moves. They rode to a plan that was almost tactically independent of their competitors, they almost (but not quite) ignored them altogether. They were mostly unfazed by what their opposition was doing and continued on their merry way, and they still won.

Sky and GB decided to simplify the tactical and the psychological elements by placing all their eggs in the physical basket. This is why the chess analogy isnít wholly accurate, brute force got Sky and GB the win before, they expected to do it again but failed. Why? Because (with the exception of the German team) the entirety of the opposition worked together against GB, this is a legitimate tactic and it worked. They also totally called their bluff by not helping in the chase, something GB was unable to do in return (since their cards were on the table), a psychological win. Despite having a psychiatrist as their head coach GB and Sky seem unable to play mind games with their opponents. Despite having good and experienced directeurs in Sky and an accomplished GB road captain in Millar they were effectively redundant, the script they stuck to was so simple there was no need for them.

Reading over what I have just written sounds scathing, it wasnít meant to be, it was supposed to be an explanation. Probably a failing me. Moving onÖ

What we saw in Vinoukourovís win was a good physical performance, a great tactical performance and an absolutely fantastic psychological one. Itís no mean feat making it into the final escape group of the day and having the energy to attack at the end and then outsprint your fellow escapee; but this was the least impressive part of Vinoís win, the physical component was merely the solid foundations of his victory. Physically he isnít anywhere near the realm of Wiggins or Cavendish for example.

It was a great tactical performance in that he was conservative throughout the race, he didnít see the front once until he attacked, which was at the exact right moment. He also piggybacked on GBís train for as long as he felt necessary, he knew he could rely on it and shouldnít attack it until it got tired. He also noticed Uranís fatigue and lack of experience in the finale, giving him a good jump at the finish.

Psychologically Vino was phenomenal and it was this facet of his performance that really won him the race. Why? Here is the short answer: he believed he could win. Given his physical ability relative his opponents he deserves one hell of a lot of credit for having that self-belief. Remember, you donít win a third of time when youíre a bike racer, the vast majority of the time you lose.

The thing is most professional cyclists believe they can win, what makes road racing great to watch is that there is a random element to it and some riders are better at rolling the dice than others. There is a certain inherent lack of control that means there were probably around 50 riders who the requisite ability to win on Saturday, or any given pro race for that matter. I know football is random and often the best team loses but that is as nothing compared to road racing, normally there are around 200 riders and there is always only one winner. Despite that random element that winner always deserves that victory, it may not make sense but itís true.

So the way to appreciate cycling isnít to behave like a football fan: happiness when you win (rare) sadness when you lose (almost always). By all means support a team and their leader but donít hate the eventual winner, they deserve your respect, and you deserve to not be miserable all the time.

What I write next is absolutely steeped in irony given the clean assertions regularly made by Sky and GB and the previous misdemeanours of Vinokourov. From the mental, tactical and physical aspects of road racing the only discipline anyone seems to cheat at is the physical. Given that Vinoís performance wasnít exactly astounding physically I have no reason to question his current cleanliness, it certainly isnít suspect. Every single Sky win on the other hand is overwhelmingly physical, itís a steam roller crushing its way to inevitable victory. It is a failing in me that I just canít make the leap of faith to support Sky. Their brutal physical performances simultaneously bore me and leave me uneasy. As I say, itís a failing in me more than anything. Vino may have doped, he may still be doping in fact but his tactical and psychological prowess is unquestionably formidable and for those aspects in isolation he gets my respect.

Nb, yes I know Vino allegedly bought Liege Bastogne Liege in 2010, you still canít buy panache though.

Updated 02-08-2012 at 07:29 PM by David Mclean

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