10 Lessons from the Tour de France


Alpe d ‘Huez

1. The aggregation of marginal gains

For the first 100 or so years, British teams didn’t make much impression on the Tour. That changed with the Sky team, lead by smart, focussed team manager Dave Brailsford.  In a notoriously French, conservative sport, Brailsford made an entry like a Seal team – he planned meticulously, blew off the door, lobbed in a stun grenade and killed all the competition. This culminated with wins for Sky riders Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome in 2013.

Despite spectacular success, the underlying philosophy was unspectacular. Brailsford practiced “the aggregation of marginal gains”.   Ignoring the conventional wisdom of cycling, Brailsford systematically examined and then optimised every aspect of the set up of the bike and the rider, the training programme, diet, clothing etc.  Brailsford banked every small source of time saving that would accumulate over time and distance, allowing these to compound into meaningful differences in race performance.

This mindset is vital for reaching financial independence (FI).  A millionaire is made ten bucks at a time.

2. Break down impossibly large tasks

A journey of 3,664 kilometers (the length of this years race) begins with a single turn of the pedals.

Many people discard FI as an impossible objective.   So the route to FI must be broken down into smaller, more manageable stages. Clearing the credit card debt, the car loan, the mortgage. Opening your first brokerage account, buying your first share or rental property, getting to the first £100k of net worth…and so on up until financial independence.

When things get really tough in the Tour, the pros don’t focus on the overall race, they just focus on getting through today’s stage. Sometimes its just about getting over the next mountain pass or just what happens at the next sprint point.

Like they say at AA, one day at a time.

3. Conserve your energy

When cycling the Tour, the riders never ride the front of the peloton when they can slipstream (saving 30-40% energy). Yes, someone has to be in front at any point in time but this role is constantly rotated to share the work.

In the evenings, riders never run when they can walk, never walk when they can sit and never sit when they can lie down. We should treat our time and mental energy the same way. It is to be conserved, like water in the Sahara, because it is limited and we are gonna need it.

Stop spending on anything that does not add real value to your life. Stop worrying about things you can’t control (the shit in the newspaper). Conserve your energy and money for what matters.

4. Ditch the baggage

Cycling a couple of thousand miles over mountains is easier if you are not carrying bricks in your panniers. In the Tour, every component is analysed and re-engineered to reduce weight.

On the path to FI there are different types of weight that need to be jettisoned. We may have picked up negative attitudes early in life from those around us. We often don’t realise that we’re carrying unhelpful emotional baggage until we stop and take a good hard look in the mirror. If you think you don’t have any blind spots, remember that denial is not just a river in Egypt.

Then there is the physical baggage. We accumulate rooms and garages full of consumer crap. This ties up financial and mental capital uselessly – flog it on eBay. If you can’t sell it, give it away.

5. It’s a mixture of co-operation and competition

In cycling, as in life, everyone is a potential ally as well as a potential competitor. It all depends on context and your mindset.

In the Tour, game theory type situations frequently arise where riders in breakaway groups have to work together to stay away from the peloton, even though they are notionally competitors on different teams.

Find allies for your journey. Don’t try to do it all by yourself. Treat people as colleagues not competitors whereever possible. Even if you fall out with people, try to exit the situation with as much grace as you can. It’s incredible how much time and mental energy people waste in vendettas. Move on.

6. It’s not supposed to be easy

There are going to be some protracted periods in life that need to be ground out and endured. It may not seem fun at the time but there is satisfaction involved in getting through.

My favourite story of Tour endurance was that of Tyler Hamilton in the 2003 Tour.  Hamilton fell on one of the first days of the 3 week Tour, suffering a hairline fracture in his collar-bone. His team urged him to quit but the rider stuck it out. He was in pain but the use of pain-killers is restricted. So every time the rider hit a bump, the bones in the fracture ground together, sending pain through him. After 3 weeks, he finished in Paris. Incredibly he achieved 4th place in the overall classification but needed all his teeth capped as he’d worn them down, grinding his teeth in pain.

