“So where the hell have you been?”
It’s a question I get a good bit, from people who read this sometimes intermittent site and from the guys I (occasionally) ride bicycles with. The answer, for the past few weeks, has been simple – working. I know it’s hard to believe, but the financial rainmaker that is the Service Course doesn’t quite pay the bills, so I do a little work on the side – about 40 to 60 hours a week worth. To be more specific, I work for what some people call a “government contractor,” and some call a “consulting firm,” which in the Washington, DC area is far from a distinguishing personal trait. It makes me, as a character in Saving Private Ryan put it, “a needle in a stack of needles.”
But I’m a needle with a twisted interest in cycling, and sometimes my hobby and my career come together in a more meaningful way than me showing up at the office in lycra. One such intersection occurred with the receipt of last week’s August 25 issue of Time magazine, which has a section about the first week or so of the Olympics, which were held in China, if you haven’t heard. (I should state here that I have no idea why our household receives Time magazine. We have never, to our knowledge, ordered it, nor paid for it. So thanks, Time, for making our postman think we’re informed about world affairs.)
In an little sider entitled, “Pollution’s Effect? It’s Unclear,” Time discusses the notoriously poor Beijing air quality, the topic of great pre-Olympic discussion and speculation. To illustrate how poor air quality was affecting the games, Time states that, “There have been casualties already: more than a third of the cyclists competing in the 152-mile (245 km) men’s road race Aug. 9 dropped out, in part because of conditions so stifling that one rider compared it with racing at 10,000 ft. (about 3,000 m) – on a course that topped out at 1,083 ft. (330 m).” That little bit of data-wrangling, backed up by a single rider’s anecdotal assessment of the conditions, woke up the professional guy in me. He held a quick conversation with my bike dork side, and they subsequently issued this joint statement: what a bunch of bullshit.
Here’s the nut. For lo these past four years, I’ve been working on a government report that uses “environmental indicators” to help define the status of and trends in the U.S. environment. “Indicators” is basically a fancy word for “measurements” that you use to provide insight into something else. For example, the Fed uses measures of new housing starts and durable goods purchases as indicators of the country’s economic health. Those are economic indicators, I work mostly with environmental ones, but the concept is pretty common.
Indicators can be handy for defining the status and trends, but you have to be careful how you use them. In the report I’m working on for the government, there’s been rigorous internal and external peer-review to make sure that indicators aren’t being used improperly – that we’re not saying that a certain set of measurements tells us things it really might not tell us at all. And that’s where the Time article about the Olympic air quality falls short.
Time uses the fact that 1/3 of the men’s Olympic road race field did not finish the race as a defacto indicator that the Beijing air quality was/is poor. I’m not disputing that the air quality was indeed poor on the day the race was held, but the magazine has improperly used the DNF rate of the road race as an indicator of air quality. That they did so isn’t surprising – it’s a simple, if glaring, misunderstanding of the sport.
Man, it took me a lot of words to get to that thesis, didn’t it? Fortunately, the rest of the argument is short and simple. You can’t say that 1/3 of the field not finishing is an indicator of particularly bad Beijing air quality on the day, because, simply put, that’s a pretty normal attrition rate for a major, professional, single-day cycling race, regardless of air quality. If anything, it’s a pretty high starters-to-finishers ratio, likely for the simple fact that many riders holding no victory ambitions came to Beijing with the simple goal of finishing the damn race.
Let’s look at a few examples of long, one-day road races to see what I mean. I haven’t looked at NOx, ozone, and PM2.5 emissions or concentrations (common measures of poor air quality – this is what they’re measuring when the news tells you your city has a “code orange” day for air quality) for any of the areas these races are held in, but I don’t believe they’re notorious poor air-quality hotspots.
The 2008 Tour of Flanders, held in April in Belgium, had 200 starters and 100 classified finishers, giving us a nice, tidy 50 percent attrition rate. I’ve been to that one, though in a different year, and while there’s a healthy tinge of cow manure and beer fumes in the air, springtime in Belgium isn’t exactly an air-quality nightmare, at least in the countryside.
