A few blogs back I looked at lessons that the world of work can take from the world of sport, and promised a blog on the Tour de France. This is that blog.

I started watching Le Tour years ago, when it first popped up on Channel 4, as I recall. I went off it after an arrogant Texan started to dominate it, but came back a few years ago, coinciding with the appearance of a stocky Manxman called Cav, who was pretty nippy on his bike. Then came a gangly mod who I knew from track racing at the Olympics, who had lost a bit of weight and got handy at hills, and only went and won the whole thing last year.

There are so many things that I love about long-distance cycling; the sheer effort it takes; I cycle, usually to commute, and every now and then go a bit further, taking in some hills. What I don’t do is go several hundred miles, over mountains, in a day. Just awesome.

Then there is the tactics, the continual ebb and flow, breakaways and catches, being swept up by the peloton, how to ride in different wind conditions, lead-out trains delivering stocky Manxmen to within a few hundred metres of a finish line for a sprint after 200km+ of cycling. A sprint! I can barely beat an amber light at a junction after four miles of commuting.

And, as there is much to admire in Le Tour and cycle racing generally, there are many metaphors for the world of the workplace.

Teams, for example. If you stay to watch the interviews after any stage of Le Tour, the winners will usually thank their team – especially if it was a sprint stage. In a sprint stage a team will have a specialist sprinter who they nurse through the entire race, often over 200+km, so towards the end they can get into single file, drive up the speed and gradually drop off from the front one by one, until the final lead-out rider allows the sprinter to fly out from his back wheel and make a dash for the finish line.

Over the past few years Mark Cavendish has been the best in the world at this, and my favourite image in cycling was Cav being lead out to victory on the final stage of the 2012 tour by the yellow jersey of Bradley Wiggins, the first British rider to win the event. This year he had a few more challengers, which always makes it interesting.

What lessons here, then, for teams: you need a strategy, you need tactics, you need a plan, but you also need flexibility. What happens if your sprinter gets a puncture? What happens if another team’s lead-out train cuts ahead of yours, or takes your line into the finish? You have to make decisions on the road, in the moment, and act accordingly.

You also need clarity of the roles: you need a sprinter, but also you need lead-out men; in other teams there will be specialist climbers, for the lumpy stages when the race goes over mountains; they will also have lead out men who help them get up the mountains until the end when the specialists can attack towards the peak. There are also the generalists, the domestiques, who’s job it is to go back to the team car and pick up drinks, food, and energy gels and deliver them back to the specialists at the front of the pack. That said, if your leader cracks on a climb (ie they can’t find the strength to carry on climbing at the speed of the race) then a domestique may have the legs and have a go themselves.

It makes for fascinating viewing, and makes cycling more unpredictable than many other sports. In this year’s Le Tour, the winner, Chris Froome was nailed on as the winner from the first mountain stage, it seemed, but a couple of stages later his team were dropped and he had to fight against his main rivals without his team supporting him. He still won, though.

To sum up:

  • Have a plan: know where you are going; cycle racers know their route really well, when the climbs are coming, when there are tricky bits, where there are likely to be challenges from other teams
  • Have your tactics in place: know how to deliver your plan at each step; who is going to lead the race in the early stages? Who needs to save their legs for the climbs or the sprint?
  • Be clear on your roles: who is your sprinter? Who is your climber? Who are your domestiques?
  • Be flexible and responsive when your plan can’t deliver any more: when another teams attacks earlier than expected, you need to respond then, there isn’t time to go back through planning and re-thinking tactics until you have responded and caught them; then you re-assess and develop plan B, but you do it on the hoof, you don’t go back to the start and go again.

I will no doubt return to the sporting world in a few weeks, hopefully when the Aussies are on the plane home having failed miserably to win The Ashes.

In the mean time, have a think about your team, your organisation. Is everyone clear on where you’re going? How you’re going to get there? Who needs to do what? And what will you do if things change? If your competitors pull something new into the market? If there’s another economic crisis? Have you the flexibility to respond and react and re-plan as appropriate?

And, while you are thinking about this, think about getting a bike. Think about getting your workforce to cycle to work – they will be fitter, happier and more productive, and you will make the world a little bit better, and who doesn’t want that?

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