The art of war
”There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.
There are not more than five primary colours, yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever be seen.
In the dynamics of war there are but these two — indirect and direct — and yet their permutations are inexhaustible.”
Sun Tzu, 500 BC
There are but two ways to win a bicycle race: by being the strongest and by being the smartest.
And yet, unless you are racing in the novice categories or you’ve time travelled back to the 1920’s (when bike races were just long wars of attrition), you will need some combination of these two to be successful, because in cycling, brawn alone so rarely beats brains.
To win a bike race, you need to be able to use your opposition, prey on their weaknesses, and profit from your strength. You need to use the terrain and the conditions to turn chance into opportunity. The tactical side of bike racing is indeed an art, and it is one in which there is much to be learned from Sun Tzu’s book The Art of War.
The ancient treatise on strategies for warfare was written by the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu in 500 BC, and has been used for two millennia as a guide to strategy in everything from warfare to politics, as well as sport and business.
I purchased a copy as soon as I started working as a sports director, thinking I was being smart (and was amused to find out that pretty much every single sports director I know also has a copy sat on their desk). Still, despite not being a particularly original idea, the book still has a tremendous amount of use when applied to the complex sport of cycling.
Originally written on strips of bamboo (and potentially penned by more than one person, as very little is actually known of Sun Tzu), the book is broken down into thirteen chapters, each one containing advice for different aspects of warfare.
The master Sun Tzu teaches that war is a careful process of thorough planning, intelligence gathering, and well-thought-out strategic advances that use the terrain and conditions to your advantage. In this case, ancient warfare couldn’t be more like bike racing.
Detail assessment, planning, strategic attack, use of energy and terrain
Every battle is won before it is ever fought.
This basic principle of Sun-Tzu’s work is fundamental in cycling: preparation is key to victory. As a sports director, this accounts for the hours I spend going through Google Street View, checking and rechecking the gradient of climbs, road surfaces, and likely climactic conditions; determining tactics, and seeking out the best equipment for the job.
Preparation has certainly improved since the days that Jacques Anquetil would ride a race route with a pocketful of self-addressed post-cards to send along the way to remind himself of the course, but the principle has never changed. Preparation and planning are matters that all great riders and great directors should and do take extremely seriously.
After the preparation is done, we come to the strategy of the race, and here Sun-Tzu gives us one key idea: the ultimate victory is one that uses as few resources as possible to achieve.
”For to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill; to beat the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.”
If you think about a bike race in general strategic terms, the best way to win it — be it a one-day race, a stage of a stage race, or an entire three week race — is to have every other rider and team do the work until the last possible point that you can take over and win.
When I spoke to Charly Wegelius (then sports director at Garmin-Barracuda) a few days after Ryder Hesjedal won the 2012 Giro, he said his greatest pleasure came not from the victory, but from the fact that Garmin had managed to win the race without ever having to ride the front.
Despite being a weaker force, Hesjedal’s team had, through the skill of their directors, avoided taking responsibility for driving the race at inconsequential times and managed to use their resources where it really counted. It was a masterful tactical display that relied on using the strengths of others to gain a victory.
Interestingly, many of the ideas for strategy in the book aren’t aimed at creating what we might consider glorious achievements. Instead, Sun-Tzu is more interested in absolute victory, eked out without risk (and thereby without any of the panache that cycling fans love so much.)
”The victories of the skilful warrior are not extraordinary victories; they bring neither fame for wisdom nor merit for valour. His victories are flawless; his victory is flawless because it is inevitable; he vanquishes an already defeated army.”
I would bet my house that someone in Team Sky has read the Art of War. Sun-Tzu would certainly approve of each of their Tour de France wins. The British team play solely to their strengths, and where they can get away with defending they do. Their wins are neither particularly enthralling to watch nor inspiring for cycling fans. They are wins however, and ultimately that’s what counts.
A strategic offensive is almost seen as a last resort to Sun Tzu. Attacking takes resources; it exposes both your strengths and your weaknesses. If you must attack, the Chinese master advises, then do it when no one expects it.
”Attack where he is unprepared; appear where you are unexpected.”
