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Lessons from Le Tour: strategy is a team effort

July 7, 2014

The 2014 Tour de France returned to the UK for the fourth time in its history this weekend, with Yorkshire hosting the Grand Depart. There are two further stages in Britain, before moving over to France, finishing in Paris July 27 after 3,664km pedalling. With very few time trials, it looks like being a race for the climbers, and Chris Froome will be favourite once again.

Le Tour de France, the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España make up cycling’s prestigious, three-week-long Grand Tours. Traditionally held in July, while Le Tour route changes each year, it consists of 20 day-long stages over a 23-day period.The race alternates between clockwise and anticlockwise circuits of France.The number of teams usually varies between 20 and 22, with nine riders in each.

All of the stages are timed to the finish; after finishing the riders’ times are compounded with their previous stage times.The rider with the lowest aggregate time is the leader of the race and gets to don the coveted yellow jersey. While the yellow jersey and overall winner garners the most attention, there are other contests held within Le Tour for sprinters, for the climbers – ‘King of the Mountains’ – and for the fastest teams.

Riders in most stages start together. The first kilometres, the départ fictif, are a rolling start without racing, the real start, the départ réel is announced by Le Tour director waving a white flag. Riders are permitted to touch, but not push or nudge, each other.

The first to cross the stage finish line wins the stage. All riders in a group finish in the same time as the lead rider. This avoids dangerous mass sprints. It is not unusual for the entire field to finish in a group, a peloton, taking time to cross the line but being credited with the same time.

After 23 days’ competition, Stage 20 will be the usual ceremonial route through the outskirts of Paris, ending on the Champs Élysées after seven increasingly charged laps around the city centre. Whoever ends up wearing yellow on the top step of the podium come the 27 July will certainly have earned it after a relentless route.

Le Tour stems from the ‘Dreyfus Affair’, a cause celebre that divided France at the end of the C19th over the innocence of Dreyfus, a soldier convicted, though later exonerated, of selling military secrets to the Germans. Opinions were heated and there were demonstrations by both sides. At an incident at Auteuil, Pierre Giffard, editor of Le Velo, the largest daily sports newspaper in France, thought Dreyfus innocent and reported the arrest in a way that displeased Edouard Michelin, who in response, opened a rival daily sports paper, L’Auto.

L’Auto was not a success. Stagnating sales led to a crisis meeting where the chief cycling journalist, Geo Lefèvre suggested a six-day race around France as a means to sell more newspapers. Henri Desgrange, editor of L’Auto, designed and announced the race on 19 January 1903.

The first Le Tour was a five-stage race from 31 May to 5 July 1903, starting in Paris and stopping in Lyon, Marseille, Bordeaux and Nantes before returning to Paris. Le Tour started outside the Café Reveil-Matin at the junction of the Melun and Corbeil roads in the village of Montgeron. It was waved away by the starter, Georges Abran, at 3.16pm, 1 July 1903. Maurice Garin was the first winner.

Garin was awarded a yellow armband, yellow was chosen as L’Auto printed its newspapers on yellow paper. The yellow jersey was added to the race in the 1919, the first rider to wear it was Eugene Christophe. Eddy Merckx has worn the yellow jersey for 96 stages, more than any other rider in history, whilst four riders have won the race five times in their career – Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain (a record five consecutive wins).

I am a massive Le Tour fan, I watch it every year captivated by the relentless effort, the speed, the breakaways, the mountains, the rivalry. But I have been struck by something else – the way the cyclists work together.

For the majority, Le Tour is not about winning. The great myth is that the riders are all engaged in the main narrative, the battle for yellow, but Le Tour is unique for the way it blurs the distinction between individual and team competition. Some may see Bradley Wiggins’s triumph in 2012, the first by a Briton, as one of the supreme solo performances in the country’s sporting history, but it was only possible because of the dedication of his director, mechanics and, above all, teammates.

Only a select few of the 190-odd riders who start Le Tour harbour realistic ambitions of riding through Paris on the final stage, wearing the winner’s yellow jersey. Among the rest are specialist climbers chasing the ‘King of the Mountains’ title and sprinters, who come alive only at certain points in a stage. Then there are the domestiques (‘servants’), who do whatever is required to support their team leader.

The name of this last group was coined pejoratively by Henri Desgrange, the race founder. Desgrange believed that the perfect Tour was one that was so punishing that only a single rider would finish. The idea of a cyclist sacrificing himself to help another was abhorrent, yet in pursuing his vision, Desgrange made Le Tour so difficult that he ended up creating a culture of co-operation.

Today, the domestiques has evolved to perhaps the best example of collaborative team philosophy. Everyone who cycles Le Tour comes together to get their best people ahead. The top rider in each team has a whole group of riders around him who make the pace, ride in front of him to help him up the mountain, protect him from crashes – the works. There’s no way Wiggins or Froome could win without his team.

But unlike other team sports, Le Tour is won by an individual rider. The team put their talents at the service of one man who can achieve greatness. They are rewarded by the bigger goal of being part of the winning team that made it happen.

Le Tour is about teamwork and playing to your individual strengths, something quite unique. An individual, no matter how strong, cannot make it over a 3,000km long race alone. Technical, logistical, tactical and moral assistance from a well-organised and resourced team is key for success just as small details and a few seconds, here or there, can decide the race winner.

