Sport is increasingly used as a model for how business teams should behave. It's also been a great example of how data can improve performance. But the emphasis on loyalty, togetherness and metrics is maybe misplaced. At least that's what Richard Martin suggests in his studies of the cycling peloton. What if teamwork also means being agile and autonomous?
Sunday 11 September 2016. A diminutive professional road cyclist, Nairo Quintana, takes his place on the top step of the podium in the centre of Madrid. He has just secured overall victory in a Grand Tour race for the second time in his career. But things could have turned out so differently were it not for the spirit of adventure that Quintana and his teammates had demonstrated the previous Sunday…
For all the focus on the individual, winning unique stages, overall races, classification jerseys and intermediate sprints, road racing is in fact a team event. It is played out against a backdrop of numerous interacting systems – competing teams, event organisation, municipal authorities for the host towns, policing, media embedded within the race, team cars, support vehicles, spectators on the roadside, weather, terrain, course routes and road furniture. The passage of the cycling peloton itself – that swarming mass of lycra-clad teammates and competitors – is complex and adaptive. The peloton formation, in its responsiveness and fluidity, serves as a useful metaphor for an aspirational modern organisation.
The peloton is characterised by constant shifts between competition, collaboration and cooperation. Leadership is always in motion rather than remaining static, a baton that is passed off and handed back again, determined by day-to-day and overall objectives for the team. Leaders become followers, servants become leaders, as the road flattens or climbs, as the wind strengthens or tarmac gives way to cobblestones. Emphasis is placed on time-bound actions and relationships; forming or chasing down a breakaway, setting up a sprint finish, helping a teammate make their way back to the main group after a mechanical failure.
Alliances of mutual convenience take shape and then shatter as competitors accommodate contextual shifts. Teams operate within loose frameworks, exercising personal and collective autonomy, as they amend their plans. Decisions are made on the fly, in recognition of changes in weather, incidents on the road, the health and form of colleagues, as well as in response to the actions of riders from other teams. The roles an individual fulfils are in a constant state of flux.
Members of a nine-man Grand Tour team, assembled for the annual editions of the three-week Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España, will assume a variety of responsibilities. Some will defend against breakaway attempts. Others will collect water bottles from the team cars. Some will shelter the day’s designated leader from the wind, while that leader will aim to conserve energy for the final sprint or climb, or for key stages later in the week. All, though, are alert to opportunities to break free from the peloton’s grip and enjoy a day in front of the television cameras. For several teams, lacking the personnel for overall victory, exposing your corporate sponsor’s logo to a global audience is the ultimate objective. Brand awareness leads to revenue; a sponsor’s income can translate into ongoing financial viability for the team.
An effective road racer, with aspirations to win a Grand Tour, tends to master several disciplines. Invariably, they are extremely competent climbers, often to be seen at the front of the race as it reaches its highest slopes. Often they are highly proficient against the time trial clock too, the ultimate test in performance measurement. The very best are also characterised by their inner strength, their responsiveness and occasional opportunism.
Being serial masters, the Grand Tour contenders seem better able to play what is in front of them, rewriting the day’s plans when necessary, gambling where they believe the calculated reward will outweigh the potential risk. Without that mastery and responsiveness, it is difficult to adapt to and rectify major problems. Even more so to take advantage of the serendipitous opportunity. Individual initiative will often be amplified and consolidated by the supporting actions of teammates.
At the start of the 2016 Tour de France, three riders were considered potential winners: Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador. This was founded in part on their own form and palmarès and, in particular, on the collective abilities of their respective Sky, Movistar and Tinkoff teams. It was expected that the big three would mark each other closely, with only injury, illness or individual opportunism likely to differentiate before their rivalry was played out on the most vertiginous of the Tour’s ascents.
As things transpired, all three came into play. Contador succumbed to the effects of crashes early in the race, while Quintana’s own performance was inhibited throughout by illness. This was exacerbated by Froome’s willingness to do the unexpected; to go against the unfair stereotype he bears of being a robotic rider in thrall to the data available on his cycling computer and the instructions received from sporting directors through his earpiece.
Froome is renowned for his sudden accelerations on the Pyrenean and Alpine climbs. Rival teams watch closely, preparing to respond, either accompanying him as he breaks away from the peloton, or neutralising his efforts. On stage 8 of the Tour, there was some relief as the summit of the Col de Peyresourde was attained with the leading group intact.
As Quintana reached for his water bottle, however, Froome attacked as the road dropped downhill, assuming an ungainly and uncomfortable position on the crossbar of his road bike. It proved to be a turning point in the race, laying the foundations for Froome’s overall victory, expertly marshalled and supported by his teammates over the remaining thirteen stages.
