The Selection Equation


In order to win one must first make it into the selection. The selection, as it were, can take many forms; a lone break away, a small group, or half the peloton. It can happen within the last 500 meters of a race as it does in a sprint finish or, more rarely, from the start line. Selections are a part of virtually all types of road bike racing except maybe for TT’s. For some, making the selection is a victory and a worthy goal in and of itself. The selection always comes down to one thing though; everybody who’s not in it knows they won’t be winning that day and everybody who is in it knows they have a shot at glory. Making the selection is the sum of good fitness, having good legs, riding nous, and lady luck. It also stands to reason that the more selections a rider makes the more checks he or she will have in the win column.

The first part of the equation, good fitness, means without it you’ll get shit out the back when the racing starts. There is no substitute for long hours of training on the bike for getting fit. The second is having good legs when the time comes. Fitness is a precursor to good legs but the two almost seem mutually exclusive at times. We’ve all had our legs inexplicably carry us further and faster than we thought our level of fitness would allow. We’ve also turned squares while being in the form of our lives. When this happens we’re left baffled as our friends/competitors ride up the road. Go figure. Nevertheless, the legs must respond when needed. The third piece is possessing some amount of cycling nous. You don’t generally go out and win a race the first time you enter it unless your given name is Eddy and your surname is Merckx. It pays to know the course, how to handle your bike, how your competitors race and what their form is like. This information contributes to your tactical and racing nous. The final part of the equation is having lady luck perched on your handle bars parting the waters as her hot older sister, la Volupte, carries you along effortlessly. In cycling there are some things you just can not control. Crashes, punctures, kamikaze dogs, twatwaffle media car drivers, erratic other riders, and sketchy roads can all be somewhat mitigated by savvy riding and bike handling nous. But then how, all other things being equal, do we explain a broken chain and two punctures 75K from home just out of cell range on a perfectly sunny training ride versus a crash and mechanical-free day riding over rain soaked pavé with a support car 20 bike lengths behind? If it wasn’t for bad luck, after all, the Schlecks would have no kind of luck at all would have four Tours de France between them, non?

When the four parts above are present and on your side you have a good shot at making the selection. Making the selection is not mutually exclusive of these factors nor does it guarantee a win . Fitness, good legs, nous, and luck all have to be present in order for a rider to make the selection. The really good riders take matters into their own hands and make the selection happen. This is usually one, two or three guys who crank up the pace often at a crucial point on the course. As it is said, Roubaix isn’t won in the Troueé d’Arenberg but it is certainly lost there.

I had first hand experience with this during the Heck of the North this past September. The ‘Heck’ is punctuated by six or seven sections of double track ATV (snowmobile) trail ranging from 2 to 5 k or so in length. These sections are where the field is thinned, where selections are made. My good friend and training partner Dietz, who’s finished no lower than sixth or so the few time he’s raced the Heck, told me over and over – “go as hard as you can and then one more on the snowmachine sections, that’s where the selections are made, the guys in the front go really hard on those sections.” He was right. I held my own on the first couple sections as the lead group drilled it over everything from swamp to muskeg, to tall grass, to loose bouldery trail. Then I lost contact on the third section but was able to ride myself back up on the gravel that followed. Then, I was able to put myself in the front five or ten riders at the start of the next section. This section started with a punchy, boulder strewn climb which led over a knoll and dropped into a small swamp that required a dismount to navigate. It started with my front wheel washing out on some soft deep sand as I turned onto the section from the road. I was able to stay upright but lost a couple places. Then I had to put my foot down about half way up the first climb as a softball-sized rock skipped underneath me and stopped my momentum. As I scrambled to shoulder my steed and walk up the rest of the hill it sank in; I had missed the selection. All that work, not just of that day but of the entire summer culminated in me walking up a dirt trail and through subsequent swamp, alone. At least now I had time to stop and take a much needed piss.

