Is there a superstar advantage in cycling?

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Bradley Wiggins rolls up to the start line. His heart is racing. The crowd–built up in thousands along the barriers–erupts into a powerful chorus of yells, cheers and whistles.

Wiggins can’t hear himself think, and yet his mind is focused. His body is ready. It is the 2012 Tour de France and he is here for one thing: to become the first Brit in history to wear the Maillot Jaune in Paris.

In the months leading up to this very moment, winning is exactly what the British rider has done: Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie and Criterium du Dauphine – all Wiggins, Wiggins, and Wiggins.

Despite many early criticisms the Team Sky rider hasn’t faulted all year. He is a superstar, an intimidating figure of the peloton with an incredibly determined focus on winning this very race.

The road to the start-line has been a long and tough one, but could it be that one of his greatest advantages lies in the simple fact that he is Bradley Wiggins?

A few weeks ago I came across an article that caught my attention.

It was on the Frontal Cortex blog on Wired.com were Jonah Lehrer, an author and journalist, discussed the Superstar Advantage: the phenomenon when athletes are so intimated by a certain ‘star’ player or competitor that their performance significantly drops.

The article’s premise was based on a interesting study done by Jennifer Brown, a professor of Management and Strategy at the Northwestern University, examining performances of players in golf tournaments when Tiger Woods was both present and absent.

She made the interesting observation that whenever Tiger Woods was playing in any given PGA tournament, the general performance level would drop significantly.

Was it because players thought they couldn’t possibly beat Tiger Woods, so they did not try hard enough? Or was it adverse subconscious effects that lead players to ‘choke’?

Lehrer’s article discussed a few of these points, but it got me thinking: could there be a similar effect in professional cycling? Could having a certain name or superstar reputation have an unrecognised advantage?

Although I can see this particular phenomenon taking hold in other sports, namely tennis and golf (think Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Woods, etc.), I struggle to see cycling–in all its intrinsic complexity–being as susceptible to the Superstar Advantage.

Why?

Firstly, the broad scope of events that characterise professional cycling, as well as the immense depth of ‘targeted’ riders for any specific role creates a far larger ‘superstar’ talent pool. Unlike sports such as tennis that have a set format, professional cycling traverses over a plethora of varying roads and event formats, tackling a multitude of unforeseen challenges.

Different races will suit different riders. Sprint, time trial, hill climbing and so on. you do not see one particular cyclist dominating all aspects of the sport (Eddy Mercx is the only rider who would come close).

This inevitably grows the list of star athletes into size that would easily dwarf those of tennis and golf – sports that have a limited, small group of athletes that dominate the sport.

Another, perhaps less obvious influence, could be cyclists’ inherent ability to be (largely) immune to intimidation.

When I was junior cyclist, a good friend of mine once gave me some advice that has always lingered in the back of mind.

“You know what Adam. You can be as good as anybody,” he told me. “They are just as human as you.”

This advice, although unapologetically born from the self-help/motivational quote department, does highlight a core characteristic fundamental to cycling. Bike riders, particularly young and up coming racers, love to ‘stick it’ to the more experienced and ‘famous’ riders.

They want to give those riders respect, but not be too intimidated by them.

If you think towards the Tour Down Under, one can see this in motion through the UNI-SA/Australian National Team.

Although most of the riders have never raced a World Tour race before, they are always keen to prove how good they are – no matter whom it is they are racing.

Last year was a huge testament to that. Will Clarke took an emphatic stage victory in Sterling, and Rohan Dennis won the white jersey, KOM and finished an impressive fourth on GC.

Cycling is a sport unlike anything else, a complex and unpredictable beast that can give the most unexpected rider a victory.

There are superstars by the bucket load and riders that may strike fear into their competitors, but that doesn’t necessary give them any distinct advantage.

Just ask Fabian Cancellera after he was largely marked-out of the classics recently.

When Wiggins left the start line at the 2012 Tour de France he did not go on to take out one of the most dominative victories in Tour history simply because he was a superstar. It was because he was the best rider, he had the best team and over three weeks he tore himself to bits.

He avoided crashes. He didn’t get sick. His whole cycling life had built up to that very moment and there was no way he would let it slip away from him.

In each and every stage his world could have come crushing down – a fall or a badly timed mechanical could have ended it all for him. But it didn’t.

And that is the beauty of cycling.

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