Seize the day
At the start of the Vuelta a España in mid-August, the names of the same three contenders for overall victory were on everyone’s lips. New variables were in play. How well had Contador recovered from his injuries, Quintana from illness, Froome from his efforts at both the Tour and the Olympics, where he had medalled in the time trial event? How would the apparently weaker Tinkoff and Sky teams respond to the collective strength of the Movistar squad? How would Froome cope without his Tour wingman Wout Poels?
In recent editions, the Vuelta has become known for its challenging climbs and searing heat. The 2016 race had been designed with several mountain-top finishes that would serve as enticing canvases for the climbing artists. One stage, though, stood out in the final week: an individual time trial, which many believed favoured Froome. If other aspirants to overall victory wished to take the sting out of that particular day, then they would need to accumulate a significant time advantage.
In the Vuelta, time can be gained in two ways. First, by finishing ahead of your competitors, thereby securing a time gap over them. Second, by winning the stage or finishing high up on it, particularly on the more difficult climbs, thereby earning time bonuses. The rider who has the lowest overall time after three weeks is declared the winner of the race.
Teamwork becomes essential, therefore, as members of a squad sacrifice their own prospects of finishing high up on the general classification in order to ensure that a colleague does. Trust-based relationships and collaboration informed by a shared purpose define the dynamics of the team. Often, however, there is a need for this to be supplemented by cooperation with riders from rival teams. These temporary alliances are mutually convenient as the pursuit of distinct goals are benefited by working together.
The Vuelta started with a team time trial, which immediately disadvantaged Contador, as his underperforming team lost time to the other overall contenders. This recast him in the role of agitator, of opportunistic forager, seeking out ways to regain time and a spot on the podium, if not overall victory. His actions later in the race would benefit Quintana, who soon established himself as the rider to watch on the steepest of slopes, assuming race leadership by the midpoint of the Vuelta.
On paper, stage 15 looked like it would be a short but explosive stage. Only 118km in length, from Sabiñánigo to Aramon Formigal, it had a lumpy profile, with three classified climbs, culminating in a mountain-top finish. With 112km still to race, and the peloton already on the first of the day’s ramps, Contador made the jump. His attack was marked by Quintana, and together they formed an alliance, each with two teammates alongside them, as they pulled away as part of the day’s breakaway. A gamble was rapidly transformed into a race-transforming opportunity.
Froome was left behind, and as the day progressed found himself isolated without teammates from Sky. Meanwhile, Quintana’s own Movistar colleagues expertly disrupted attempts to chase down the breakaway. The events of the day were as much about Quintana’s own seizing of it as the work of his team behind him. Second place on the stage, a time bonus and Froome’s loss of over two-and-a-half minutes secured the temporal buffer Quintana required prior to the time trial. Froome’s phenomenal performance in the latter suggested what might have been, with the Sky rider clawing back two-and-a-quarter minutes from Quintana. But the latter and his Movistar team had effectively won the race on 4 September.
Stories from the peloton frequently demonstrate that it is about so much more than the individual. Network effects are key, both within the clearly delimited organisation of the team, and in the messier relationships and alliances with others in the peloton. The technical policies, rules and regulations of governing bodies and event organisers give a semblance of structure to the races. But the teams use them as creative constraints, operating more under flexible frameworks than rigid plans. Without responsiveness and autonomy, without the willingness to experiment, these teams would experience little success, letting one opportunity after another pass them by.
Paradoxically, life in the peloton is about both preparing and being willing to discard a plan at a moment’s notice. It is what Harold Jarche refers to as life in perpetual beta. Complexity cannot be dealt with in simplistic terms, uncertainty is a constant, and individuals have to be willing to respond to momentary context and trust their colleagues to follow their lead. How many organisations in the private and not-for-profit sectors do you know that operate like this?
Pelotons are able to operate in the way that they do because learning and experience is embedded within them. Young riders are mentored by seasoned professionals. They learn through imitation, trial and error, developing both instinct and intuition, daring to experiment when the occasion presents itself. The sport is all about life lessons acquired on the road, the knowledge gained from numerous failures as relevant as that acquired through the occasional success. Teamwork provides firm foundations. But autonomy within loose frameworks, decision-making and accountability are all encouraged from early on. It is this crucial combination – individual action contextualised in relation to the collective – that the modern corporation, government agency and charity now need to learn.
- Jarche, Harold. Working in Perpetual Beta (Tantramar Interactive, 2016).
- Goldin, Ian, and Chris Kutarna. Age of Discovery: Navigating the Risks and Rewards of Our New Renaissance (Bloomsbury, 2016).
- Martin, Richard. ‘Peloton Formations: The Responsive, Adaptive Organisation’, in Jon Husband, et al, Wirearchy: Sketches for the Future of Work (Wirearchy Commons, 2015).
- Mikkelsen, Kenneth, and Richard Martin. The Neo-Generalist: Where You Go is Who You Are (LID, 2016).
- Millar, David. The Racer: Life on the Road as a Pro Cyclist (Yellow Jersey Press, 2015).