Can software identify the next Pogačar?

Road cycling is an odd sport. It has a relatively large following, but only once yearly for one race. Tour de France is the epitome of professional cycling.

Can software identify the next Pogačar?
Vakis Rigas

Vakis Rigas

June 30, 2024

Tour de France is the most demanding bike race in the world. It’s the race any rider would give their left leg to win. It kicked off on Saturday and is already in full swing, and I personally can't wait to see today's mountain stage.

Unfortunately, there isn’t as much money in the sport for teams and athletes who participate in this event. Unlike football, you can't fill stadiums and pay large wage bills. Even a team like Visma | Lease a Bike, who won all grand tours (Giro d'Italia, Tour de France, and Vuelta a España) last year, struggled to find a new primary sponsor to support their team's growth and payrolls. 

We spoke to the team at , who built a scouting platform for cycling to help teams with their efficiency. They built the platform in toddle, and it's pretty darn cool.

Top teams rely on identifying great riders and unearthing the next big talent can make all the difference for teams and sponsors. Due to teams' limited budgets, cycling remains a European-dominated sport. Europeans make up more than 60% of the professional roster. When you look at the female athletes, just four nationalities (Netherlands, Italy, France, and the UK) make up 53% of the peloton (the main field or group of a cycling race).

Teams must conserve their budgets, and finding riders is often limited to existing contacts and winners of big races. This makes discovery almost impossible for teams or individuals without the proper funding. To be discovered, a rider must participate in and do well in well-known road races in Belgium or the Netherlands, a staple for big team scouts. It's a big mouthful even for riders on small Portuguese teams, but imagine that scenario for Columbian, Eritrean, Japanese, and Mexican riders. 

Platforms like Strava and PCS (Pro Cycling Stats) have been very beneficial in uncovering exciting talent. You started to hear stories about a boy who worked at the fish market and suddenly set the KOM (Strava’s lingo for King of the Mountain, a reward you get for being the fastest climber.) on Coll de Rates, a well-known training destination for professional cyclists. Scouted by then Team Jumbo Visma, that boy went on to take second place in his first Tour de France and later won it twice in a row and is now gunning for a third victory. Jonas Vingegaard is one of the athletes who was discovered using data from these platforms.

There are many other stories, and the cycling world is growing due to data availability, but more must be done. These platforms provide a ton of data, but several challenges make them a less ideal playground for scouts.

  1. Data inaccuracy (Unsupervised data collection can lead to inaccuracies.)
  2. Limited to performance data (Performance data alone can be misleading.)
  3. Signal-to-noise ratio (A lot of data is polluted by actors trying to game the system.)
  4. Data privacy (Sharing data gives competitors insights into your performance level.)

The team from , a scouting platform built in toddle, highlights a few traits that scouts factor into their decision-making process. 

According to Olivier Poignard, one of the co-founders of , the key aspects scouts look at are:

  1. Performance (Scouts look at power outputs like watts per kg., VO2, etc.)
  2. Performance over time (Are you improving?)
  3. Race performance (How do they rank in races, and do they improve over time?)
  4. Attitude and charisma (You may favor riders with a good attitude or even ones with a big ego)

The average scouting process starts with data. A scout will look at the top races and identify the top riders. They will discard all riders already associated with a world tour team. Once the first slice has been done, the scouts will move on to the next step, which can be one of two of two steps. They can request data or, in some cases, go and see the rider in an upcoming race. Both steps are time-consuming and a bit of a detective job. 

Request for data.

This should be a pretty easy task, but it’s not. There’s no central database of riders with contact information or club affiliation, making it hard for scouts to identify and contact them. Scouts have to contact race organizers and other participants who have pre-existing relationships. In many cases, they rely on their network just to request more performance data from a rider who’s performed well in a race. It’s a tough job that requires persistence, and because of this, many talents don’t get the chance they deserve. Even when you find the potential rider, they may be unwilling to share their data. A rider's performance data is their competitive edge, and imagine giving this to your worst competitor. You run a massive risk, and they will lose their competitive edge or an enormous contract that can change their career trajectory. Not an easy choice.

Attend a race.

Some scouts want to observe a rider's overall performance in a race setting. One thing is to push some severe watts on your home trainer; another entirely is to do it in a race setting. A world tour scout will typically look at:

  1. Overall performance: How well does the rider maintain their effort throughout the race? Are they consistent, able to stay with the Peloton, and make breakaways? They also want to see how well the cyclist performs in different race sections. A robust overall performance indicates good fitness and race management, making the candidate a potential fit for a world tour team.
  2. Climbing ability: How efficiently does the rider climb? What’s their power-to-weight ratio? Are they able to attack or respond to attacks on climbs? A scout needs to understand how explosive a rider is as a climber and how they handle various types of climbing. Are they good on short or steep climbs, and can they sustain power on longer ascends?
  3. Sprinting skills: What’s the rider's top speed and acceleration? Are they able to position themselves for the final sprint? Would a particularly strong sprinter survive climbs and reach the final destination?
  4. Tactical awareness: Can a rider read the race? Do they know when to attack and when to conserve energy? Do they understand their competitors' strengths and weaknesses? You’ll want to scout a rider who consistently makes good decisions and positions themselves well throughout a race.
  5. Teamwork: How well does a rider work within their team? Are they able to follow team orders, do they support the team leader, contribute to lead-outs, and are they able to sacrifice personal ambitions for team goals when necessary?
  6. Technical skills: How good are the rider’s handling skills during descents, in tight pelotons, or in various weather conditions? How they handle corners and gauge how comfortable the rider is across multiple race situations.
  7. Recovery: How well does a rider maintain performance over multiple days, and how quickly they seem to recover after intense efforts?
  8. Mental toughness: Can a rider push through pain, maintain focus during long stages, and perform well under the pressure of high-stakes races?
  9. Potential for improvement: Can the rider develop, or has their performance peaked? What are their current abilities? What type of support do they have from trainers, nutritionists, and mental coaches? Can this rider be improved with the right resources?
  10. Versatility: How well does a rider perform across different stages (flat, hilly, mountain), and can they take on other roles (leader, domestique, etc.)?
  11. Attitude and charisma: How does the rider act on and off the road? Do they have a big ego? Are they charismatic?