Remind anyone of a certain Chris Froome attacking on the descent of the Peyresourde?
But The Art of War doesn’t simply contain ideas on broad strategic principles and planning for sports directors. At some point, preparation and contemplation have to end, and the assistance that can be given by a sports director or a coach becomes limited. In a race, a sports director is in a car behind the action, and is effectively living in the past. The rider has to be able to think for himself, and the principles of The Art of War are just as relevant to the individual.
Alliances, deception, and opportunity
A bike race is a sea of ever-changing alliances. They can range from something as simple as two riders collaborating in a break to teams assisting each other to change the outcome to better suit their needs. A rider needs to understand these completely.
Sun-Tzu’s take on alliances is typically mistrusting. We cannot enter into alliances until we are acquainted with the designs of our neighbours.
But as always, Sun-Tzu has a point. For a rider to know if an alliance is worth it in a race, he must know what his temporary ally is hoping to gain from working with him. In the long run, does the alliance better suit his opponent or him? And do they both want to achieve the same thing by working together (i.e. by both going for the win, in which case at some point the alliance will end and the winner will be he who can best predict when) or do they have separate ambitions (one the jersey, the other the stage)?
Either way, knowing exactly what the other party is hoping to gain from the situation gives a rider an idea of how to manipulate the alliance for his own gain and not another’s. And this is probably the point at which the topic of deception steps in.
”All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
There are dozens of ways that deception comes in to a bike race, from riders who act as if they aren’t interested in chasing when in the bunch, or claim they’re struggling or sick when in the break, to sprinters who will deliberately get dropped in a race a couple of weeks before a target to lure other teams into underestimating them later on down the line. Some bluffs are subtle; some a lot more brazen, such as the tactic employed by Gilbert Duclos-Lassalle to win his second Paris-Roubaix in 1993.
When the Frenchman escaped with Franco Ballerini, he allegedly assured the Italian that he was happy to take second because he was unable to assist with the pacemaking. Showing staggering naivety for an Italian, Ballerini duly towed the French veteran for over 25 km to the velodrome, where Lassalle promptly came off Ballerini’s wheel and took the win.
Assuring someone you won’t sprint is an extreme case of deception, but it is a case all the same. If all of warfare is deception, then all of bike racing is a bluff. Working out how this is being used, and how to use it, is crucial for a rider.
As well as being able to read other riders, a great rider needs the ability to change plans as the race develops in unpredictable ways around him. Sun-Tzu tackles this in the chapter Variations and Adaptability.
”Water shapes its course according to the nature of the ground over which it flows; the soldier works out his victory in relation to the foe whom he is facing. Therefore, just as water retains no constant shape, so in warfare there are no constant conditions.”
It basically translates as a rider’s ‘road craft’, and Mark Cavendish is a rider who has more of this than most. The Manxman is what Sun-Tzu would describe as a heaven-born captain. His ability to win sprints is based in part on how he reacts to the constantly changing situation around him.
As he once told the BBC, “Circumstances change in every moment of every race. The weather, the terrain, the other riders — it’s not just me against another rider; it’s my team against 20 other teams. So it’s 20 things to the power of 20 that can happen. There are infinite things that can happen.”
Cavendish can adapt, because each time he makes decisions that lead to a sprint win, whether he knows it or not, he reinforces Sun-Tzu’s advice that, Victorious campaigns are unrepeatable. They take form in response to the infinite variety of circumstances.
In bike racing, everything leads to the same place; on every level, racing is about distributing resources, whether you’re a sports director who has to best work out how to use the strengths and weaknesses of his riders over the weeks and days of a race, or a rider working out how best to use the finite amount of energy and power that you have in a multitude of situations through each day to be as fresh as possible at the finish.
There are countless other examples of how The Art of War relates to the world of bike racing. But the ultimate truth is that cycling is not just for the strong and the courageous, but also for the cunning and well prepared. The fundamental rules don’t change. Cycling, just like Sun-Tzu’s ancient warfare, is the ultimate competitive endeavour, because of course, nothing counts but total victory.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 16 where it was first printed.