It’s during times like these when we need to gut check ourselves. The conversation I was having in my head at the time, as the top 15 riders or so carried on without me, was about what I wanted the rest of the day to look like. My first choice was to ride at pace and wait for the second group to catch up. I could then seek the solace of other riders and the relative ease of group riding. Or, I could continue on solo, going as hard as I could being assured only of a grueling rest of the day with little or no chance of catching the front group again. This, however, provided me with some hope of reeling in a guy or two who might fall off the front and possibly being able better my finishing position. I also wanted to finish under 6 hours. I had two choices but as I glanced down at the right leg of my Zwarte bibs I knew I only had one option. I still had fitness and the legs on my side and luck seemed not to be playing a factor that day. Apart from lacking the nous on the last trail section, I still had the opportunity to feel success at day’s end. The rest of the day went fine and I was happy with the result.

In the spring of this year I had a formative experience with ‘the selection’ on the Keepers Tour watching Paris Roubaix unfold on our last day of the trip. This, of course, was not on a bike though. It was on the side of the road. Actually three roads, pavé secteurs to be clear. The first was Troisville à Inchy, the first secteur of the race. After sprinting (one of two times I ran this year) across a freshly plowed field we lined up and waited for the race to pass. First came the sound of helicopters followed by the race caravan and finally the peloton, a procession that would repeat itself twice more that day for us. Somewhere, up near the front but safely tucked in 30th position or so were Boonen and the other riders who would eventually become the selection. As the dust began to settle we ran back to the bus stopping only to snap a few pics with the lovely Mrs. Vansummeren. As we sped toward the Arenberg Forest in the mini bus on back roads being expertly navigated and eloquently sworn at by William of Pavé Cycling Classics we enjoyed cold Maltenis and sandwiches.

The traffic on the thoroughfare was jammed leading up to Wallers-Arenberg but our guides knew ways around that. They were making a selection of their own. Just below the railroad trestle seen in all the classic shots of “the trench” we set up shop with a full messenger bag of Malteni that Alex had been carting with us all week. Again; helios, caravan, peloton. This time though Boonen and company were closer to the pointy end of the bunch. It’s an incredible sound the peloton makes as it speeds over the cobbles at speeds that make the rest of us envious on the smoothest of roads.

Finally, we were back in the yellow bus speeding toward the Carrefour de L’Arbre. Charged by what we had begun to realize we were witnessing first hand and lubricated by the bottomless bag of Malteni, none of us could get a word in edgewise as we pontificated about what we’d see at the next secteur. The radio coverage in the van was spitting out updates in French which provided us with clear information that William had to translate.

After another sneak around traffic we parked about a kilometer from the famous Café, walked up to our vantage point, and waited. There was the telltale helicopter. Only this time it was flying over only one rider. Imagine what it would be like to be cycling along all by yourself being followed by a low-flying whirly-bird. Bizarre. But there it was, the selection had been made. From 200 to 50 to 20 to 6 to 4 to 2 to 1. That was it. Fitness plus legs plus nous plus lady luck equaled the selection and finally the win. The win being greater than the sum of the parts.

After a long period off the bike I’m starting to train again. Training for this year’s Keepers Tour and for my first gravel race of the year, the Ragnarok 105. Time, but moreover my fitness, legs, nous, and luck will tell if I can make the selection.

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26 Replies to “The Selection Equation”

  1. This site and its articles are timely as ever – nice read!  ‘The Selection’ is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately (re Vino’s purchase of LBL and discussion of potential fallout from it) and is exactly why it doesn’t bother me that this sport has a history of buying and selling victories and what separates cycling from other sports in this regard.  I’ve tried to explain this nuance to people who see it as no different that fixing a football match or boxing bout.  The Selection is the key – In order to make the decision to trade a victory today for assistance tomorrow or a pocketful of euros, one first has to be fit enough, have the legs, have the luck and the nous (admittedly I had to look this one up) to be in the selection in the first place.  You have to have earned the right to make the decision to deliberately lose and that ethically sets it apart.

  2. Ah yes! Friday after noon and I’m not sure I’ll have the time to ride today, but reading this has kept alive the spirit of the Velominatus in my body. Excellent writing, Marko!

    It’s crazy how different a race can turn out if you are able to stay with that lead group just a bit longer. As you say, the shot at glory or the frustation you’ll have to wait another day. Even in group training rides I find it nearly impossible to allow myself to soft pedal and wait for the second group. I’d rather trudge on in solitary confinement, analyzing what will be done differently the next time.

