The Tour de France: Arguably an even greater challenge than writing an engaging mutual fund shareholder report or quarterly investment update

(First in a possible series of attempts to explain narratives around “secondary sports” or other topics not related to investing).

2200 Miles of Hell Across a Paradisiacal Landscape

Due to the pandemic, the start of the 2020 Tour de France was pushed back from late-June to late-August, meaning that the winner will be crowned on September 20. The Tour is the French iteration of the three competitions that comprise cycling’s Grand Tours, with the others hosted in Italy and Spain. Universally acknowledged as among the world’s most grueling athletic contests, to the casual observer the Tour can nonetheless be as engaging as watching paint dry, presenting as a blur of grimacing cyclists rolling along the French countryside.

Some basics: The Tour consists of 21 stages with two rest days sprinkled in. The path will vary from year to year, but the distance covered approximates a staggering 2200 miles, with the course in some years visiting a nearby country. Most stages run over 100 miles, and several include brutal climbs in the Pyrenees and Alps. The last stage ends in Paris on the Champs-Elysees and is usually ceremonial by agreement among the riders. As many as 22 teams of eight riders compete with their eyes on a variety of prizes.

Tour Competitions: Horses for Courses

Chief among the Tour’s prizes is the yellow jersey awarded to the well-rounded individual rider who ends the three weeks atop the General Classification competition. The battle for the “maillot jaune” is the dominant Tour de France narrative – and perhaps the only one familiar to much of the public. A cyclist’s GC standing is based on his cumulative time over the Tour. Each Tour stage begins with the rider carrying the lowest overall time to that point clad in the yellow jersey, with hopes of retaining it through Paris. Somewhat counterintuitively, it is possible to win the GC without finishing first in any single Tour stage.

By contrast, the somewhat less-prestigious Points Classification (or “sprinters'”) competition does not take a rider’s time into account. Instead, scoring is based on points awarded for each stage based on order of finish. Greater weight is given to the flatter stages, favoring sprinters over climbers, and points are awarded for intermediate sprints along each stage in addition to at the finish. The points leader at any given stage of the Tour sports the green jersey.

In the Mountains Classification competition, the first riders over the top in various designated significant climbs are awarded points, with more difficult climbs given greater weight. The “King of the Mountains” dons the polka dot jersey. A six-foot-tall climbing specialist may weigh all of 140 pounds. Such is the specialization among riders that it is not uncommon for a sprinter to struggle to finish a difficult mountain stage within the time limit required to avoid disqualification from the Tour’s remaining stages.

At least one stage will be an Individual Time Trial in which cyclists traverse a course of perhaps 20 miles in a race against the clock. Start times are staggered by at least a minute; should a rider overtake an earlier departee, drafting to save energy (more on that later) is strictly forbidden. As with any other stage, ITT times count toward the GC competition.

An often gripping narrative involves a breakaway by a lone rider or handful of riders in pursuit of an individual Stage Win. The idea is that on a given day the pack containing the leading riders and teams with GC podium aspirations (the Peloton) will measure their success against each other and thus allow a breakaway by one or more non-GC contenders to proceed without serious challenge. The results can be mixed as riders in the Peloton benefit from vastly superior drafting – but an otherwise relatively faceless rider can dine out for the rest of his life based on winning even a single Tour stage.

Key Elements: Drafting and Descending

Each team starts with eight riders, one or perhaps two of whom may be considered a GC podium candidate. The other team members may be eyeing sprint or climbing honors and/or playing a “domestique” support role in providing the lead rider(s) with protection in the Peleton from other teams and drafting services.

The importance and power of drafting cannot be overstated. To wit, if a GC hopeful experiences an accident or equipment failure that causes him to lose contact with the Peloton, his team will invariably leave a support rider to “pull him back” to the pack. A sprinter will commonly ride the slipstream of a strenuously riding teammate in the lead-up to launching a bid to win a stage. On a flat stage, riders at the back of the Peleton may have periods where they barely have to pedal. Any weekend cyclist can easily experience the drafting phenomenon by staying within 3 or 4 feet behind a riding partner.

Finally, there is the art of the descent. Cyclists will sometimes reach speeds in excess of 60 MPH coming down off mountaintops, often closely tailing (or being tailed closely by) a competitor. Strong descenders are able to maintain an aerodynamic position over the handlebars for an extended period and take corners while maintaining breakneck speed. As a casual cyclist, I have found hitting even 40 MPH to be pretty much terrifying; I start pumping the brakes at 30 at this stage of my career.

Of course, while an appreciation of some of the above narratives helps, the Tour de France can also be enjoyed by simply keeping tabs on the yellow jersey while watching the line of cyclists stream along against a stunning backdrop.

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