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The Comparables Project: Help Me Out!

Fotoreporter Sirotti

Regular readers have maybe gleaned over the years that I'm pretty into baseball. There are any number of explanations: personal playing experience, the nuances of the game, being a good American, or even more so, being a New Englander in the Age of Red Sox Hegemony. It is what it is, but unfortunately baseball and cycling are about as dissimilar as any two major sports could be. Really, about the only thing they have in common is bill caps and that Dutch people are better at both than you might suspect.

So it makes it all the more vexing for me to import to cycling my love of modern analytics which have so redefined the experience of wonking watching baseball. To the uninterested or uninitiated, baseball is rife with statistics, since it's sort of a sum of individual performances, but in the last two decades the old statistics have been replaced with newer ones that better reflect why teams win. This new statistical movement is clever, it's fun, and it's a great way to taunt our elders (yeah, that'll never come back on me). Ursula and I (and others) have since tinkered with some statistics, and I still stand behind my sprinter stats, but suffice to say it's nothing like baseball.

However, one thing you see a lot in baseball player analysis are "comparables," by which an analyst might look at the stats of a particular player, take into account some qualitatives (position, size, handedness) and name a few players who are comparable to that one -- typically well-known players from the recent past, which are most likely to make sense to readers. It's a way of saying, if you don't want to look at the numbers, let me translate them into an image that might help you understand the guy. Whether such comparables are scientifically defensible is another matter, but if you can't argue about baseball, well, you probably aren't from Boston.

Anyway, I thought it might be nice to skip over the conundrum of inventing meaningful stats for cycling and try on some comparables. To the extent they can be based on hard evidence, all the better, but for sure we will need to delve into subjectivities. And if you can't argue about cycling subjectivities, well, you probably aren't from Belgium. [Or Italy, France, the Netherlands, Spain...] I will take the first stab at a comparable and hopefully you guys will feel inspired to go from there.

Nairo Quintana, Movistar

Comparables: Alberto Contador, Gilbert Simoni, Luis Herrera, Lucien Van Impe, Carlos Sastre, Pedro Delgado

Alberto Contador -- Easily the cleanest comparable here. He's recent, he rides with the same panache, and his early success is a nice guide. IMHO they don't have that similar a style; Contador isn't quite as small, and tends to launch shorter, faster attacks, whereas Quintana attacks less frequently and, so far, with more success. Anyway, numerically speaking, the parallels are strong. Contador's development was delayed by a cerebral cavernoma, but once he put that behind him he rose quickly. His age-25 season is not terribly dissimilar to Quintana's last campaign, at age 23: Contador won the 2007 Tour (over a thin field) after winning Paris-Nice and Castilla y Leon, along with some other very positive signs. Quintana last year won the Pais Vasco and the Vuelta a Burgos, sandwiched around a second at the Tour to an extremely strong Chris Froome. Contador was sixth and fifth in the two TdF time trials that year, while Quintana finished 54th and 6th last July against the watch. [Contador's time trialing record suggests a greater strength in that area relative to Don Nairo, but then again, all results from the last decade come with a bit of question, and Contador is of course not immune to this. Let's not dwell too much on the unknowables...] Finally, it's worth noting that in his first post-breakout season, Contador did the Giro-Vuelta double, albeit under weird circumstances. Quintana is now halfway to that milestone as well.

Gilberto Simoni -- I'm going to throw this one out there. If Contador represents a "ceiling" comparable, Simoni is more like Quintana's "floor". Simoni was a brilliant climber, a small dude who consistently dominated the climbs of the Giro d'Italia, as well as the occasional mountain time trial. Only slightly larger than Quintana, Simoni at his best was every bit as strong a winner as what we just saw in the 2014 Giro. Again, in strange times, though there is an outside chance that Simoni was riding much cleaner than his competition. If that were so, then he may have been one of the most brilliant climbers of the past generation. Anyway, he represents Quintana's floor because Simoni wasn't particularly successful outside of Italy, started winning much later than Quintana has, and Quintana profiles as a better time trialist thus far. See also Sastre, Carlos; Delgado, Pedro.

Luis Herrera -- Too obvious? Maybe, but beyond mere nationality El Jardinero was exactly the same height, rode a similar aggressive-but-not-dramatic style, and dominated the climbs of the Tour de France from very early on. Best remembered for 1985, Herrera actually achieved his breakthrough win on Alpe d'Huez in 1984, over none other than Laurent Fignon, Greg LeMond, Robert Millar and a somewhat subpar Bernard Hinault. He also came in second in the uphill time trial to Fignon. He had just turned 24 at the time. The following year Lucho upped his game (he fell apart on the Galibier stage in '84 and didn't crack the top 10), with two stage wins, a third he gifted to Fabio Parra, victory in the polka dots, and finished seventh overall in one of the great general classifications in modern history. Herrera did not possess the complete package, losing time against the watch in particular, but it's not obvious to me whether he lacked the power or just the resources to round out his game. For a South American, those were different times and if Lucho could delay his life and career by 25 years, he might have shown up at Movistar and overcome some of those problems.

Lucien Van Impe -- Pure climber of years past. Little guy. Won a Tour. I don't want to wander too far out of my depth here but I do believe there are some parallels based on the strength of his accomplishments. Probably too early to match up Q here though.

I stopped short of doing Sastre and Delgado comps, though I think there's something to them. Delgado was aggressive and very well-rounded. Sastre struggled with the time trials and emerged later in his career, but his Alpe d'Huez win resembled Quintana's effort on the Stelvio stage (minus the kerfluffle). Like Quintana, Sastre was small, canny and strong.

What this all means isn't too much. Quintana won't turn into Contador, whose career is full of odd twists but who remains a great and generally respected rider. Nor will he likely turn into Lucho Herrera, going home prematurely (from the sport's perspective) to raise a family with just a Vuelta to his name. I think Quintana may turn into someone greater than all of his comparables... but the point of comparables is definitely not to get carried away. It's to identify some riders who were similar up to the point the rider in question is now, and in doing so to use some guys who went both higher and lower from there to suggest a range of possible futures.

So... you are invited to weigh in on this comparable. But! I am also inviting you to pick other riders and find comparables. The older guys, it's a little simpler exercise. Boonen's comparables, for example, are all the great champions of the cobbles. But the younger guys make the exercise more challenging and fun. Who are Taylor Phinney's comparables (assuming he's back to full health this year)? Peter Sagan's? Any of the myriad of emerging stars would be fun to do this with. Go!