Number Crunchers: Pro Cycling Stats
“You must be some kind of nerd to visit our website.”
He’s not exactly selling this to me. I may not be the living embodiment of hipsterdom, but “nerd” is a bit strong.
What I am, however, is a cycling journalist, who uses Pro Cycling Stats on a daily basis, as does everyone else in this business – cycling writers, TV commentators, pro teams and riders – alongside thousands of racing fans in search of race results, facts and figures, nuggets of handy stat-based information and anything else you might need for showing off your bike racing knowledge in front of your mates at the pub.
Or, in the case of professional teams, analysing the opposition for upcoming races.
“The normal person watching the Tour de France on the television is not going to use our website,” PCS founder Stephan van der Zwan adds, which makes me feel a tad better. Who wants to be considered normal?
Bearing in mind that, in its short lifespan, PCS has gone from 74 million page views in 2014 to an estimated 140 million in 2017, with more than 50,000 users per day, that’s an awful lot of ‘not-normal’ people like you and me.
PCS is a big success, whatever your metric. American sports – football, baseball, basketball – are another level of stat-dom, but cycling fans like to know their stuff. And PCS provides an awful lot of that stuff.
Want to keep an eye on the next up-and-coming star from South America? Scour the results of the Vuelta a Colombia for a future Gaviria. Fancy a flutter on a resurgent Julian Alaphilippe before the end of the season?
PCS has every race and finishing position of the Quick Step man as far back as you need to go. Want to know who is injured, what they have damaged and how long they are likely to be out of action? They have all that, too.
Maybe you’d like to wish Lotte van Hoek a happy birthday (she rides for Lares-Waowdeals, but you knew that, right?). PCS has it covered.
They even have a race prediction game, “just for fun”, says Van der Zwan, although even that has its uses statistics-wise. “You can use the game for data as well. You can work out which races are most predictable.” Scheldeprijs, the sprinters’ favourite, it transpires.
“One Belgian race had over 1,000 players. Fifty or 60 of them scored 100 points, meaning they had the top five correct, including the winner.”
And that, my friends, is an enviable level of nerd-ism, stat-crunching, punter-ability – however you want to label it.
Predicting the top-five in any race is a serious skill; a bookmaker’s worst nightmare. Races in lesser-known bike racing territories (China is mentioned by Stephan) are tough to call, but the PCS crowd like to pit their wits against each other, even if it’s only for bragging rights – much like playing Space Invaders in an arcade in your misspent youth and getting to input your initials into the machine.
There is a quiet glow of satisfaction at having triumphed, and that is sufficient. No need to take it further.
Related – The 2021 Early Men's Season
Van der Zwan has taken PCS further this season, driving his camper van to races all over Europe, in a bid to give a human face to the people behind the figures, and make a better connection with the teams and riders.
As a former journalist with a Netherlands-based cycling website, he had a good grounding in the background information of pro riders when a businessman approached him with the notion of backing PCS.
But was Van der Zwan a statistics kind of guy? That takes a certain type of person, surely?
“I never thought about it that way, but when I think back to my youth, on holiday with my two brothers, we would be sitting in the back of the car, marking down what cars we saw. In Holland, ice skating is very popular, and we would write down all the lap times of the racers. So I never thought about it that way, but that is a kind of statistics as well.
“I loved the music charts. Every week I would go to the record shop to pick up the latest charts. And that is a kind of statistics again.
“My father is a bit like that as well,” Stephan says. “My girlfriend says I am a walking database, but that is not true. Of course, I know a lot in my head, but there are a lot of people who really know their stuff.”
His personal route to becoming a walking database began via building a website based on a cycling holiday with his daughter, then another for the Dutch youth riders.
“Those kids who are racing are coming from all over Holland and only see each other at the races. So I made a kind of community for them. I was arranging chats with Marianne Vos and Erik Dekker and so on in the winter. That’s how it all started.
“My brother was hit by a tractor and killed in 2000, in a training accident. I inherited his computer and that was the first time I had one. And that’s why I started the website for my daughter. And I think that is why I have this connection with cycling.
“It’s a kind of compensation, because I am missing my brother. I think he would be proud.
“The guy who killed my brother was only 16. A big tractor, double-air tyres. Officially you are not supposed to drive them on the road. It was wider than the tarmac. I don’t blame the young guy, because I know how cyclists are as well. We think we are kings of the road.”
Stephan’s phone pings during our dinner, the one missing result from that day’s racing finally arriving.
PCS is a hands-on operation, with Stephan inputting information while his business partner Bert Lip takes care of the background development side.
“I just copy and paste from PDFs and the programme recognises the names and the times. It is really fast. More time is spent doing the stage profiles and information. And it is a lot of information – there are 11 races in one day sometimes.”
Bearing in mind he is effectively a one-man band, that’s an awful lot of keyboard tapping. And time is of the essence on the worldwide web, of course.
“That’s what people want: the top-ten finishers before they have even finished… When they finish, we have the first three directly in our database. And in our app as well. They get a push message to tell them who has won.”
Do the riders’ individual pages update automatically, once those results have been posted?
“Good question, because we had problems with the Giro. We had two or three thousand visitors as the race was in progress, and then, once the stage had finished, the traffic was too much for our server. So we added a temporary file, unlinked to the other pages. We had too many queries. It was only for half an hour, then everything was updated.”
As for who uses PCS, that provides some interesting statistics in its own right.
