The Road Book: Ned Boulting’s 2018 season in review
The roadbook is the professional cyclist’s bible. A dense tome provided by race organisers and chock-full of information on everything from parcours to logistics at that event, riders scan the route to identify their best chance of victory or meticulously study the final kilometres in preparation for an attack. The roadbook for the 2018 Tour de France spanned no less than 240 pages.
The Road Book is an apt name, then, for Ned Boulting’s latest project – a 1,000-page almanack reviewing the cycling season. The first volume will combine reports and results from the men’s and women’s WorldTour through to Premier Calendar and Tour Series events on the British domestic calendar, with statistics and infographics compiled by Cillian Kelly, and a collection of captivating essays from a broad range of writers.
“Cycling is a sport perfect for this treatment,” says Boulting, The Road Book’s editor. “Not only are the fans of cycling curious people, with a sense of – and appetite for – how the sport operates on a global scale, but the structure of the cycling calendar is quite frankly a basket case and can be difficult to decipher, even for the most ardent spectator.”
However, bringing the project to life remained ‘a scary proposition’, Boulting says, given the huge number of pages and colossal amount of data, all of which has be absolutely accurate, turned around to an incredibly tight deadline. Boulting was waiting on the conclusion of the Tour of Guangxi on October 21 before ‘pressing go’ and sending the book to the printers. The first signed copies will be available to buy upon the The Road Book’s launch at the Rouleur Classic on November 2.
Boulting has teamed up with Kelly, a man he describes as ‘the go-to cycling statistician in the world’, to crunch the data behind each and every race, from a complete breakdown of results to the riders who formed the breakaway, via the prevailing weather conditions and no shortage of stats sure to illuminate even the most mundane of Grand Tour transition stages. Kelly’s contribution is ‘fundamental’ to The Road Book’s success, Boulting says.
“The infographics are lovely, but don’t make a book, and the editorial pieces are lovely, but they don’t tell the whole story of a season. Cillian’s work brings everything together and you couldn’t find someone more perfect for the role.”
Kelly has developed a reputation for turning out statistics via his Twitter account, @irishpeloton. “I’ve got a hobby of tracking down weird stats that are unGoogleable,” says the Irishman, who began sharing his nuggets online in 2009 as a ‘distraction or coping mechanism’ while studying for a PhD in software development. Today he leads a team of developers designing complex sports betting and trading technology.
“The more I learnt about the project, the more I thought I could do it by writing a piece of software,” says Kelly, who already sat on a mine of databases and spreadsheets packed with cycling results and statistics.
“Each rider is represented by a series of attributes – age, team, results and wins, date of birth etc – and then you can link them all together, ending up with a map of what I want the cycling world to look like and the links in between. Those links make it possible to extract the data and statistics you need.”
Kelly’s software pulls in a vast amount of data from a variety of sources but much of it also had to be extracted manually. “Sometimes it simply didn’t exist,” he says. “For example, who won the intermediate sprint on a particular stage of the Tour of Poland, or during the Boels Ladies Tour? It was a cumbersome process, contacting race organisers.”
Kelly also wrote an algorithm to interpret language and the way journalists typically write race reports in order to help determine which riders formed the breakaway during a race. “You can kind of guess where the names might appear but I couldn’t always rely on it and had to cross-reference the data,” he says. That posed an intriguing question in itself and, as with many aspects of cycling, even data isn’t always black and white.
“What determines a breakaway? What makes it the break of the day? The breakaways listed are my interpretation, though someone else might have a different opinion,” says Kelly. “Sometimes a break could form, get caught, then a new group twice the size forms, people get dropped or float back to the peloton after picking up intermediate points. A break of ten becomes two, so who’s in the breakaway? There’s no hard and fast rule.”
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Kelly’s data analysis – quantitative or otherwise – is offset by Boulting’s curated collection of essays, designed to take the reader on a deeper journey in a book he admits isn’t intended to be read cover-to-cover.
“No-one will read entire book,” says Boulting, who describes John Degenkolb’s victory on stage nine of the Tour de France as the highlight of his 2018 season. “But you can drop it open whenever and whether you want, jumping into the Tour of Rwanda, where you become intrigued by the rider who finished 57th. That takes you to his team page and then onto their next race. On that journey, you want to be tripped up with relevant editorial pieces that provide a wider context.”
The Road Book contains essays from the cream of cycling writing, including the likes of Matt Rendell, Pete Cossins and Jeremy Whittle, but Boulting has also sought to include a broader range of voices. “I wanted to involve as many riders and professional cyclists as I could, and also writers away from the usual suspects in cycling, but for whom I have a huge amount of respect.”
Team Sunweb’s Chad Haga files a diary from the Giro d’Italia detailing his ride in support of Tom Dumoulin’s failed title defence, while Marianne Vos was originally commissioned to write a piece about the final chapter of her career: the waning powers of a great champion adapting to the role of support rider for the first time. “That story has been transformed in the latter part of the season with her blistering form,” says Boulting. “It’s changed from a mechancolic reflection on the end of a career to the comeback of one of cycling’s greatest ever riders.”
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Meanwhile, Harry Pearson, a writer Boulting became familiar with thanks to a column spanning two decades in the football magazine, When Saturday Comes, contributes a piece on Niki Terpstra.
“Harry was someone I admired from afar, but then I found out he was also fascinated with road racing, which was thrilling,” says Boulting. “When Terpstra won this year’s Tour of Flanders, the immediate reaction within the cycling community fascinated me. He’s a rider that absolutely split opinions, thanks to his – in inverted commas – prickly character. I’m not sure if it’s even true, it could be an urban myth. The dealings I’ve had with him have always been perfectly pleasant, and what’s it got to do with us anyway?”
The difference in opinion between The Road Book’s editorial team illustrates Terpstra’s divisive character. “I really like the way he races, there’s a certain cold-bloodedness about him,” says Boulting. Kelly is in the opposite camp. “There is something about him that leaves me flat, the way he takes his biggest victories,” he says. Pearson, as an incisive and humourous Belgophile, is well-placed to split the difference and delve deeper into the man who took Flanders’ biggest prize this year.
The Road Book follows legendary sport references books like the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack and the Rothmans Football Yearbook, which evokes fond memories from Kelly. “I’d spend days buried in that as a child, staring at results: who scored, when and where,” he says. “Names of guys I had never seen play football but who still captivated me in a different way to actually watching football. It makes me very happy to be involved with something like that now.”
Where The Road Book aims to differ from its well-established counterparts is in its aesthetic appeal, according to Boulting. “We’ve had an overbearing concern for the look and feel of the book in the hand and it’s appeal on the page. The cycling world is rightly fixated with aesthetics, from the look and feel of kit, to the bikes cyclists ride and the books they read. There has been an obsessive attention to detail.”
The cover has been designed to give The Road Book a timeless appeal, Boulting says. “We wanted it to look like something that had always been around; something that looks startlingly familiar, even though it’s published for first time in late 2018. Like an old textbook from the school days that you’ve just taken the dust jacket off.”
This first edition is only the start, Boulting hopes. Wisden remains the ‘standard bearer’, with the cricketers’ bible first published in 1864, and Boulting has high hopes for The Road Book to earn its place as cycling’s go-to tome.
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