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FSA DS: A History of Winning Strategies

You know... like, pick the guy who suddenly scores a bunch of points?

Fotoreporter Sirotti

Apart from a couple hundred anxious souls who already dropped a men's and/or women's squad on the FSA Directeur Sportif competition, I know where you're at right now: Decisionland.

Fsa-ds_small_mediumBacking up: ten days ago we kicked off the Season of Seasons! The FSA Directeur Sportif competition, our year-long fantasy game, opened for business. Read all about it here. And submit your men's and/or women's teams by February 28!

Decisionland is an uncomfortable place. No, I'm not talking about the part where you decide between Tom Zirbel and Cyril Lemoine for your last one-pointer. I'm talking about the existential questions. Am I a Sagan team? Am I a grand tour guy? Should I just admit that the Classics rule my world and pick all Belgians? Well, past is prologue, and I suppose it's worth looking around for some guidance.

A Little History

The Virtual Directeur Sportif game came into existence in the Podium Cafe's first year, 2006. Created by Clydesdale, an early contributor and occasional western US race correspondent, the game started out as a Tour de France challenge, then a Vuelta challenge, and in 2007 was made into a year-long game. The rules were then in a bit of flux, but Clydesdale, like me, is a stick-and-ball fantasy gamer, and we took our collective inspiration and ran with it. He also ran the thing on a spreadsheet, which was a ton of work, and we were all too happy to start migrating toward something more functional as time went on.

In 2007 Clydesdale was back at it, for a year-long game, and it was more spreadsheet time. Here's a look at what we were up to then:


It worked pretty well, despite a rule at that time that every squad had to have at least one Frenchman. But someone, possibly even me, revamped the spreadsheet for 2008, which led to what you can see here. If you scroll down and click on the "final standings" link, you'll get a sense of what it was all about. Very, very cumbersome, but effective in its own way. I especially like the part where Clydesdale earned a five point bonus for guessing the mystery meat at the Coppi e Bartali. No idea what that was about.

Anyway, it's a bit hard to wade through, but Team Davis Wheelworks (a dominant early player) won it all by eschewing the grand tour winnar of winnars, Alberto Contador, then a two-tour winner, in favor of... well, Davide Rebellin, then a sort of jet-fueled J-Rod. As well as some similar-in-nature contributions from Damiano Cunego and Kim Kirchen. Yep... good times. Team Born From Jets came close with a similar non-Contador strategy, focused on Tom Boonen. The price list has been lost to history, but Contador was #1, while Team Davis Wheelworks built successfully from the guys ranked #10 and below.

The following season, 2009, was the last of our Dark Ages, involving a slightly improved mega-spreadsheet but a spreadsheet nonetheless, and one that relied on someone (me) to fill it out every day. It was also a year when another strategy became prevalent: hitting the jackpot with a mid-range guy on an historic run. That would be Philippe Gilbert, a 16-pointer, scoring hugely in the fall after a somewhat typical spring and summer. But Team Beer Lao was a lot of good things en route to a commanding win: it had the top stage racer, Contador, along with the top sprinter, Cavendish. But it also had a comparably excellent Andre Greipel, a once-in-a-lifetime Heinrich Haussler, and a sneaky-awesome Simon Gerrans -- all two-pointers. The closest competition, only 300 points away, came from Team Grote Mandrenke, with Andy Schleck as the high-scoring Tour guy, and a slew of second-tier riders -- Gesink, Gilbert, Pozzato, Chavanel -- all coming through big. And, as great as having Gilbert was, some combination of Gerrans, Greipel and Haussler was also a must. The Mandrenkens had the first two. One more and they would've beaten Beer Lao's Contador/Cav strategem.