The 2007 Tour of Lombardy, won by Damiano Cunego (Lampre), featured 104 classified finishers from 180 starters, giving it a 43 percent drop-out rate, better than Flanders, but still more than the 1/3 Olympic road race attrition rate Time believes is a marker of poor air quality. I can guarantee you that the air around Lake Como in October is pretty damn fresh. It might actually be the definition of “fresh air.”
Of course, Flanders and Lombardy are beginning and end-of-season races, respectively, and not typically subject to the heat that summertime Beijing has. Late spring and summer are dominated by the Giro and the Tour, which give riders extra incentive to not drop out, because, well, they’re stage races, and that’s the game. So let’s throw a summer one-day race in here to give an even better view into how stilted Time’s view of road race finishing rates is. This year’s Clasica San Sebastian, run in the stinking heat of Spain in August, and won by Alejandro Valverde, featured just 45 finishers out of 152 starters, a 70 percent DNF rate that should, by their methods, have Time magazine publishing a wailing expose about rural Basque air quality in a matter of weeks.
Indeed, then, a 1/3 DNF rate at the Olympic road race tells us absolutely nothing about Beijing air quality, no matter how many times Time tries to apply it in that context. What it does tell us is that Time has a fundamental misunderstanding of how professional road cycling works. Again, that’s not surprising – there’s a reason I don’t head straight to Time to find analysis of Paris-Roubaix. What is surprising is that, for a magazine that covers a broad range of topics, for which they can’t possibly have in-house experts on each, they’ve made no effort to find out that a 1/3 attrition rate is normal if not exceptionally low for a major one-day race. Taking it a step farther, they’ve turned that little piece of perfectly unremarkable data into an air quality indicator.
So, Time, here are a few things you need to know about cycling:
- Cycling is a team sport. The object is to get one guy from your team into winning position, not for everyone to finish like it’s some sort of 10k charity fun run. If your job is to blow yourself up in the first 100k, you do it, and then you put your legs up and think about the next race.
- Cycling is not like other sports. If you’re playing like crap in a game of soccer, which I did many times in my earlier days, at least you’re still on the field where the game is. In road racing, if you’re riding like crap, the game actually leaves you behind. You are no longer on the playing field, and once you’re behind the caravan, you’re not even in the stadium anymore. By sticking around and trying to finish, you’re just making it harder to reopen the roads.
- It’s not really a timed event – results are based on finishing order, and the competition is rooted in tactical dynamics, not raw speed. Nobody’s staying in the race hoping for a “personal best.”
Not that Time was concerned with it, but the Olympics do complicate the usual road-racing formula a bit. The talent pool is a little more, ummm, diverse – ranging from decorated monsters like Bettini, Rebellin, Schumacher, and Cancellara on one end, to guys you’ve never heard of at the other (Ahmed Belgasem of Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, I’m looking at you). Then you throw in the pressure of “representing your country” rather than just “earning a paycheck for doing your job,” and things can go a little funky.
If you look at the results, you see many of the ProTour riders among the DNF’s, while many of the lesser knowns are in the results, no matter how far down. I have a few dubious theories about that – for the ProTour guys, it’s still the Olympics, with all the baggage that comes with it, but they have a number of other fish to fry over the course of a season. Not finishing isn’t ideal, but it won’t ruin four years’ worth of work and their only shot at recognition in their home country. For the lesser riders, however, this is the biggest race they’ll ride this year, and possibly in their entire career. There’s no Tour de France, Flanders, or Lombardy in the works for them, so if their contribution to this race is just sitting in and grinding it out, so be it.
But that’s just my theory. I’ll fully admit I’m making it up as I go along. What I’m not doing is trying to use some irrelevant piece of data and the whiney estimations of a single, unnamed cyclist to back it up, knowing my readership probably won’t know better. After all, we can’t all be Time magazine.