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Taking Chances: TDF Fantasy Teams

July 2, 2011

In 2009 my Versus TDF fantasy team finished in the top two-to-three percent of all teams in the game.  I began to think Bob Roll could use a female side-kick for TDF television commentary — someone whose main qualification was a respectable knowledge of the sport.  Me for example.

The Versus (now NBC) fantasy team is a set of 15 riders you choose from among those competing in the TDF.  Points accumulate to your team based on the riders’ placings in each stage; the team with the highest points wins.  I believe over 20,000 teams played in the game in 2010.

As I selected my team for 2010, I rode a competence high.  But it turned into an entirely different July from the year before.  I started my days at work during the TDF by wandering over to a colleague and saying with a sigh, “My fantasy team sucks wind this year.”

Three of my 2010 team picks abandoned the TDF due to injuries sustained in crashes.  The rules prohibit replacing riders after the game begins, so I had three less opportunities to gain points than those with fully-manned teams.  Even this did not disabuse me of the suspicion that my 2009 performance was a fluke and my knowledge shallower than I had believed.

Each year since I began learning about the sport in 1995, I have absorbed more information about pro-cyclists’ individual and team strengths and weaknesses, and the strategies and tactics of road racing and how these vary by the type of course. One would think this would lead to improvements in fantasy team performance over the years.

Now on July 2nd, 2011, while excited about the TDF and another fantasy team to select, another chance to prove my prowess, I approach this year’s choice of riders with a bit of trepidation. If my team sucks two years in a row, I fear that will validate my deepest doubts about the extent of my pro-cycling knowledge — which of course could be fatal to my developing writing career on the subject.

I recall as I write this that when I worked in process improvement, I met a renowned statistician who demonstrated that all predictions are crap-shoots. So here I am effectively basing my confidence in my competence on a crap-shoot result.  I wonder if the same thing happens to pro-cyclists: do they struggle with the same nonsensical assessments of their performance and possibilities based on outcomes that are highly subject to chance?

A pro-cyclist in the best form of his career could be in a great position to win a stage in the TDF, and then one of a number of things could whisk that almost-win away: a fan could take him down by turning a shoulder a few inches too far into the road, his tire could flat four km from the finish line, a cow could trot from a field into the road in front of him.  Each time things like this happen the pro-cyclist must not attribute the loss to lack of core competence; he must enter the next race confident in his abilities and potential to win.  The mental toughness of these athletes, whose competing ground is perhaps the least controlled among all sports, fascinates me.

Despite the crap-shoot nature of creating a high-scoring TDF fantasy team, I am studying each 2011 TDF stage to determine what type of rider could win it — pure sprinter, attacking-style hilly finisher, GC guy / climber, or break away artist.  With the practice fantasy team I have chosen so far, the riders’ finishes in today’s stage 1 placed me #277 in the overall standings of the game.  I haven’t figured out yet how many fantasy teams are competing.  There are at least 854 because that’s where my husband ranked today.

After he shares his ranking with me, I remind him I’ve learned almost all I know about bike racing from him.  I don’t tell him my Thai massage therapist once said I can get psychic “hits” about who is going to win.

From → Essays, Road Racing

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