When they have a bad day on the Tour, the pros stick it out. Tough times are not unexpected – they are recognised as an inevitability.

It’s not supposed to be too easy. For some reason, in our modern world we have replaced so much challenge with convenience that we have forgotten this essential truth about life.

7. Know when to quit

Bradley Wiggins knew when to quit the Tour. Wiggins was a great cyclist but not all-conquering like Lance Armstrong in his pharmaceutical-driven heyday. There were no short cuts for Wiggins. He understood and made the sacrifices that were needed.

Wiggins seemed to have self-awareness. Since winning the Tour, he has made the conscious choice not to re-enter.   He won it and has nothing left to prove here – he is sensible to focus on other races (jobs, pursuits, interests) even if society dictates they are less prestigious (well paid).

I sense that Wiggins would not fall into the “one more year” trap that many people aiming for FI suffer from. Stopping work and taking control of your own life is scary. Your employer will pay you lots of money to stay. It is always tempting to carry on, hoping that you will not end up like the 45-year-old investment banker found dead at his desk at 7pm on a Friday evening.

There is a cruel irony to be navigated at the end of the journey to FI. The people who “get there” are not the quitting type. But at the end you have to know when to quit and then actually do so.

8. Diet and sleep matter

Why should only athletes and coaches think carefully about what they eat? Why do we assume this wouldn’t benefit everyone? Eating a more natural, low carb / paleo diet actually works.

Its similar with sleep. Much of corporate life is a crazy endurance contest and sleep deprivation is one of their favourite tricks. For years I made do on 4 – 7 hours. Enough to avoid death but not enough to live. A friend in the Prison Camp once told me his job felt like that Japanese game show The Endurance. Imagine you are 20 foot up in the air, hanging from a climbing wall whilst a Japanese sadist screams abuse and throws soggy noodles at you and your colleagues, waiting to see who falls or quits first.

Have you ever suspected that the corporate routine of endless meetings, travel, away-days etc is designed to crush your resistance with excess alcohol and food and insufficient sleep?

9. It’s not about the bike

Lance Armstrong named his first book “Its not about the bike”. He was right on this point, if nothing else.

His edge did not come from material possessions (his Trek bike). It was indeed about the man. Armstrong had a rare outlier physiology in his cardio vascular capacity. He also had a capacity for channelling in competition the anger that he felt from his childhood brought up poor by a single Mum in Texas, laughed at by other kids.

Armstrong coupled these physical and psychological features with performance enhancing drugs in a parable of how status-seeking can corrupt.

10. It’s not (just) about the money either

There are easier ways to make €450,000 than winning the Tour. The individual that wins does not even get to keep the prize money. This is traditionally shared amongst the team. In any event, the prize money is dwarfed by the other earning possibilities (e.g. endorsements) but, most of all, by the sheer glory.

Despite having dedicated much of the last 20 odd years to saving and investing as much as I could, I am slowly realising that FI is not primarily about the money.

It’s about freedom and having choices.


  1. underthemoneytree · · Reply

    Being a very keen cyclist the one lesson I take is that both cycling and FI require sacrifice. While training there are literally thousands of opportunities for you to ease up, wimp out and stop the pain. However it’s only by consistently sacrificing that you can achieve what is known as ‘good form’.

    It’s much the same in FI – there’s always an opportunity to spend some $ you shouldn’t or ease up your saving.

  2. no, it’s most definitely about the bike (sort of): http://fnrttc.blogspot.co.uk/p/its-most-definitely-about-bike.html

    nice post…. (disclosure: another cyclist here)…. though after a nasty spill earlier this year I am not as fit as last year.

    In the theme of cost cutting & general FI…. I was hoping to achieve more miles on my bike than i did in my car this year, but having had 2 weeks on crutches & 5 weeks off the bike all in i am currently behind a few hundred miles… & a family holiday in Dorset is going to change those numbers a little more soon in the summer.

    In a typical “London life” week it’s about 65-70 miles on the bike & about 4-8 in the car…. just use the car for local & long distance family trips basically.

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