Collaboration of the people involved on the road and behind the scenes makes the difference. In Le Tour, like in business, talent and strength can win a stage, but clear strategy and dependable teamwork are what wins a high placing in the overall standings.

It might sound obvious, but consider how interlinked you are in your business. Who do you depend on to give you their best performance day in, day out? Whose success depends on you? Do you know the strengths, and weaknesses, of your team-mates? Do you have collaborative competence?

So what can we take from Le Tour by way of how to effect collaboration in our businesses?

Equipment matters but team matters more It is easy to get seduced into the kit and the gadgets. Carbon fibre bikes with lightweight components and apps that can tell you every detail of your ride. But the kit will never differentiate your performance for long, the way a team works is far harder to copy and is what sets winners apart from runners up.

Getting the people issues right in business often goes into the ‘too hard’ box and is ignored, while investment is poured into equipment or other areas that are easier to understand. If you want your team to flourish, you will need to invest in it.

Energy management is more important than time management In the race it is the relative time to other riders that matters, not the absolute time. The rider who wins over three weeks is the one who manages their energy best. They avoid wasting energy by riding in the wind or attacking when they don’t have to.

Time pressure is often an illusion. We all know that when we are working on something we are passionate about time is rarely a problem; it is when we are working on things that are hard that we run out of time. The ideal team will have specialists who are passionate about all areas that need to be covered, so that everyone can stay as energised as possible.

Train as a team A cyclist wanting to win Le Tour will have started their specific training the previous November, with a tailored programme over the spring, riding thousands of kilometres before they get to the start line. Riders will work with coaches, strategists, psychologists, doctors, nutritionists, physiologists and masseurs to ensure that they are in peak mental and physical condition for the race.

If we want the best from ourselves and our team, we need to take responsibility for our training, but also to ensure we’re connected in our development. There is so much that a leader needs to know – not just about their specialist subject, but also about psychology, marketing, communication, technology, etc., collaborative learning sparks performance.

Integrate collaboration into the flow of work Collaboration is an intrinsic element to the way a Tour team works, inbuilt to their psyche and way of being. It’s not seen as something to work on, rather collaboration fits naturally into the flow of work. Collaboration is a core organisation value.

It’s important to remember that collaboration is perpetual, a never-ending evolution. This means that it’s important for your organisation to be able to adapt and evolve as things change. Keep a pulse on what’s going on in the industry and inside of your organisation. This will allow you to innovate and anticipate.

Sometimes leaders follow – learn to get out of the way Cycling is brutally meritocratic. The team may nominate a ‘leader’ for Le Tour, but if that leader loses time, leadership moves to where it is most relevant. Cycling is both a team sport and an individual sport. Team members sacrifice their individual ambition for that of the team and the team leader. However, if the leader does not have the strength to win, or if they are so far ahead that they don’t need to, they gain more credibility with their team mates for next time by helping one of them to win. Leadership is emergent.

For a leader to remain the leader in business, they have to perform. In hierarchies, ‘leadership’ is appointed; in teams, it is emergent and dynamic. Every member is expected to take responsibility and contribute what they can: sometimes that means leading, sometimes that means following.

Measure what matters: the last 1% makes all the difference In the Tour, you might lead any of the stages by a crushing margin right up to the last kilometre of the last stage, but it is worth nothing if you don’t finish. Not everyone is cycling for their own yellow jersey, and whilst I am not advocating complete harmony and collaboration nor a complete subjugation of ourselves or our organisations, if combined effort wins the race, not everyone can be the front man.

There are a lot of things that an organisation can measure but that doesn’t mean that all of these things should be measured. Focus on the metrics that matter. Some organisations focus on ‘busy’ metrics such as web site visitors, others focus on metrics such as engagement, defined as how connected a potential customer lead is.

Protect your star cyclists In cycling, the star rider is usually a specialist who can climb or sprint better than the others. The team will ride to protect that rider and save their energy for the key moments of the race, when they can make the difference. The team will pace them back to the front if they stop for a pee or a mechanical problem and spend hours riding in front of them to protect them from the wind.

Most organisations also have a star, the best designer, sales person, or technologist. To make the most of that skill, the rest of the team needs to rally round and ensure they can focus time and energy on doing what they do best – although the team also needs to treat the stars carefully to avoid them becoming prima donnas.

For Le Tour, more collaboration means more progress, and ultimately more success. In business, the more people you collaborate with, the faster you go. The more people who share the work at the front, offering others their slipstream, the faster and further you will go. It is common for a group of riders to get ahead at the beginning of a stage. If this group is big enough and gets far enough ahead, they might be able to stay in front. But when the peloton, the chasing pack, gets organised they will probably go faster, and catch up.

In business, collaboration enables increased responsiveness, economies of scale and working smarter, increasing capacity and focusing expertise so that more can be achieved in less time and for less cost. Waste can be reduced by better decision-making and a broader understanding of the bigger picture of activity. Investments can be made once so that the wheel is not reinvented over and over again.

Business is not a solo act, unity is strength, gang up on a challenge, you don’t need to win personally, the best idea needs to win, every collaboration helps you grow. When there is collaboration, amazing things can be achieved, greater than the collective strength of each individual. Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much, and realise that behind every great person, is a bunch of other great people. As Isaac Newton said, I have seen it further by standing on the shoulders of giants.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 8, 2014 12:43 pm

    “collaborative learning sparks performance” … love that!

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