Credit: Russ Ellis
Credit: Russ Ellis

Always double check your stats.


I’m only human. I sometimes make mistakes. Some are completely harmless. A quick deleted Tweet and nobody notices anything. How many people are really going to know for sure how many second place finishes Erik Zabel had in Tour de France stages? Others are worse and can end up being embarrassing. I am one of those people that points out other people’s mistakes on Twitter. So when I make one worthy of the same reaction I am often made to taste my own medicine, and it is bitter. 


This week I had a bad one. 


I’ve had bad ones before. Fernando Gaviria won four stages on his Grand Tour debut at the 2017 Giro d’Italia. Impressive. But as always with these things I found myself asking, ‘how impressive’? So I went back through the years to find the last person who had done so and I landed on Bernard Hinault, who actually won five stages and the overall at the 1978 Vuelta, which was his Grand Tour debut. Nobody since had won more than three stages on their first outing in a Grand Tour. Or so I thought. And so I Tweeted.


A modest amount of likes and retweets for that kind of thing. But it was enough that it started getting picked up by news sites. Firstly by Cycling News, followed by several others before it landed on the BBC’s site. That led to many other Twitter accounts using it without reference and by that time it had been said by enough people and appeared on enough websites that it could now be considered ‘true’. A BBC citation is more than enough for something to appear on Wikipedia, which would, of course, make it true.


But it was not true. I’d simply made a mistake. The correct answer was a year later than that, in 1979 when Fons de Wolf also did it at the Vuelta. I’ve just checked now and the BBC have since rectified the mistake, CyclingNews have not. Perhaps I should go back and delete my original Tweet.


Although this mistake spread quite far, it is not something that anyone would just know. It was unlikely that anybody besides über anoraks like me would see something like that and think ‘hmm, not sure if that’s correct’. It wasn’t an absolute clanger.


My most recent mistake was an absolute clanger. Most people could have read it and thought, ‘well, that’s just not right’.


I’d written an article all about Pavel Sivakov’s achievement of finishing in ninth place on his debut Grand Tour at the recent Giro d’Italia. He was the first rider to have finished top 10 on his Grand Tour debut since Leopold Konig did it at the 2013 Vuelta. Several people had contacted me via Twitter and email about Sivakov and how he was performing and would this feat be unprecedented. I went all the way back to when Grand Tour racing resumed after the Second World War and figured out each and every rider who had done it. There are 122 of them. But in recent years it’s becoming more and more rare. I had a bar chart and everything.


I submitted the article and thought that was that. But then it was suggested to me that I could get a few comments from Sivakov himself on this. So that’s what I did. I called Sivakov up:


“So, Pavel. I’m writing for The Road Book where we pay particular attention to stats and facts and spend a great deal of time working out interesting achievements. Are you aware how rare it is for a rider to finish top 10 in their debut Grand Tour?”


“I rode the Vuelta last year”




When people asked me who was the last rider before Sivakov to achieve this, I checked every rider for the past 72 years… apart from Sivakov himself.


I’d been asked the question, presuming the premise of it was correct. That Sivakov was riding his first Grand Tour at the 2019 Giro. So I never thought to check.


I’d actually made this type of mistake before too. At the end of 2010 I’d realised that Liquigas had finished all three Grand Tours having no riders abandon. I wondered how often this happened. So I checked every single team that ever existed and found that actually, Liquigas were the first team who had ever done it. I checked every team apart from Liquigas themselves, who it turns out had also done it in 2009.


But that was quite harmless. It made the stat even more impressive. It didn’t render it null and void. And I hadn’t embarrassed myself by asking Ivan Basso about it. 


To Sivakov’s credit, if his first thought was that I was a complete moron, he hid it with utter professionalism as I conducted the remainder of the interview. I had crafted some very tactical questions to lead him into a place where I would let him know that three of the past four riders who had done this thing also ended up riding for Team Ineos (well, Team Sky) – Konig, Sergio Henao and Richie Porte. And between them hadn’t done all that well in the Grand Tours since their impressive debuts. And being at Team Ineos with Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal and possibly now Richard Carapaz in his way, he probably shouldn’t be expecting many opportunities to improve upon it anyway in the next few years. My questions no longer made sense given his original bombshell, but I had assumed the role of the total eejit so easily, I asked them anyway.


He took all of that in his stride and informed me that he was way ahead of schedule with his progression. He wasn’t expecting to have had this opportunity so early in his career and he’s more than happy to play second or third fiddle for years to come before he even starts to think about personal ambition. He also told me that he has no plans to use his French eligibility to eventually ride for France at the Worlds or Olympic games. He gets more opportunities riding for Russia and if he was to switch nationalities at this stage he would be forced not to ride for any national team for two years while the switch was in progress. He also said the departure of Rod Ellingworth to Bahrain-Merida won’t have much effect on him as his coach is Tim Kerrison and he never had much interaction with Ellingworth anyway.


Naturally, after Sivakov hung up, I checked if he was telling the truth. And unsurprisingly, as it turns out, he was. He made it to Stage 17 of the 2018 Vuelta before he abandoned.


Ironically, the reason I wasn’t paying as much attention to the 2018 Vuelta as I usually would, and a large part of me missing the appearance of Sivakov in this race was because I was on the final stretch of compiling the first edition of The Road Book. I’m often not sure if something is ironic or not or whether it’s just unfortunate or coincidental. But I’m fairly sure this one qualifies.


What began as a cautionary tale I planned to present to Pavel Sivakov ended up as a cautionary tale for myself, which I will be considering all the while I compile each and every page of The Road Book for 2019.


Always double check your stats.