Monday, July 26, 2004

Yet another post on Lance Armstrong

Alex Tabarrok has a post on Lance Armstrong and game theory. He refers to a Stephen Tuel, who claims that the 18th stage of the Tour de France was “an excellent example of game theory at work”. I can’t really concur with Tuel, in my opinion Armstrong acted irrationally.

Last Friday, the 18th stage went from Annemasse to Lons-le-Saunier in the east of France (if you have a map, try to find Geneva, Annemasse is situated east of the city, but on the French side of the border. Lons-le-Saunier is to the northwest, between Geneva and Dijon). The stage is fairly short, just 166 kilometres, and a breakaway manages to get some time on the peloton after 9 km.

After 32 km or so, the Italian rider Filippo Simeoni tries to reach the breakaway, the gap between group in the lead and the peloton is just under one minute so there’s a fair chance that he will succeed. The problem, though, is that Lance Armstrong, riding in the yellow jersey, follows Simeoni and when the two reaches the break, everyone knows that the break is dead. There’s no chance that Armstrong’s contenders will let him get away, and extend his lead, on this stage.

So Armstrong, and Simeoni, backs down to the Peloton. Eventually, the break extends the gap and one of the riders in front, the Spaniard Mercado, wins. Now, according to Stephen Tuel, Armstrong went away because he wanted the other teams, first and foremost T-Mobile (with Andreas Klöden and Jan Ullrich) to do some work in the peloton as well. That was the consequence of Armstrong’s breakaway, but not the intended consequence as I see it.

First of all, US Postal wasn’t in the lead of the peloton at the time Simeoni and Armstrong tried to bridge the gap. Instead, the Swiss team Phonak was riding first. Phonak’s Tour was until then more or less disastrous, their captain, the American Tyler Hamilton, had to leave the Tour early because of an injury. Hamilton was supposed to be threat to Armstrong in the struggle for the yellow jersey. This was their last chance to win a stage and their rider Nicolas Jalabert managed to get away with the others in the breakaway. Unfortunately, Jalabert got a flat tire and was caught by the peloton. Therefore, Phonak didn’t want the group in the lead to win so they started the chase. As it happened, US Postal didn’t need to do all the work until Phonak gave up, then Armstrong’s team just cruised along in the front for a while until T-Mobile got into action. 

Secondly, US Postal would want to do the work in the peloton anyway. Sure, they’ll catch the wind but at the same time they can decide the pace and make sure that none of the riders who are a real threat to Lance can get away. There is no chance that CSC (Ivan Basso’s team) or T-Mobile will help US Postal with this, it would have hurt them as well. When Armstrong and Simeoni got back to the peloton, US Postal rode in front of the peloton almost the whole stage, T-Mobile didn't have any share to work.

Thirdly, the rider that Armstrong followed, Filippo Simeoni, isn’t just any rider in the way Tuel mentions him. Sure enough, Simeoni will never win the Tour and he was well behind Armstrong this year. But it’s more to it than that.

A couple of years ago, Simeoni got suspended for using EPO to enhance his performance. He admitted his doping in connection to a hearing against the Italian physician Michele Ferrari. According to Simeoni, Ferrari had helped him when he took EPO and growth hormone. Now, Michele Ferrari is a well known doctor when it comes to cycling, a lot of riders have used him during the years.

One of those riders is none other than Lance Armstrong. After Simeoni’s allegations against Ferrari, Armstrong defended his doctor and called, in public, Simeoni a liar. Simeoni then filed a lawsuit against Armstrong, accusing him of slander, and demanded 100,000 Euros. According to the Italian, he never said anything about Armstrong in the hearing, he only told them about his experience with Ferrari.

So the reason why Armstrong chased after Simeoni seems to be personal, he didn’t want Filippo Simeoni to win that stage. There are indications along that line, also from US Postal, but Armstrong’s team manager Johan Bruyneel later changed his mind. Armstrong himself claimed that he acted on the behalf of the peloton. But there’s no reason why he should get Simeoni back to the peloton himself, he has a whole team that works for him to do that.

Instead, Armstrong took a huge risk. Even though the peloton wasn’t going in the highest pace at the time, it’s not very easy to get away and you will lose energy. With an important time trial the day after, Armstrong could have, even though it’s not very likely, lost the yellow jersey. That’s why he acted irrationally.

Live feed from the 18th stage.

More on cycling, doping and Michele Ferrari.

Update: Educated Guesswork agrees.