  3. Great article Marko. Racing is always about “the selection”. Usually it’s worked out in advance with teammates, sometimes it’s luck. But “luck favors the prepared” (stole that line from The Incredibles). It’s one of the nuanced parts of our sport that people that don’t follow it don’t understand, and what makes it great to watch if you do ‘get it’.

  4. @scaler911

    It’s one of the nuanced parts of our sport that people that don’t follow it don’t understand, and what makes it great to watch if you do ‘get it’.

    +1 Before I got into cycling I was heavily into following football (soccer) – all this is the US before it became popular in the past several years.  What I appreciated about it was that if you knew what you were watching you could enjoy a good match that ended nil-nil because you understood all the nuances of what was happening on the pitch as opposed to those who yearned for goals galore.  Cycling is even better in this regard – there is just so much that goes into creating the outcome of a race that you have to be astute to and that can be appreciated if you take the time to understand it.

  5. Great post Marko, made even better by the juxtaposition with all that other crap going on.  Our winter nightmare will soon be over: ONLY 39 DAYS TO HET VOLK!!!!!

  6. Superb!

    I would posture that on the pro circuit, selection happens before you ever start, and that actually if you are not good that good on the day you better damn well kill yourself trying to be so for your GC contender….

    Selection happens in the cold winter months leading up to the season…but then you know that already.

    That aside, what a seriously evocative piece of writing and if someone were to say “write an advert for the keepers tour in less than 1000 words” even the worlds best would be hard pressed to do much better!

  7. What I really love about cycling & this community is that it has provided a rebirth (no, not like Frank’s on the Volcano) of sorts. I played a bunch of different sports growing up, then one in college. Post-college I had the need to move but had lost the desire to claw, elbow, etc. to compete & win. Or more precisely I had redirected that single-minded focus on winning at sports.

    At first just the turning of the cranks & seeing how far I could go (Oh boy, 15 whole miles!) was exciting. Now that I watch a lot of PRO races & read up on things here it’s incredible how much is going on. Thar jus ridin’ bikes, them lads! Ha, not quite.

    VeloVita – Ah, futbol! So we’ll have at least two things to talk about in Louisville! With soccer, cycling, and a whole bunch of things I’ve realized that nothing is simply. Anything has complexity if you want to do it well.

  8. @Ron

    VeloVita – Ah, futbol! So we’ll have at least two things to talk about in Louisville! With soccer, cycling, and a whole bunch of things I’ve realized that nothing is simply. Anything has complexity if you want to do it well.

    You’ll need to get me back up to speed.  I quickly recognized that I needed to limit myself to one sport if I was going to follow it well – obviously you know which road I chose.

  9. The only selection I make is the one in front of the beer offerings at the store. Maybe that is telling.

    Cycling News had a report last week on a race in Oz where a certain rider was proposing that if you don’t have good form, attack, get in breaks. Counter-intuitive but this fella kept doing it. He didn’t win anything but he didn’t get shot out the back of the peloton either. Number-wise a selection from a break of five is better odds than a selection from a field of 100.

  10. Nice piece Marko. There is a race series in my neighborhood where the selection is made at hill crest. It’s a mile loop, and if you don’t crest with the group, its over- you’ll spend the descent working and then you start climbing again; thats not a happy place to be.  Some people told me to make sure not to get dropped, but its so hard to understand AND do something about it The first time you do the race.

  11. @PeakInTwoYears


    Sounds like Mt. Tabor.

    I’m sure that’s where he’s talking about. You’re either going uphill hard in your big ring trying not to be shit out the back or barf, or screaming downhill, hoping the steel plates at the bottom won’t crash you, or some stoned hipster with his dog off leash doesn’t wander out on to the course. I love and hate that course with all my heart.

  12. Shit. I have vivid memories of being utterly destroyed in that race. I.e., being shelled after a great deal of suffering. Never hit the pavement on the descent, which I found a bit terrifying.

