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Against the Odds: An Introduction to Betting on Cycling

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How betting works, and why we'll be talking about odds on Podium Cafe in 2017

Cycling: Road World Championships 2013 / RR Men Elite
Costa's World Championship was a big profit for me too...
Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Captain Renault: I'm shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!

[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]

Croupier: Your winnings, sir.

Captain Renault: [sotto voce] Oh, thank you very much.

Captain Renault: [aloud] Everybody out at once

First, an introduction. I’m Andrew, and the longstanding members may remember me as EdredonBrowny. That internet name goes back to my other sporting love, horse racing. (I have another deep sporting love that, on this site, dare not speak its name, but I got together with my wife at the home of cricket, so I won’t live a lie on here). Anyway, horse racing got me into betting. For most people, it is the other way around, but I loved watching the races and following the animals. After a while, I developed opinions of which horses would go on to greater successes. From there it was a tiny step to backing them with real money.

So yes, I like to bet. Not for the sums I’ve won, though they’ve been nice, but for the satisfaction of cracking a really challenging puzzle, and for the sense of investment in the development of certain horses. Names like Dream Ahead, Somersby, Double Ross and (of course) Frankel still make my heart beat a little quicker, though they’d mean nothing to most of you. On the other hand, I bet you can all tell me about the 1-pointer you picked up in 2013 who made you proud (I had Bakelants that year – and Ciolek at 2 points when he won MSR). My laboured point is this: to think about betting is to indulge in making projections, sharing opinions, gaining knowledge, and showing foresight. It is fun, challenging and a great way to get a different insight into sport.

I’m thrilled to have been asked to write a little for this site, and to try and bring a slightly different slant to complement the existing coverage, in a space we’re calling “against the odds”.

Of course, gambling is also a great way to go broke, ruin relationships and turn happy moments into squalid ones. I’ve seen too much of that side to ignore it, or to think of myself as anything other than lucky to be immune to the addictive pull of chasing losses. So we won’t be encouraging betting on here. What we will be doing is encouraging projections, against published odds. FSA DS is going nowhere and remains one of my favourite ways to think about cycling's winners, but we’ll add some more. The detail is being worked out, but for now, allow me to present a brief introduction to how gambling works. If you’re familiar with placing bets, no need to read further.

The odds:

This is the most important thing to know before betting. Unfortunately, betting has a language of its own, and the language varies from country to country. As a Brit, I work in fractional odds, which are expressed as a ratio of the winnings to the stake – that is, the amount you stand to win, relative to the size of your bet. So if you bet £1 at 10/1, you would win £10. However, you will always get your stake back on a winning bet, so your return (your stake plus your winnings) is £11.

Most countries express this in decimal form – the total return as a single number. You multiply the stake by the decimal odds, and get the return. That’s how I’ll try and work on this site. The same bet as the one above in decimal is 11. Nice and simple.

The US have their own method again, which works based on a theoretical $100 stake, and in this case the return would be +$1100. This is so daft it makes my head hurt, and most US gambling firms appear to be moving away from this for anything with more than two or three outcomes (boxing, football, etc) so we can ignore this for cycling purposes, thank goodness.

The cut:

Here’s an interesting thing about bookies. The good ones don’t care about the outcome of an event. That isn’t always true, but it is their aim when they set a market. The bookies, who set odds, aim to deliver a “balanced book” – that is, the amount they pay out will be the same regardless of the outcome. They make money based on their cut. Imagine a coin flip as a betting event. You obviously have a 50:50 chance of winning. A bookie might offer you 1.9 (9/10) on “heads” or “tails”. You place £1 on heads, I place £1 on tails. Whatever the outcome, the bookie receives £2 and pays £1.90, a 5% profit. This 5% is called the “vig” in the US, and the “cut” or “over” in the UK.

Understanding the cut is helpful in understanding how probability works in betting – because the odds won’t add up to 100%. For instance, Paddy Power currently show Sagan at 5.00 (4/1) to win Milan-San Remo. That means, to break even, you’d need to win 20% of your bets at that price. The total market offered by Paddy Power is around 130% (that is, a cut of 30%). To win on that market, you need to be 30% smarter than the bookies – or just get lucky. Not so easy.

The other reason to understand the vig is to understand what “the odds” represent. They are not the bookies’ view of the likeliest outcome, they are the bookies’ view of the likely spread of money, to ensure a balanced book. Any bias in the market will be reflected in the odds. So you can expect Cav, in particular, to be offered at some fairly short (unfavourable) prices when stage betting for the Tour is available – because the biggest betting nation in most markets is Britain.

The type of bet:

(Don’t worry, this is the last bit). So far, we’ve talked about “win only” betting. You place a bet, they run the race, if your guy wins, you collect. If he doesn’t, you don’t. There are however, other bets.

“Place” bets are the same as win bets in that you have a single bet on a single outcome. You will be offered a number of places (3, typically, but it varies) and will bet on that. If your guy finishes in the top 3, you collect. Clearly, the odds offered are lower than on win only bets.

“Each-way” betting is a UK phenomenon but helpful for cycling and other betting at long odds. Technically, an each-way bet is two bets. Half of your stake is a win only bet. The other half is a place bet, where the odds are divided. This can get a bit complicated, and works better in fractional odds. You might, for instance, ask for £1 each-way on Degenkolb in Milan San-Remo. The advertised odds are 12/1 (13.00). The “place terms” for the each-way bet are a quarter of the odds for three places. You would pay £2 – one for each bet. If Degs wins, you have £1 at 13.00 and would receive £13. You would also have a winning place bet, and would receive £1 at a quarter of the odds (3/1, or 4.00) and would receive £4, giving you a total return of £17. If he finishes second or third, you’d receive £4, but lose your £1 win bet (so, effectively, you’d double your money – a 2.00 bet).

Each-way betting is great to give you “interest” in a race, and a chance of a big win. It is also good if you are looking for an outsider to be successful (for instance, 1 point each-way on a rider who places at 50/1 and a quarter of the odds would give you a return of 12.5 points, and if he did win, you’d pick up 64.5 points).

I’m not going to get into multiples or exotic bets. If you like that sort of thing, see me in the comments after class. Otherwise, this stuff will start making sense as the season rolls around and we start making fake bets against the published lines.