“Almost all databases are Dutch – I don’t know why. During the Giro, the most visitors to the site were Dutch. But during March and April, the Spanish were top. Spain, Holland, France, Belgium, Italy – that is top five for visitors to PCS. Britain is top-ten.”
Stephan always makes a point of posting a welcome to pro riders who have followed PCS on Twitter, “but then we get complaints from other followers saying, ‘I follow you as well, why don’t you say hello to me?’ Ha ha!”
With almost 250 current riders keeping tabs on the PCS tweets, Stephan says that only Fabian Cancellara and Chris Froome can lay claim to more followers amongst their fellow workers.
And he’s the stats expert, after all.
“If I see the statistics, I would say we don’t really need Twitter anymore. But it would be wrong to stop because it is the way we got big. It is only around five per cent clicking on a link from Twitter, whereas in the beginning it was 30 or 40 per cent. People are coming more directly now.”
Online gambling would be an obvious connection to the service his website provides, but PCS is steering clear of any hook ups with the bookies.
“We really don’t want to get involved in that, it is a complete other world. Bert doesn’t want to. It must be very secure. There are betting companies who would like to advertise on our website, but they would have pop-ups. And I don’t want that. They are mailing me every week. I would rather stay poor than have pop-ups. People are going to hate us. It would spoil the website.”
There are, however, cycling organisations and teams who will pay for information from PCS, but it is strictly off the record and I am not at liberty to divulge who they might be.
Journalists are rather more open about our usage. We just don’t advertise the fact.
“I was talking to a journalist from Het Nieuwsblad and he said, ‘yes, we use you all the time.’ I said, well, write about it then! They never name you.”
Television commentators, despite giving the impression of having every snippet of rider information lodged in their sizable brains, are, of course, relying on Pro Cycling Stats in tandem with their own considerable research.
Desire: cold weather kit and off-road rides to solve your ‘cross conundrums
Carlton Kirby has his unique ‘codec’ crib sheet placed centre stage when sat at the microphone for Eurosport. It’s a work of art, a riot of highlighter pen, names and numbers.
But PCS provides the statistical gravy to accompany Kirby’s multi-coloured meat and veg.
When that hitherto little-known Caja Rural rider makes the break and you are scrabbling around for facts and figures, live on TV, PCS is your friend.
“They do make the odd mistake, but it is so rare because it is so thorough. It is quite remarkable,” says Kirby.
“Before them, you had to rely on Cycling News and various other websites. For start lists, you were at the mercy of organisers and quite often you would start a race without a complete list.
“Commentary is like a high-wire act and PCS is our safety net. Whenever we get into trouble with information on a rider, we can click on their profile and find out what he did in Le Samyn three years ago. They help to polish the turd, as it were.”
Ned Boulting, meanwhile, having moved from programme presenting to the commentary box for ITV4 in 2015, never knew a time when Pro Cycling Stats wasn’t around to help his “turd-polishing”, as Kirby so eloquently describes it.
“A couple of years ago, PCS did an April Fool that implied that they were closing down, just as I was starting work as a commentator,” he says.
“I fell for it, hook, line and sinker, and was distraught for about 24 hours, until I realised I’d been had.
“When you drill down into the layers of it, it’s an incredibly useful tool. Even if you had a team of people helping, as a commentator you couldn’t do it better. So there is no point.
“On the first week of the Tour, you have a six-man breakaway. I will have my own notes on those six riders, but for accuracy’s sake, I will have six separate tabs with their PCS pages open, so I can call up what they have done over the last few seasons.
“There are holes in it, it’s not perfect. One statistic on a stage race that I try and gather – and I think it is one they do on a major race – is who is in the breakaway every day.
“A really obvious example, like Thomas De Gendt: towards the end of the Tour de France, I had lost track of exactly how many times he had been in the break, and which stages. It would be lovely if they could detail that.
“A less obvious example: if you could call up [Wanty-Groupe Gobert rider] Mark McNally’s season in breakaways, that would be an amazing resource for us.”
Fine idea, but when I point out that PCS is essentially one-and-a-half men, a laptop and a camper van, Ned is taken aback.
“I must admit that, given the wealth of information they produce, I thought it would be four or five people working there. There are very few hours during the summer when there aren’t race results coming in.”
As Boulting correctly asserts, the stats columns to the right of the start lists are where “the real gold dust exists. Head-to-heads are really interesting when it comes to time-trials. You can spend ages researching that stuff and now there’s no point, because it’s all there.”
Most top-ten finishes by a starter in this year’s Tour of Britain? Russell Downing, with a phenomenal 24.
Rider most likely to win the stage 5 time-trial? Team Sky’s Vasil Kiryienka, according to PCS’s ranking system – although, as Boulting warns, caution should be exercised when assessing raw statistics.
“The order across the line only tells a bit of the story. Nine-tenths of the peloton, when you look at their season, it is totally underwhelming. It is all hidden below the surface, like an iceberg, so you have to be really careful how you interpret that.”
Overall, PCS is uncluttered, easy to use and – most importantly – accurate.
“I like the way it looks,” Boulting concludes. “It is rudimentary, no-nonsense, black type on white background. A lot of cycling content on the web is not like that. It takes ages to load every page, it’s full of crap and videos you want to minimise and shut down. They have kept it stripped down and basic-looking.”
Amen to that. As Stephan says: “I would rather stay poor than have pop-ups.”
But if anybody in the cycling website world deserves to make a few quid, it is him and Bert. We’d be lost without them.