Teamwork on a Bike


Cycle road racing is the perfect example of real team work – where success demands the graft and skill of each individual working together in perfect harmony.

I have to confess to be new to this sport. I have always been a solo cyclist, competing against the clock and my own gradual physical deterioration. Last Sunday I arrived late to the Tour. I thrilled as Wiggins led Cavendish out onto the Champs, launching him for his final exhilarating and victorious sprint to the line. Yesterday I watched 6 hours of perfect teamwork from the same two, plus three, ultimately fail to deliver success up the Mall in the Olympic road race.

The Secret of Slip Streaming

The key to all of this is slip streaming. A bike slipstreaming behind another bike requires 20-30% less effort to move – as long as it stays exactly downwind within a wheel distance. Four of the GB team yesterday spent 250km rotating the lead, at all times protecting Cavendish, so that he would have done considerably less work than his team mates by the time he reached the last 1km. Then he would out-sprint the field and win gold gloriously for Britain. The plan required discipline, hard work and self-sacrifice. By taking all of the extra work, in turn, the four would not win a medal, but would rejoice in the victory of their team-mate.

This rotating slip-streaming device is not of human invention. It is exactly what Canadian geese do in flight. We just stole their plans. By flying in “V ” formation, the whole flock adds at least 70% greater flying range than if each bird flew on its own.

Apply this strategy to business. A real team is where everyone puts in their share of effort, and in doing so makes it easier for others. Indeed they may sacrifice personal recognition or glory for the good of the whole. Each one knows what they have to do. And they all do it – using all of their skill and energy. This team will succeed.

Unfortunately in all of my working life, I have rarely seen this work so effectively. Companies that do get this to work are hugely successful, but tend to be fairly small. With five riders, there is no hiding place. With more it becomes possible, especially when they are not so well-organised. In the race today, a group of 12 broke away. But it was a random selection of riders thrown together. They had no plan. They could not communicate. Some took their turn at the front, others took a free ride. Unsurprisingly they were eventually caught by the peloton following behind.

Teamwork doesn’t just happen. It is more than enthusiasm and mutual-encouragement. It requires organisation, planning, co-operation and communication. And – unglamorously – effort and discipline. As soon as a rider things they can go it alone, or ease off, or do what they think is best, the whole thing breaks down, and everyone loses out.

How tragic that so many businesses fail due to disorganised, undisciplined and poorly trained teams. Or a hero culture where individualism is lauded and mavericks are applauded. Or a culture where a team has to carry passengers who do not pull their weight, and this is tolerated. The test if a good organisation is how well they deal with poor team-players.

The Bigger Team

As you will know, the valiant efforts of the GB team ultimately failed. And herein is a bigger lesson. The GB team did all they could. For almost all of the race they led the peloton with 75-100 riders behind them. None of the teams in this group – including the much fancied Australians and Germans – took their turn at the front. So the four British riders took all of the workload on their behalf with little or no support. With the 20-30% extra effort required to do this, it was doomed to fail. Cavendish commented that the other teams were happy to fail, so long as GB did not win.

The recent staff survey in the large international company in which I work, discovered that there is very strong team work. People know what they are doing and are very well motivated. But that there is little cohesion between teams. In fact, worse than this, many teams throw bricks at other teams. The Marketing team blame the finance team who blame the IT team, who (as ever, being masochists) blame themselves.

So intra-team work is essential to succeed, even when these teams are competing teams. If Britain, Germany and Australia has shared the time at the front, any one of them would have been in a position to win. As it was, none of them won. There is a time for co-operation before the moment of competition.

Sometimes, in business, as in cycling, as in politics, one has to form rather unholy alliances for the greater good, at least for a while. The current coalition would be an example. The conservatives and liberals can not govern without each other, however much they may disagree or dislike each other. We see the same in the eurozone, in NATO, in the G9, in business cartels.

So it is in life. We need each other more than we realise, more than we may like. So we may as well accept it and get on with it. Nobody succeeds on their own. Nobody is happy on their own. We all need each other – imperfect as others may be in comparison with our own fantasised perfection.

In life as in road race cycling, the needs of the many, are greater than the needs of the few.

My Inner Tubes

  6 comments for “Teamwork on a Bike

  1. Paul H
    July 29, 2012 at 9:56 am

    1. We are all humans, THAT is the problem
    2. Why 1148 as the title??
    3. Your summation is very poignant

  2. July 8, 2014 at 6:42 am

    Reblogged this on Unwrapping The World and commented:

    The secret of the Peloton . . .. .

  3. July 10, 2014 at 7:00 am

    Wry thought provoking

    • July 14, 2014 at 8:11 pm

      Thanks – so many miss the fact that collaboration is usually more successful than pure competition

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