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Against the Odds: The final reckoning

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A season’s worth of fake bets are behind us, and what have we learned?

My tribe
Andrew Matthews/EMPICS/Getty Images

Most of you will be aware that Conor, Chris and I have been holding a friendly competition through the season, with fake bets on various races between January’s Tour down Under and October’s Il Lombardia. We’ve trailed this on the website periodically, and during podcafsts (subscribe now!). Now that the experiment is over, I look back on how it has gone, and what it tells us.

Cycling is an emerging betting sport, but it isn’t there yet

I don’t think we could have run this competition five years ago. We managed it thans to two big changes, at least in the UK and Ireland. The first is broad - you can bet on more things, and basically anything shown live on Eurosport will have betting markets. As someone who bets on biathlon, I am grateful for this. The second is more specific. There are more cycling fans in the UK than ever, and as they broaden their interests beyond the Tour, more races become targets for gambling.

On the other hand, it wasn’t easy to run this game in 2017. We often wanted to bet on things that weren’t available - often making up our own bets, or wanted to think about markets before they emerged. I understand (and approve of) the fact that cycling doesn’t want to set itself up as a gambling sport, and that cycling still isn’t mainstream, but it has pointed out to me something that would benefit the sport more generally, in my view: meaningful startlists.

Horse racing (which, for better and mostly for worse, is set up to support gambling) has a system of declarations. You enter a horse in a specific race 5 days before the race is run (with declarations weeks, months and years earlier for big races) and then make a final declaration 48 hours before the race (fact checkers - that’s the case for UK flat racing, I know that it varies). Everyone knows who might be racing, and two days beforehand, we know the full draw, with jockeys and weights, with compensation for bettors on horses that for whatever reason don’t race after being declared. Even American Football, supposedly foursquare against gambling, has detailed injury list rules that even New England (sort of) follow.

Cycling? It sort of trickles out. If there was a compulsory day for releasing longlists, then proper team lists, and a detailed injury list, we wouldn’t all have to fart-arse around on cycling fever, pcs and all the others. You could make it early for the monuments and GTs, and five day for the other races. You could even run the entire thing through the UCI site. We’d have some meaningful information that we could trust, and we’d know when and where to look. Never going to happen, of course, but it’d be great for the whole sport, not just betting.

You need luck on your side

Let’s not put this off any longer. I won. Boom.

The full detail is here, but it is easy to summarise - a small loss for Conor, a small profit for me, and Chris lost everything going for broke on Michael Matthews in the Worlds.

Obviously, I’m relieved. Chris was kind enough to bill me as a “betting expert” when i started here, and whilst that’s a nice thing to hear, it brings pressure. I can’t lie, I badly wanted to do well in this competition. Ultimately, I was able to win because Macej Bodnar won the Marseille time trial, at 80/1, with $20 of my money riding on him. I didn’t have any reason to feel any better about that bet than any other I placed, and there’s no doubt it was lucky. You don’t win unless something breaks your way. Cycling gambling isn’t any easier or harder than any other form of betting in that sense. I don’t think that means that the overall profit was lucky - of the 59 bets I placed, that one happened to be the big winner. It could just as easily have been Majka in Liege-Bastogne-Liege or Sam Oomen in Il Lombardia, both of whom were near enough at 200/1. That’s luck, too, just the other kind.

The moment the competion changed
Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

You need patience and time

It isn’t an insight to say that gambling isn’t easy. One lesson I’d take from this competition is that it uses different muscles from normal cycling fandom. Perhaps more accurately, it requires you to examine a race through a different lens. I find that invigorating, obviously, but it also means that you need to find the time to put those metaphorical lenses on.

In other words, in addition to writing for this site, watching cycling and being snarky in the live threads (to say nothing of jobs and friends and families and holidays and common colds and uncommon colds) Conor and Chris had to find the time to look at each race in a different way, after the markets were set, and find bets they fancied. That often involves working around restrictive access to gambling websites and sending me emails or tweets with their ideas. I’m used to that and I can do it fairly quickly, but it is no surprise to me that I placed almost three times the bets that Chris did. Nor is it a surprise that Chris finished the year with two “I’m all in” bets, and ended up having lost his metaphorical $1,000. If you haven’t got the time to put into betting, and the patience to keep plugging away, it won’t work. Like anything, if you don’t enjoy it and you don’t have to do it, why would you?

Looked at another way...

Andrew rules, Chris drools

I’m nine years old.

Does knowledge help?

This, to me, is the biggest question from all of this.

I’m confident in saying I’m a more experienced gambler than either of m’colleagues. Experience as a cycling fan/pundit? Nah. The knowledge advantage was on their side. One of the things I wanted to get from this competition was a sense of what was more effective - a decent knowledge of betting and cycling, or a detailed knowledge of cycling and limited betting knowledge. Given the sample szie, we are still far from a conclusive answer, although I do think familiarity with betting is helpful.

What we did see, however, was some interesting periods of agreement. There were several riders we all really liked at the available prices. Michael Matthews (16/1 for the worlds) was the final and most obvious example, but it happened several times through the year. Now, the three of us talk cycling for the podcafsts often, and maybe this was group-think, but I’m not convinced. Sometimes, the bookie gets it wrong. It is rare, and getting rarer, but it happens. It happens more in obscure sports. It happens more when there’s a market bias (I believe there to be a Sky/UK/Anglophone bias among the British cycling gamblers). My suspicion is that we stumbled across a few of those, and often that’s where we coalesced. In retrospect, each-way on Matthews at 16/1 would have been a straightforward 250% profit.

You might need gambling experience to improve your sense of whether 16/1 is value, or whether you need to see 20/1, but we all spot the same clear and obvious standout value.

Two bike lengths from glory
Jonathan Nackstrand/Getty Images

Where do we go from here?

Well, I don’t think this competition will be running next year - though if anyone wants to run one as a fanpost/twitter game, that’d be awesome, and please count me in - you can have my spreadsheets if you’ll run it yourselves. I don’t think Chris will be opening a Paddy Power account soon, but beyond that I’ll leave the boys to speak for themselves.

Personally, I’ve enjoyed it. I still think cycling is an imperfect sport for gambling, but whilst the markets are also imperfect, there is money to be made. I’ll continue to bet, but I’ll aim to keep “interest” bets to very low stakes, whilst waiting for those opportunities to bet when the price is just wrong. On those occasions, I’ll back my opinion with more confidence as a result of this experiment.

Oh, and I’ll mention this victory on the podcafst a few more times, you can be sure of that.