A rider doesn’t necessarily have to embody all these skills, and most don’t. Scouts look to identify different types of riders for their teams. Teams typically build their teams around a particularly strong rider. Some teams want to dominate sprints, other one-day races, and some stage races. The various races require different profiles, and that’s what the scout is looking for. 

Once the scout has assessed a rider, they typically group them into rider types. 

The different rider types are: 

  • General Classification (GC) Contender: A strong all-rounder who aims to win overall in stage races. They are excellent climbers and perform consistently across all terrains. Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar are great examples of this rider type.
  • Domestique: Support rider for team leaders. They protect their leader from the wind, fetch supplies, and set the pace. They often have to sacrifice personal ambitions for team goals. Sepp Kuss is a prime example of a Domestique.
  • Puncheur: This rider is great on short, steep climbs and accelerates well uphill. Mathieu van der Poel and Wout van Aert are arguably the best Puncheurs right now. 
  • Sprinter: This rider is typically the heaviest. They specialize in high-speed finishes with exceptional acceleration and incredible top speeds. They rely heavily on their team, which forms a lead-out train to get them as close to the finish line as possible. The most successful sprinter of all time is Mark Cavendish.
  • Climber: This rider is light and excels in mountain stages. They have a high power-to-weight ratio and aim only to win mountain stages if they don’t support their GC leader. Richard Carapaz is a prime example of this rider type.
  • Time Trial Specialist: These powerhouses put out an incredible amount of watts over extended periods. They are consistent and persistent even on a bike that requires you to sit in a rather uncomfortable position to ensure aerodynamics. Filippo Ganna is currently one of the best.
  • Lead-out Man: This rider type is incredibly fast and a team player. They have a high race IQ and always know how to position themselves and their sprinter. The lead-out man breaks the wind for the sprinter and positions them for victory. Michael Mørkøv is one of the more successful lead-out men. 

Every rider has a specific set of beneficial traits that don’t translate to other rider types. Scouts may rate ego high for sprinters because they have a lot of self-confidence needed in situations they encounter. They would rate ego very low for a domestique because that rider type must put the team first. 

Rider diagnostics.

The final selection of riders is invited to a diagnostics session at the team's headquarters. The medical team will run a series of tests to validate that the numbers they have observed are accurate, and they will dive down to the tiniest details to determine if the rider is the right fit and worthy of a contract. Some of the tests they will perform are:

  • VO2 max test: Understanding the rider's maximum oxygen uptake is crucial, indicating their aerobic capacity.
  • Lactate threshold test: The team will want to understand when lactic acid accumulates in the blood, indicating their sustainable power output.
  • Power profile test: How much power does a rider output across different durations (e.g., 5 seconds, 1 minute, 5 minutes, 20 minutes)?
  • Body composition analysis: Body fat percentage, lean muscle mass, and overall physique.
  • Flexibility and range of motion tests: Evaluate the rider's flexibility and potential for injury.
  • Functional movement screening: Assess movement patterns to identify imbalances or weaknesses.
  • Blood tests: Check for general health markers, hormone levels, and potential deficiencies.
  • Biomechanical analysis: Examine the rider's pedaling technique and position on the bike.
  • Psychological evaluation: Assess mental toughness, motivation, and ability to handle pressure.
  • Field tests: Test performance on the road or in a velodrome to evaluate real-world cycling ability.

A limited pool of riders.

Finding the next Tour de France winner is a tall order. The main issue with scouting today is that it’s limited to a small network within a small market. Cyclists are everywhere, and the chance of finding more great ones is diminished because teams still have relatively small budgets. This limits their ability to cover all markets, and that is where comes in. The team has studied the process of finding top cycling talent and built a platform that productizes most of the process. The team gives riders access to scouts from top teams and gives teams immediate access to top riders few knew existed.

Riders can upload their profiles with race results and share it privately with interested scouts. 

See a riders complete performance metrics in a safe environment. You get direct access to riders from anywhere and to scouts that matter.

They can also share their race calendar and performance data. The team has effectively built a four-sided platform where riders, national associations, scouts, and their associated teams can log in to see rider data. They believe that this will make scouting more accessible and scalable.

It’s an excellent build with many thoughtful ways to tackle privacy while giving more access to riders anywhere.

They built the platform in toddle, and it’s yet another excellent example of how old and complex processes can be redesigned with software and expand the opportunity to more people. Check it out at or read their founder story here .

Next time you see Biniam Girmay, an Eritrean rider, win a stage, consider how much he must have gone through to make it into a world tour team.

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