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Is there ‘home field advantage’ in cycling?

Did Alejandro Valverde have home-field advantage in Murcia? Probably, but what does that mean, and are there disadvantages too?

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On Saturday, Alejandro Valverde won his fifth Vuelta a Murcia, a UCI 1.1 race in Southern Spain. As is immediately apparent by our headline, Valverde was riding in his Spanish backyard — he hails from the small town of Las Lumbreras a few kilometers from downtown Murcia. Valverde’s domination of this race has me asking a big question: Is there really such a thing as home field advantage in cycling?

There surely are a few ways a rider like Valverde can use local knowledge to his advantage. Let’s break them down:

Likely advantages

The Vuelta a Murcia has been around since 1981, and prior to 2013, it was a stage race (financial reasons shortened it to one day). Traditionally, the race has been dominated by Spaniards, although it’s list of winners also includes Philippe Gilbert, Denis Menchov, and Marco Pantani.

Valverde knows this race better than anyone in the pro peloton. He won it in 2004, ’07, ’08, and ’14, and finished second last year and third in 2013. How did this local knowledge pay off? Well, Valverde won on Saturday after a 70-kilometer breakaway. One can only assume that local knowledge of the roads would allow him to break down the course’s route into chunks to ease the psychological burden of a long escape. Have you ever ridden a gran fondo or century, and spent the last 20 miles aching for the finish line? Imagine if you knew that the finish line was just past the 7-11 and around the corner from that yard with the barking dog in it. Yeah, you’d be able to stay on the gas for a few more kilometers.

Valverde was also familiar with the wind conditions around Murcia. In a post-race interview, he noted the stiff headwinds that buffeted the field early in the day. Years of riding the same roads teach cyclists about prevailing winds. Hell, some of us could probably moonlight as sailors on nearby bodies of water. Hang tight in the peloton when the winds aren’t right, but attack when you know you’ll have an advantage — or better yet, gutter those suckers in the crosswinds.

Plus, don’t forget that on home roads, a rider like Valverde will always know when to hop that sketchy bit of pavement on a 70kph descent. Look out!

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Less likely advantages

We should also consider some less-likely (and yeah, kinda wacky) advantages that Valverde likely had on Saturday. He’s the hometown hero, so how do you think that helped him? Football teams, like the Seattle Seahawks and their “12th Man,” rely on rowdy fans to intimidate and confuse opponents. Perhaps Valverde told the locals to berate the peloton with cheers, thus drowning out their earpieces. Why else was the peloton unable to bring back one rider? I can only assume that the entire peloton was near deaf from all of the “Ale! Ale! Alejandro!” singing.

Local knowledge also gives a rider a huge advantage if he finds himself bonking in those final few kilometers. A guy as famous as Valverde could probably roll into a local coffee shop, order a quintuple espresso, and then put it on his tab. Full disclosure: I was not watching the livestream on Saturday, so perhaps I missed footage of him strolling into a local cafe for a pick-me-up.

Potential disadvantages

Even though home roads seem like an advantage (Italian guys usually win at the Giro, Spanish guys usually win at the Vuelta, right?), they may actually present some pitfalls. When you feel like crap on the bike, sometimes you just want to crawl into your bed and pull the covers over your eyes, right? Let’s say that Valverde didn’t quite have it on Saturday. At 36 he’s getting a bit long in the tooth. What if he rode by his family home and felt the tug of the warm shower, or something even more relaxing? Perhaps a voice chimes in his head, “There’s the turn to your house! How much racing is left 45km? You know what sounds great? How about a dip in the jacuzzi!”

Also, when racing on home roads, Valverde was bound to see some of his buddies and family members on the side of the road. It would be embarrassing to lay an egg in front of mom and dad, of course. But here’s the real hazard: your buddies who are barbecuing and guzzling cold bottles of Alhambra near the summit of that climb. Come on, Alejandro! Just stop and have a quick beer — it’ll be easy to bridge back to the peloton with the race caravan!

And, of course, one final disadvantage: Smaller races like the Vuelta Murcia usually award the winner some local loot, like a ham hock, magnum of local booze, or wheel of cheese. Having already won the race four times, Valverde already has a cellar full of Iberian victory ham, local winner brew, champion cheese, or whatever agricultural bounty they have to offer.

So next time you line up for that race or fondo on local roads, make sure you think like Valverde. Know how to use that local wisdom to your advantage, but if you’ve already had your fill of the neighborhood brewery’s beverages, don’t bother sprinting for that coupon prime.