Blood, Sweat and Gears: How Cyclocross is Similar to Investing

Justin Thomas, CFP®

Apr 15, 2019

Shoulder to shoulder with eight of the most competitive athletes in the sport, I sat astride my bike at the starting line on a raw December day in Lexington, KY, waiting for the gunshot that would unleash this testosterone-fueled tornado. Behind me was a crush of eighty or so cyclists, waiting for the race to begin. I had qualified for a front-row spot in the race. That would be a critical advantage, allowing me to lead the pack and reduce the risk of crashing into other cyclists.

However, my front-row perch had one disadvantage: the view.

Goals Take Years to Reach

I could see what lay ahead; and it was a mess. Two days of freezing rain had turned the course to mud. The hilly parts were slick as ice. Between those hills were ankle deep swamps that threatened to suck the shoes off anyone who attempted to traverse them on foot. For a guy like me, more accustomed to cycling on the hard-packed dirt trails of the high desert near my home in Reno, Nevada, this race would test the limits of my strength and endurance.

Of course, that pretty much sums up every race in the maniacal sport of cyclocross (or ‘cross as it’s called by aficionados). Racers barrel full-throttle through tight, twisting trails on courses that feature obstacles such as stairs, sand traps and barricades. That means every few minutes or so the cyclist has to leap off the bike, hoist it up on one shoulder and sprint or jump over objects, then quickly remount and resume racing. Crashes are common. All in all, these races are a strange but thrilling show. They attract all kinds of insanely competitive athletes.

Competition isn’t a full-time job for me anymore. When I was in my 20s, I was a professional triathlete and a nationally ranked mountain biker. While I love the adrenaline of racing, I wanted to have a greater impact. I’ve been a financial advisor with TCI in Reno since 2010, but in my off- hours I’ve gotten hooked on cyclocross and the disciplined training it requires. I’m usually on the bike before sunrise, six days a week. My 90-minute workout gives me the opportunity to reflect on the sport and my profession. I’ve come to realize that my life in sports also holds invaluable lessons about investing and managing money.

All successful athletes need to set goals and devise a detailed training plan if they hope to compete at a high level. For me to qualify for my first Nationals, I followed an aggressive program that included 15 races in 17 weeks (I came in fifth that year). I appreciate the discipline and focus that a training plan provides. When I’m not racing, I’m logging 30 miles on a stationary bike in my Reno garage every day. Hooked up to the bike is a computer that monitors my progress throughout my daily workout, including speed, power, and heart rate.

As a financial advisor, I advise clients that they, too, need to identify clear goals for their financial future — both short-term and long-term — then together we craft a plan to help them achieve those dreams. At TCI, our financial plans are just as exquisitely detailed as the training plans of professional athletes. Typically, these plans outline the proper mix of assets for a secure retirement, the careful timing of withdrawals over time, the balancing of risk and opportunity in various classes of investment, and most importantly managing behavior. Following a financial plan provides the focus and discipline necessary to reach life goals.

The Key to Winning is Strategy

Winning at ‘cross isn’t about brute force on the bike pedals. Speed alone won’t earn you a trophy. The key to winning is strategy, finesse, and dedication. For instance, dismounting and mounting the bike quickly is critical. Even a second or two of fumbling to clip into the bike pedals can cost precious time in a race. So I practice until my technique is smoothly efficient.

Investing isn’t about brute force or speed, either. Chasing hot stocks hoping for a big hit or dumping money into your brother-in-law’s trendy new business shouldn’t be the cornerstone of a solid financial plan. Managing financial assets efficiently is a slow and disciplined process. There isn’t a lot of drama, and that’s a good thing. Markets may jolt, but they won’t derail a well-crafted plan.

Before a race, I survey the course. Last December in Lexington, I knew it would be a challenge. After two days of rain and a dozen races, the course had deteriorated. The trail was deeply rutted, icy in places, and pocked with gutters of mud. I’d have to sacrifice some speed for careful navigation. I’d be doing more running while carrying my bike, which if I was careless could injure my lower back.

That’s what makes cyclocross so exciting, the extreme unpredictability. Racers compete in ferocious heat and blinding rain. Courses aren’t groomed. More often than not, they’re downright treacherous. In that respect, ‘cross is a lot like investing. You must be prepared for the unexpected and embrace uncertainty. That’s why a conservative and flexible financial plan is vital. As I do with my training, I monitor my clients’ financial progress. Mid-race, if necessary, we can tweak the plan when there are changes in life circumstances.

One important thing to remember about sports: serious athletes are playing a long game. They don’t fret over one off day of training or a disappointing result in a single event. What they care about is performance over the long run. Some athletes train for years following a program designed to help them achieve peak performance for an event a decade away.

Investing is a Long Game

That’s how investors should approach their financial planning and retirement. It, too, is a long game. Yes, it’s hard not to be triggered into panic these days by all the hand-wringing in the media about the breathtaking dips and spikes of the market. Volatility seems to be the new normal. Fear is infectious. It’s difficult to quell your own anxieties when friends and family get swept up in the panic. In turbulent times like these, we caution clients against reacting impulsively. At TCI, we know that a well structured financial plan has been built to withstand the unexpected and reward steadfast behavior.

The topic of behavior underscores another important factor in sports success. Serious athletes don’t do it alone. They know good coaching is invaluable. In college, I had an excellent coach. Even from afar, he knew the subtle tells – a slight droop in my shoulders — that signaled I was struggling. Seeing that, he’d yell encouragement from the sidelines: “Run tall, Justin.” His encouragement in that moment was enough to renew my resolve and boost my performance. Other coaches helped me develop a strict rule for racing — they told me, “Never look back, fearing someone might be gaining on you. Keep your eyes forward. Focus on the goal.”

Keeping an Eye on Results at All Times

At TCI, I see my relationship with clients as a kind of financial coach. Once we’ve crafted a plan, I’m going to be watching carefully to make sure we’re getting the results we expect. Part of my job is nurturing a trusting relationship with clients. When I see the subtle signs that they’re facing challenges, I try to provide the encouragement they need to stay the course.

Being a financial advisor isn’t just about the numbers, just as in sports it isn’t just about the race time. Money has a powerful emotional component. Sometimes, my job is to allay fears and restore confidence after a financial stumble. Sometimes, it is about holding a client accountable to the plan. In sports, a good coach will press an athlete for consistent workouts, good nutrition, and proper sleep.

As a financial advisor, I press for good saving habits and appropriate spending. These days especially, my job is to help clients keep their eyes on the goal, blocking out the noxious chatter and noise on the sidelines.

In cyclocross, the serious racers typically have a pit crew standing by to assist them. Mud can clog gears or blind a cyclist; crashes can damage a bike. Pit crews are prepared to handle any emergency quickly and efficiently. My clients understand that in working with me they also are getting a seasoned pit crew at TCI. Our team has the wisdom and collective experience that comes from managing wealth carefully and conservatively through the financial challenges of the last half-century.

One last bit of cyclocross wisdom: it’s vital to find your balance on and off the bike. Tempting as it might be to log just a few more miles in a workout, overtraining can cause exhaustion or burnout or, worse yet, injury. All serious athletes have learned the importance of taking the time to rest and have fun with family or friends. In the same way, obsessive attention to your portfolio can cloud your judgement. That’s our job. Yours is to enjoy the ride and embrace the journey.

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