As the Tour de France enters its final weekend, I’ve been thinking a lot about risk and reward. Whenever you’re facing a dominating rider like Chris Froome, the storyline revolves around the risks competitors must take in an attempt to put him in difficulty. But even outside the race for the yellow jersey, risk-and-reward has been a consistent storyline for the third week of this year’s race.
Earlier in the week, FDJ captain Thibaut Pinot dropped out of the Tour, not because he was injured or exhausted, but because he was unable to overcome a fear of descending in the big mountains. On the one hand, it’s sad to see an obviously talented cyclist undermined by fear. But on the other hand, you have to give the guy credit for having the courage to put his hand up, admit he’s a danger to himself and the peloton, and bow out before he gets hurt.
Another notable example of risk/reward was Jean-Christophe Peraud (Ag2r-LaMondiale), who crashed and broke his collarbone while warming up for the individual time trial. Despite the pain he chose to compete, and then 2km from the stage finish he crashed hard onto that same collarbone. Here’s a guy who wasn’t competing for the stage win or for a high place in the overall GC or any of the jersey competitions. Nor were any of his teammates. Where Pinot displayed courage in admitting it was time to drop out, Peraud accepted a risk that far outweighed the potential reward and paid a very painful price.
At the front of the race both Alberto Contador and Chris Froome took plenty of risks, but of a different nature. Contador pushed the pace on the descents since he couldn’t put Froome in difficulty on the climbs. That’s a tricky game to play. If it works then you come off as courageous and brilliant. If it doesn’t you’re written off as desperate or a fool, and Contador is neither of those. He’s up against a meticulous and calculating race leader, who is backed by an equally meticulous and calculating team. The only way to beat them is to get them off their script, but it’s not working. Perhaps the best tactic for cracking Froome on Saturday’s final mountain stage is to reach over and grab the SRM head units off Team Sky’s bikes during the morning’s ‘nature break’!
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In contrast, Froome’s risk-taking behaviors were related to the race rules. Team Sky has been seen throughout the Tour stretching or breaking the rules around where you can and can’t feed riders. During Thursday’s stage Froome was desperate for calories on the final ascent of Alpe d’Huez and sent Richie Porte to the car for food well past the point where the officials said there was no more feeding allowed. But they knew the consequences were going to be a fine the team doesn’t care about and perhaps a minor time penalty, compared to the risk of completely bonking and losing a big chunk of Froome’s yellow jersey lead. If you were in Froome’s shoes at that moment, a 20-second time penalty would have looked like a grand bargain for a gel.
Right now I’m over in France with a private TDF camp, riding many of the same roads where these riders have risked everything. The roads are far less scary when you’re not in the pro peloton and you can just descend at your own pace, but the athletes here have asked me: why don’t more pros develop incapacitating fear about crashes and descents?
When you’re a professional athlete, whether you’re a cyclist or in another sport, it’s not that you’re oblivious to the risks or that you don’t think about them. You just don’t dwell on them. The rewards, intrinsic or extrinsic, are so much more valuable to you that those risks aren’t enough to shift the balance of the cost-benefit equation. And truth be told, risk is an integral part of success, in sport and in life. Every successful athlete and entrepreneur I’ve known has a healthy respect for risk, but no fear of it.
In the end, here’s the message I had for the athletes here in France: We all have a certain speed that balances our skill and thrill levels with our need to provide for our families. For pro cyclists, that speed is extremely high because racing is their greatest skill, their greatest joy, and the way they make their living. I raced professionally, but now I’m 52 years old with a business and a family. I still have the skills to go downhill fast, and I still love to go fast, but for me the balance has shifted and my family is my biggest priority, so I don’t push the envelope on descents like I used to. Every cyclist has to find the balance that works for them, and be comfortable with the consequences.
Be Safe and Have a Great Weekend!
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