Recency Bias v. Tradition- Cillian Kelly
April 30, 2019
Tradition is a strange thing in cycling. A lot of the sport is based on the idea of tradition. If we were to re-create the sport from scratch now it would look very different. Nobody would think a three week race would capture the imagination. It’s too long. Nobody would think a flat 300km race in the middle of March would be an ideal candidate to be one of the focal points of the season. Also too long. And boring. Too long and too boring. Nobody would think that the ideal way to crown a world champion would be a single race on an arbitrarily chosen route. Too discriminatory. Too ridiculous.
But this is the way Cycling is. It’s tradition.
One of the traditions which has really taken hold in recent years is the idea that you never attack the leader of the Tour de France on the final stage on the Champs-Élysées. It is completely taboo now. Nobody does it. Nobody even thinks of doing it. But recent years is all this ‘tradition’ is based on.
Consider the 1987 Tour de France. It’s a forgotten fact of this race now given that Stephen Roche ended the race in the yellow jersey, but going into that final stage in Paris, he also held the green jersey as leader of the points classification. Roche’s overall lead over Pedro Delgado was 40 seconds. A lead which was sufficiently small that Roche remained concerned about an ambush by his Spanish rival.
Roche only wanted one thing. The yellow jersey. He didn’t care about the green jersey. But others did. So Roche made a deal. In second place for the green Jersey was Jean-Paul van Poppel, a sprinter who would have bitten your hand off to land that green jersey. Roche agreed with Van Poppel that his Carrera team would work to ensure a bunch sprint for Van Poppel if he reciprocated and had his Superconfex teammates work to shutdown any potential moves by Delgado.
They worked together but as it happened it was a rare year where a break succeeded in Paris with the Candian Jeff Pierce taking the stage win. Van Poppel took enough points in the sprint behind to ensure himself the green jersey, Roche took yellow and Delgado never moved.
But the fact that Roche was so concerned about a last-day attack from a rival that he was willing to sacrifice the green jersey for it shows that this was not just a possibility but an expectation, as recently as 32 years ago (just 28% of the number of years the Tour has existed).
In the subsequent years, by happenstance, the gap between first and second going into that final stage in the Tour was never close to being as low as 40 seconds again (with the notable exception of 1989, when the final stage was a time trial). It wasn’t until 2003 when Armstrong led Ullrich by 61 seconds that there was a gap which would have been conceivably recoverable on the final day. But that 16 years was enough to establish a ‘tradition’ that nobody attacks. But the reality is that nobody attacked because there was never a realistic prospect of any attack succeeding during that time. But now it’s done. Now it’s a champagne procession. No attacks. No deals. No excitement.
Cycling is littered with these traditions that are not really based on any reasons that should be respected. It’s just the way things have been for the past few years.
We’re finished with the Spring classics for another year. And for most people the routes of these races are sacrosanct. Cycling fans lost their collective minds when the Muur van Geraardsbergen was removed from the route of the Tour of Flanders in 2012. So much so that some fans staged a mock funeral on the climb itself. The thoughts were that a Tour of Flanders without the Muur is not a true Tour of Flanders. But try telling that to past winners like Rik van Steenbergen, Briek Schotte or Fiorenzo Magni all of whom won the Ronde without the Muur. Are their wins any lesser for it that they didn’t cycle over the Muur to get them? Of course not. The Muur only appeared on the route for the first time in 1950. Before that it was traditional not to include it.
The same goes for the Poggio in Milan Sanremo. It feels like a perfect addition to the race given how it provides such a finely balanced platform for every type of rider to conceivably win the race. But that only appeared on the route of La Primavera after 53 editions had already been contested without it. Yet, if the race organisers removed it now we’d all go bananas.
Was Sean Kelly’s victory in the 1986 Paris Roubaix a tainted one because it didn’t finish on the fabled Velodrome? Nonsense. Kelly is made of cobbles. Just because the sponsors of the race made the organisers place the finish line on some boring stretch of road outside their offices doesn’t mean Kelly’s Roubaix win should be viewed with disdain.
What we view as traditional now is only so because we collectively can’t remember what came before. But lots came before. Lots of different routes, different rules, different ideas. And lots will come in the future. It doesn’t mean you need to agree with the change. When the change comes, by all means disgaree with it, but don’t tell us it’s because of tradition.