Lies, Damned Lies, and Liège: majope's numbers-driven picks for LBL

Lbl_mediumDid Andy Schleck really win Liege-Bastogne-Liege last year? Convince me. Only 2 other winners in the past 30 years have been under 24, and the one previous to the Schlecklet was Evgeni Berzin waaaay back in 1994 (Steven Rooks is the other, in 1983). Since 1980, the average age of the winner has been 28.05, and indeed 6 of the 30 winners have been 28 (more or less—2 turned 28 within a month of their win). There's also a cluster of 31-year-olds of the same size, so 40% of the past 30 winners have been about 28 or about 31. Why those ages in particular? My theory: the 28-year-olds win because they're at their physical peak (see ursula's 27.62 post). Hard to beat someone when they're at their best...unless you're a few years older, have raced just that many more editions of the race to get vital experience, and are just a couple years past your prime. In other words, about 31.

So who fits among tomorrow’s favorites? Damiano Cunego at 28.58 and Philippe Gilbert at 27.75 years of age are closest to the average and the 28-cluster. Two of Jens’ Looney Longshots are also in winning age-clusters: Vaugrenard is 28 and Fedrigo 31. Hey, maybe Jens is onto something!

Age range of winners since 1980: 22.67-32.92. Favorites/dark horses currently outside of range: Evans (but only by 3 months), Freire, Sastre, Kloden, Horner, Van Garderen

Weightier issues considered below the fold.

La Doyenne is a hard, hilly race, so it’s not surprising that weight seems to play a significant role: riders have to lug their bodies up those climbs. I was able to track down [reported] height and weight stats for the winners of 19 of the past 30 editions. That’s not a huge sample, but it includes every winner from 1993 on (plus two earlier winners, Hinault in 1980 and van der Poel in 1988), so it should indicate something about recent winners.

Physiques vary considerably, but the heaviest of the 19 winners tops out at a mere 70 kg. For contrast, the cobbled-classics guys Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, and Thor Hushovd are all listed at over 80 kg, at least a full 10 kg heavier. The average weight of an LBL winner is 64 kg, and the favorite who claims that spot-on is Cadel Evans. Andy Schleck is the 2nd-closest at 65 kg.

Weight range of winners: 58 kg-70 kg. Favorites/dark horses outside range: Van Garderen (70.5 kg), Hesjedal (72 kg). Vaugrenard is right at the top of the weight range at 70 kg. But see below for notes on their BMI…

Because height is also going to matter: Evans’s 64 kg is going to be relatively heavier than Schleck’s 65 because Cuddles is 13 cm shorter than the Schlecklet. So let’s look at BMI (Body Mass Index), which is supposed to assess healthy weight limits (caveat: it’s not that accurate for athletes in general, whose excess of muscle tends to be read as fat in the tables—but this is cycling. Excess of muscle, at least above the waist, is not usually a problem). Andy’s BMI is 18.8, the lowest of any of the winners we have data for. Cadel’s is 21.4. While there have been 7 winners who’ve sported a BMI of 21.4 or higher, the only ones from the 2000s have been Danilo Di Luca, Alexandr Vinokourov, and Davide Rebellin. Apparently, it’s difficult to get denser bodies over those hills without a little help.

The average BMI for the winner is 20.7. Closest among the favorites? Damiano Cunego is exactly 20.7, if his reported weight on the UCI Pro Tour site is correct (it’s given as 59 kg there, but 65 kg on various other sites—the higher weight would increase his BMI to 22.8). Maxime Monfort, also on the start list but not usually among the favorites for tomorrow, is also 20.7. Phillippe Gilbert and Benoit Vaugrenard are very close, straddling the range at 20.9 and 20.5 respectively. Gilbert, Cunego, Vaugrenard…we’ve heard those names before, haven’t we?

For comparison, BMI of the most recent winners of Paris-Roubaix. Cancellara: 23.1. Boonen: 22.2. Stuart O’Grady: 23.6. Magnus Backstedt: 25.2. Every single one is above the BMI of any of the 19 LBL winners we have data for. Physical type matters a lot in these races, and Stuey is what helps convince me of this—he might be considerably shorter and lighter than other recent P-R winners, but his BMI is similar.

BMI range of LBL winners: 18.8-22.0 Favorites/dark horses outside of range: Gerrans (barely—22.1), Fedrigo (22.3—sorry, Jens!). Frank Schleck is below the lower end of the range, depending on which weight you accept for him. He is usually listed the same as Andy, 65-67 kg, but admitted to 61 kg in an interview after last year’s Tour (Andy, on the other hand, claimed not to have lost weight during the race and said he weighed 65). But given that Andy provides the lowest BMI of any recent winner, if Frank weighs anything less than his brother he’s outside the winning range.

Note that Van Garderen may be just slightly heavy for LBL, but his BMI of 20.6 is almost perfectly average for the race. Hesjedal is a tall guy (1.9 m), so his BMI is also well within range at 19.9.

The Schlecklet Effect: Most of the riders who are pegged as favorites or dark horses for this year’s LBL fit comfortably within the ranges of previous winners, including guys who haven’t been mentioned yet like Contador, J-Rod, and Valverde (of course—he’s won it twice before). Gilbert, Cunego, and Vaugrenard (who I wouldn't even have looked at if he hadn't been a Looney Longshot) are my picks, though, based on the numbers as they currently stand. We must, though, consider the Schlecklet Effect. Not only was Andy last year the youngest winner in over 15 years, but he was also the tallest since at least 1993. And his BMI was a full .5 lower than any other winner we’ve got stats for. When somebody like that comes along, suddenly the ranges need to be adjusted and the averages get skewed. But that doesn’t mean we should totally ignore the weight of history. Or at least its BMI.

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