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Dublin: 5 °C Sunday 15 December, 2019

'It took hours of trawling through data.... I'd stay up all night going through reports'

Cycling statistician Cillian Kelly tells us about his efforts to compile one of the most comprehensive sports books of the year.

A view of riders at the 2017 Tour de France.
A view of riders at the 2017 Tour de France.
Image: Adam Davy

ALMANACS HAVE ALWAYS been a haven for sporting fanatics as much as they’ve been a reliable source of fact.

Trace them back as far as 1864, when John Wisden published the first Wisden Cricketers Almanac, a small thick yellow book full of statistics, results and all other manner of cricketing trivia.

“It’s kind of iconic,” says Cillian Kelly, cycling statistician and software developer by trade.

“I think it’s kind of what we were going for – a Wisden for cycling.”

With this chunky book of statistics as their inspiration, The Road Book was born.

The publication, a wide-ranging collection of information, analysis and feature pieces, was painstakingly compiled by Kelly and renowned cycling broadcaster and journalist Ned Boulting in an effort to produce the most complete book of cycling factoids this year.

“The book is for the nerds like myself,” he admits with a self-deprecating chuckle. “It’s not for the general sports fan who might just commute to work on the bike every day or goes out on a spin.

“It’s really for guys who want to sit down and watch three or four hours of the Tour de France every day.”

Yellow Jersey holder and An Post Ras winner James Gullen of JLT Condor crosses the line Cycling remains a popular sport in Ireland. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

Kelly explains that the process of collecting the data wasn’t as straightforward as one might consider.

“There are a fair amount of sources online that have bits of data – but there wasn’t somewhere out there that had everything that we needed.

“I wrote a piece of software that tried to parse race reports and the language used by the people reporting of the races to see who was in each day’s breakaways.

“You actually can’t get that data anywhere. If you look up a stage, nowhere will explicitly tell you who was in the breakaway that day which is strange. It’s a piece of information that makes up the majority of what you’re staring at if you’re watching a Tour de France stage for three hours.

“Those guys are the main event on a push or sprint stage so, for there to be nowhere to look that up was kind of surprising.”

His efforts — a culmination of the data scraping, revision of results and all-round “donkey work” as he describes it — have helped produce the first edition of the book released this year.

“I was able to take a lot of the manual process out of it, but there was stuff that I would have to fact check and put in the work to verify it.

“Because I was plugged into a few places, it establishes a ‘base truth’. Not everywhere agreed with each other. There might have been discrepancies about who finished in tenth or whatever in some race.

“In some cases it needs a human eye to look over it and realise that they obviously got that wrong. So you actually had to go back and look at the races to see what actually happened – I was up all night doing my manual work at the end [of the compiling].”

So, after combing through the data, verifying positions and laying the book out pleasantly for the reader, editorial decisions then needed to be made.

One such decision that took discussing was the inclusion of Lance Armstrong as winner for a number of Tour de France titles, despite the fact that the American was stripped of his titles due to doping convictions.

“In general conversation we’d have spoken about these kind of things. We figured that including Armstrong with an asterisk made most sense to us.

“In the initial aftermath when Armstrong got banned [...] there was a big rush to airbrush him. Literally. His name disappeared from websites and it stopped appearing in the Tour de France’s official guide. The races were listed as ‘no winner’.

“I’d seen that in various places. But people are starting to realise that it’s ridiculous to remove Armstrong from the record books.

“If you take it away from him, who are you going to give it to? There are any number of people beneath him doing the same thing.

“What seemed to cost him the most was his personality traits rather than the fact that he was simply cheating.”

US Anti-Doping Agency To Strip Lance Armstrong of 7 Tour Titles Lance Armstrong has been included in the Road Book 2018, despite being stripped of his Tour de France titles. Source: Zabulon Laurent

This year’s first edition of The Road Book is only available online. You can get your copy by clicking here.

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