Everything changed in 2010, when the game moved off the spreadsheet and onto Superted's magic website. Hand-checking of teams for compliance issues was replaced by the autoscreening function that stops you from sending in a team with 26 riders that you still see today. If the site accepted your team, it was no longer my problem. The other big change, on the implementation side, was a place where anyone with editorial controls could go and enter results, which themselves were pre-coded to calculate the correct number of points and distribute them accordingly. No more waiting for me to open the spreadsheet. Results to this day are usually instantaneously updated, as long as we have access to the race. [Occasional problem on the women's side.]

Sleeping Maiden Velo took the honors just ahead of the Txapela-wearing Txurrundriaks and ORB, Inc., all of whom had Vincenzo Nibali to thank, along with a handful of second tier guys doing it big (J-Rod, Scarponi, Gesink) and one of the best of the bigs -- namely Evans and Gilbert, both expensive but solid buys. Nibali was the real story, proving that a secondary grand tour guy who takes shots in two events is a better value than Chris Froome. Nibs had a third at the Giro and a dramatic Vuelta win, along with a few other nice days in the saddle.

By 2011 the game had taken shape almost completely, and to this day only minor changes have been made each year (except of course for the expansion to a women's game in 2012). So let's quickly tour the winning strategies.

  • Interestingly, in 2011 the top three teams were led by their high-priced stars. Numbers 1 and 2 relied on the dual assault of J-Rod and Evans, both expensive but very reliable. Nibali, Andy Schleck and Tyler Farrar (coming off a 2000-point season) were the three lodestones in the pack, costing much but returning... not enough. Gilbert paced several other teams to high finishes, delivering on his 28-point cost with the best season ever (pre-Sagan), a mere 3986 points. Oh, and Sagan was the up-and-coming guy you should've noticed in time. Cyclemania did, en route to his win with Evans and J-Rod pacing things. Contador was good too. It was a hit-or-miss year for the Bigs.
  • This season marked the decline, at last, of Alberto Contador as an expensive but safe cornerstone to build upon. In 2012, Bradley Wiggins' historic season came at an 18-point price tag (not too shabby), while Sagan shot up the rankings and J-Rod replaced the disastrously expensive Gilbert as the guy who almost cracked 4000. Another common thread among the top teams was Tom Boonen, coming off a few middlin seasons to quadruple his previous year's output in an historic run of his own. Between him and Gilbert, let's just say it pays to pick which Belgian classics guy is going to go berserk, or more importantly which one isn't. On the historical side of things, the game changed from the Virtual Directeur Sportif to the FSA Directeur Sportif. Yep, we have a sponsor!
  • Finally, in 2013 J-Rod slid a bit, while Sagan established himself as the one truly reliable source of points, at any cost. Well, he and Alejandro Valverde, who came all the way back from, um, vacation to pace several teams, including winner A Tale of Two Schleckies. This was perhaps the best effort by Ursula -- now fully in charge of pricing -- to grade out the top guys accurately, and to make their price high enough to force teams to make a really stark choice between paying for the big names or emphasizing second or third tier guys. In previous years, prices on the high end weren't quite so high, except for outliers like Gilbert, so the top teams could have a star and several near-stars as well. As usual, the big surprises from the lower ranks drove the top teams -- none more than Nairo Quintana. For teams skipping the top bracket, Vincenzo Nibali was a second tier bargain at 24 points, while Chris Horner and Richie Porte headlined the list of guys you wish you had.
Is there a clear lesson to derive from all this? Perhaps -- that, depending on the pricing, any strategy can work. The more aggressive pricing currently in place prevents hedging on the Big Star strategy with some secondary stars too; now you go one way or the other. In that sense, I think it's more like real life. When you blow your budget on Cancellara, you might not be able to afford him as much help as you'd like. Picking out hidden gems will always be a part of a winning team, but often there are a few gems to choose from, and nobody has all of them. While those guys help you get separation, however, what you do at the top of your bracket remains critical. The most expensive guys do tend to score the most points, even within the random fluctuations of a dangerous sport. And ultimately, it's all about that points action, boss. So choose wisely at the top and bottom of your roster.