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Aug. 31, 2005

I know a rider who teaches for Chicago Public Schools. Cycling is expensive. Since a teacher isn't likely to afford a top-of-the-line bike unless a student steals it for him, he supplements his income by gambling. Any money he wins he plows into his cycling. He's a good rider and an even better poker player, so he's ended up with very nice components.

It's a natural combination, cycling and poker. I just read "Big Deal," Anthony Holden's smart account of a year on the poker circuit -- back in 1988, before it was cool -- and I was struck at how much they have in common. (Granted, I'm obsessed with cycling, if you haven't noticed, so I see everything through its lens, much as how for a person going through a break-up, every love song is about them.)

But I think I might be on to something. Here, then, is why a bike race is like a night at the no-limit Texas hold 'em table. Or, How I learned to stop worrying and love the dudes with the carbon frames.

The deal
A rider's fitness constitutes his hand, and for as long as a rider lasts in a race he is claiming his to be the strongest. That's what a poker player is doing, too. When a cyclist is dropped or a poker player folds, they are saying: "Just kidding. I didn't really have anything."

Some cards -- the length of his legs, the size of his lungs -- were dealt by God; other cards -- his aerobic capacity, his fat-to-muscle ratio -- he dealt himself. Cycling is stud, not draw, so once the race starts there's nothing he can do to improve his hand. All turns on how well he plays it.

Obviously some hands are stronger than others; some riders are blessed with better bodies than others. But the weaker hand often wins in poker. So, too, in cycling, especially in criteriums. The physically weaker rider can win if he sucks the right wheels, makes the right moves and has the right luck.

The key is misrepresenting your hand. People associate poker with the bluff, but bluffing -- tricking your opponents into overestimating your hand -- is risky and rare. More effective is to trick your opponent into underestimating your hand. Make him think you have two pair when you really have trips, a straight when you have a flush. Only after you've done that a hundred times can you trick him into thinking you have a boat when you really have rags.

Anthony Holden tells of the time he arrived at a table of strangers and played the part of tourist. He asks basic questions of the rules ("Do you have to use both concealed cards?"), bungles an attempt at riffling his chips and even intentionally loses a few cheap hands. Once he'd conned them, he attacks and fleeces them blind.

The same gamesmanship happens in cycling. Most guys try to overrepresent: They talk tough, they ride expensive gear, they sport terrifying tattoos. The thinking is that if the field thinks you're an inconquerable bad-ass, it won't bother trying to conquer, and your breakaway can break on its merry way. But it never works. Nobody cares about your carbon-fiber jock.

Far better is to underrepresent your hand. This is what Lance was doing every time he preceded a Tour de France by moaning about illnesses and poor training and how impossible it was going to be to beat such a strong field. Getting caught eating a donut with Sheryl Crow early in 2004 was perhaps his career's most brilliant tactical move. Everyone then assumed he'd show up in July as a fatty with powdered sugar on his lips -- and he proceeded to win one of his easiest Tours.

So how do you get your cycling opponents to underestimate you? Pin your number sideways. Complain about broken shifters. Apologize in advance for your chronic flatulence. Remove a price tag from your bike at the start line. Grow your leg hair. Wear an ugly Primal jersey instead of your team kit. Lean into your chain and get a nice Cat 5 tattoo. Anything to ensure that when you make your move, the reaction of the field will be: "Don't worry about chasing him. He'll pop soon enough. Plus, he farts."

The play
What are the traits of a successful poker player?








These also happen to be the traits of a successful cyclist, and few riders wouldn't sell their own mother to get more of the same.

Both endeavors demand perfect resource management. In poker, chips are your resources. In cycling, it's energy. The goals are the same: Maximize how much you start with, minimize how much you lose as you go.

This leads to risk management. Is any given risk worth the possible reward? Is a bet worth the pot? Is it worth one's energy to bridge to a breakaway? And when's the right time to make the big bet? Before the flop? Fourth street? The river? Same in cycling. When do you attack? At the bottom of a hill? At the top? On the first lap? At the final sprint?

Minimizing risks and maximizing resources come into play with all of each sport's various moves and plays, many of which are fairly analogous:

Poker: Limping in, or betting the minimum in order to see the flop.
Cycling: Sucking wheel, or hiding in the pack and waiting for opportunities.

Poker: Raising. Best done when weakness is sensed.
Cycling: Attacking. Best done when weakness is sensed.

Poker: Calling, matching someone's raise.
Cycling: Covering an attack or bridging, leaving the pack to join a breakaway down the road.

Poker: Coming over the top, or significantly re-raising a raise. This is an excellent way to hear an opponent's bowels gurgle.
Cycling: Counterattacking, or launching a second attack right when the peloton catches a previous one. Same thing with the bowels.

Poker: Folding. You can't win. You know it. Your opponents know it. You depart with a whimper.
Cycling: Getting dropped, fading from the peloton with no hope of reunion.

Poker: Going all-in, putting all your chips on the table.
Cycling: Hammering, putting all conceivable energy and will into a move.

Poker: Busted. You've gone all-in and lost. Now you're going home.
Cycling: Popped. You've put the hammer down but you just didn't have enough. You don't just fade away. Your legs are crippled from fatigue and lactic burn. And now you're going home.

And of course the stakes in both are no-limit. If you want to lose your house and your kid's college fund, you can. If you want to attempt a hairpin turn at 60 mph, you can.

The finish
And here's the most crucial element. Victory in both hinges on a decisive moment. "I have the two best pair," Holden writes of one such moment. "This is Armaggedon. Do or die."

Sometimes this moment occurs early, sometimes in the last 100 meters or after hours and hours of play. You cannot foresee this moment or plan for it, but the thousands of miles training and hundreds of hours studying "Super/System" have led to it and will determine whether you handle it correctly.

In poker, it's called going all-in. You either double your chips or you go home broke. In cycling, it's called putting the hammer down. From out of nowhere you attack with everything you have, along the way finding things you didn't know you have, knowing that if it succeeds, you've won. If it fails, you will be too knackered to salvage anything from the race. That's the pot, that's the bet. Once you've decided, you don't look back. You just go. You're all-in, baby.

My exterior, I think, looked appropriately cool and collected; inside, I'd been a quivering blancmange of self-doubt right from the starter's pistol. All year I had prided myself on my temperament, nerve, self-discipline, even "heart," all of which had steadied with experience. But did I, in the end, possess the indefatigable, indefinable insight which distinguishes poker's great champions? Had my sheer enjoyment of playing blinded me to the finer points of mind- and card-reading, odds and outs? Or was it just that I didn't have "the right stuff"?

Anthony Holden, "Big Deal"

I'm racing Saturday. Aside from a minor series in October, this will be the last race of the year. Just when I finally feel like I almost know what I'm doing, the season is already over.

For the first time I think I have a good shot at success. I'm in good shape, my bike is in good shape and it's not a very technical course. Plus, it's Cat 5 only, which increases the chance of crashing but should be an easier field.

Funny how my objectives have matured in just four months. In my first race back in April, my goals were simple: Don't crash, don't die. Now I'm more ambitious. I want to either finish in the top 10 or contribute to a teammate finishing in the top three. I'll want to stay away from squirrelly riders during the race and a bunch sprint at the end, so the plan is to attack often, hopefully breaking away early and staying away.

And then it will be time to start planning the winter training regimen, so that I can start next season with the nuts in hand.

Photo taken: Aug. 28, 2005