  13. It’s a cruel, cruel race because it seems like it should be so simple. First actual bike race ever saw live in person, didn’t actually appreciate why scaler looked like such shit (albeit not that differnet from a Monday am, but i digress) coming past the start/finish line on the flat. Even more ironic as i have lived near there all 13 years in pdx.i had ridden on that hill a million times, never connected the route in that way. I didnt enjoy not being selected. Rite of passage? I hope so…

  14. A great read and for a novice such as myself lots to think about as I build the courage to enter my first road race, thanks @Marko.

  15. @snoov

    A great read and for a novice such as myself lots to think about as I build the courage to enter my first road race, thanks @Marko.

    I’m organising an 80k road race near you on 14 April. Cat 3 and 4 only. I can offer you a place if you are ready. Keeping some free for women, juniors and locals who missed the rush when it opened for entries.

  16. Very good words Marko. I like the description of the conversation about the rest of the day.

    The only thing I could add is a third state which is the few moments when the selection happening.

    You don’t know – could it be the break or is it going to fizzle out ?

    A moment of decision – do I chase it or let it go ?

    A burst of pain – just a few more hard seconds and I’ll be with them.

    Then it’s either Fuck It, we didn’t get away, or Fuck It, now we have to work, or Fuck It, they’ve gone without me.

  17. I have only recently made the “selection” on 2 occasions. Being the sprinter type that prays for a bunch finish, I have come to the realization that you have to put yourself in the position to win even if you know it will take everything you have. I didn’t win either of the opportunities, but i wasn’t in the field thinking “Damn I wish I had made that break”…

  18. @JohnB


    A great read and for a novice such as myself lots to think about as I build the courage to enter my first road race, thanks @Marko.

    I’m organising an 80k road race near you on 14 April. Cat 3 and 4 only. I can offer you a place if you are ready. Keeping some free for women, juniors and locals who missed the rush when it opened for entries.

    What an offer, the only thing that makes me hesitate is coming last when other more able riders wanted a place.  I’ll get your email from @the engine and contact you for more details.

  19. @ChrisO Cheers, good points. I guess I consider these as part and parcel with nous. The hardest question for me to answer confidently is whether or not/when to burn matches. Knowing when to do so based on your opponents’ strengths, the course, your own fitness is a sure sign of possessing nous. I have a tendency to be conservative which has bitten me in the ass. I think of KT, there were a couple times I wish I would have gone harder. Not for any other reason than for my own good, to see where that line was for me.

    That’s what is cool about sport, especially this one; direct and real consequences for your decisions. Be conservative – miss the selection, fall short of a goal, wonder what could have been. Waste your matches – blow up, get dropped, fall short of a goal.

  20. The Selection Equation, or start, is never more important than when racing competetively in a Cross Race.   As so beautifully summed up by Cyclocross Magazine…… (paraphrased)

    The race was really in the silence. The silence that came at the start line, when the officials called 15 seconds,when there was no more warmth to be had, no more jokes to break the growing tension, no last minute advice, no sound but the click of the photographer’s lens. As we collectively held our breath, those fifteen seconds summed up all that makes our sport great – in those fifteen seconds there was nothing but the fierce, focused gaze of dozens of racers staring down months of sacrifice and suffering, staring down the shed pounds, the aching workouts, the fine-tuning gear; staring down 400 meters of pavement and the freezing, muddy pain that awaited them on the other side.

    And then all hell broke loose.


  21. Great subject, Marko, and well described.  In watching much more racing over the last few years, I’ve come to enjoy watching for/anticipating the selection as much as the finish itself.  And then going back and watching a replay, knowing the results, seeing how they got to that moment, looking for clues that they know the moment is…NOW, and the expressions of those left behind.  A mini-drama.  I guess you have to live it to truly understand.

    Let the season begin soon.

  22. Marko ,  enjoyed the read, A beautiful symphony of Rule #6, #10 and #5 . In my opinion it is almost second nature to some and realized with in a few seconds for others as you stated.To be part of the selection or be left pondering  what could have been. For me….. that is the best part, nothing ventured nothing gained.  Very nice write up sir.  Bottomless bag of Malteni! got to love that.

  23. I like the piece. I’ve turned plenty of squares in my time while inhaling wasps. However, no roads for me for the next few days as London is covered in 10cms of snow, ice and shit!. The last time I rode in weather like this it ended badly.

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