The baroudeur

I don’t know just where I’m going
But I’m gonna try for the kingdom, if I can
— The Velvet Underground, Heroin

I’m pulling my questions from my shelf
I’m asking forgiveness
I’m asking about it by myself
— The Raconteurs, Broken Boy Soldier

Something’s happening here today
A show of strength with your boy’s brigade
— The Jam, Going Underground

Earlier in the day six riders had each pulled away from the peloton. Representing different trade teams, five of them eventually had cohered into a cooperative group; a small, dynamic pod sharing responsibilities, with each rider fluidly moving from leader to follower and back again. It was a challenging ninth stage of the 2011 Tour de France, from Issoire to Saint-Flour, featuring eight categorised climbs. These tended to have an elastic effect on the group with riders dropping away as they tackled the ascents and descents at their own pace, then putting in great efforts to regain contact with their breakaway companions. Nervousness and tight roads were also contributing to crashes back in the main peloton. Some of the teams encountered misfortune, seeing their general classification contenders exit the race after one particular body-damaging, bone-breaking pile-up on a treacherous descent. Up the road, the breakaway group continued to cooperate establishing a lead of over seven minutes while the peloton regrouped after the crash.

With 36km of the day’s stage remaining, the lead was down to five minutes. Still a healthy advantage. It was looking like it would be a day of glory for one of the breakaway riders. One of those days that produced more than just extended television airtime for the corporate sponsors whose names and logos adorn the riders’ clothing. A day that would result in podium celebrations. Some of the breakaway group had their eyes on bigger prizes too. Thomas Voeckler (Europcar) had a chance of becoming the overall race leader, getting his hands on the coveted yellow jersey for the second time in his career having worn it previously in 2004. Johnny Hoogerland (Vancansoleil-DCM) was looking a likely contender for the polka-dot jersey, which is awarded to the leader of the mountains classification. Niki Terpstra (Quickstep), an early member of the escape group, had faded away on the day’s first climb. But Sandy Casar (FDJ), Juan Antonio Flecha (Team Sky) and Luis León Sánchez (Rabobank) were all strong riders and in the mix for the stage win. For two of the riders, though, disaster was about to strike.

A car carrying personnel from French television accelerated alongside the breakaway group. Suddenly it swerved to the right to avoid a tree on the verge of the road, thereby triggering a domino effect. The car, still travelling at high speed, clipped Juan Antonio Flecha sending him sprawling to the floor. As he hit tarmac, Johnny Hoogerland hit him and was catapulted through the air on to a barbed wire fence. Voeckler and the others accelerated away to contest the stage victory, the Frenchman taking over the overall race leadership and Luis León Sánchez winning the day. Remarkably both Flecha and Hoogerland would remount their bikes and complete the stage, over 16 minutes after the winner. The Dutchman, whose kit had been shredded on impact with the fence, and bearing deep wounds on his legs that would require multiple stitches, even went on to participate in a delayed podium ceremony at which he was awarded the polka-dot jersey.

[Picture credit: Moronic by Hugh MacLeod @gapingvoid. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0]

I share this tale not to marvel at the dangers encountered by the professional cyclist, nor to rubber-neck at a particularly gruesome incident in the recent history of the Tour de France. Rather, in developing the metaphor of peloton formations and its application to the workplace, I want to take some time to look at the different character types that make up the peloton. What distinguishes them from the others? Do they have counterparts in the modern office? Are there any lessons we can learn from them? In future posts, I will have a look at the sprinter, the climber and the rouleur. Possibly others too. Today it is the turn of the baroudeur, epitomised by the likes of Thomas Voeckler and Johnny Hoogerland.

The baroudeur is beautifully described by Paul Fournel in Vélo, his poetic collection of cycling essays published by Rouleur. Baroudeurs are adventurers, opportunists and chancers. They do not seek the love of their colleagues in the peloton, but strain at the leash, pushing against convention, experimenting and taking risks. They are generalists and polymaths, adept at multiple disciplines. As Fournel puts it:

There is no set format for a baroudeur. Neither a true sprinter, nor a true climber, nor exactly a rouleur, the baroudeur is all of those at once. He is capable of all of it, but in his own time. He knows that he will not beat the sprinters at the finish and so he has to set off beforehand. He knows that he will not beat the climbers in the high mountains; he makes his kingdom in the medium mountains. He knows that he will not drop everyone on the first push so he puts in a second.

The baroudeurs remind me of the rebels on the edges in today’s business world. This is an idea explored by Harold Jarche and Céline Schillinger, among others. The workplace baroudeur is the one likely to challenge the status quo, to seek out new ways of doing things, to experiment and play, releasing Trojan Mice, accepting many failures, learning from them and, occasionally, enjoying success. A group of baroudeurs, willing to cooperate with one another, are the ideal advance party. The experimental pod assembled for time-bound, financially-constrained exploration and testing. The skunk works team not afraid to indulge in trial and error and the tolerance of risk as they head into the unknown, operating under a loose framework but with common purpose and a shared vision. These are the people who will act now and, if necessary, apologise later. They will not be held back by bureacracy or industrial tradition.

The workplace baroudeur, then, is often the catalyst to change. Having blazed a trail, others will follow, new pods forming to lead the company into the future, putting new ideas and theory into practice. The original breakaway will often get absorbed back into those embryonic pods, their lessons captured, their knowledge shared with others in a continuous cycle of progression and refinement.

This is not a new story. There are many examples from 3M, Apple, Google, W.L. Gore, Semco and others. There is a spirit of entrepreneurialism, disruption and innovation about the baroudeur.

It takes a while for is to realize that our lives have no plot. At first we imagine ourselves into great struggles of darkness and light, heroes in our Levi’s or pajamas, impervious to the gravity that pulls down all others. Later on we contrive scenes in which the world’s events circle like moons about us – like moths about our porch lights. Then at last, painfully, we begin to understand that the world doesn’t even acknowledge our existence. We are the things that happen to us, the people we’ve known, nothing more.
— James Sallis, Black Hornet

Without diversity, there can be no mutation, no variation, no real learning. If everyone is the same, a network offers no real advantage. In a healthy system, both genes and ideas need to crosspollinate, and that requires a diverse population. Creative ideas emerge when different ideas and concepts interact. Evolution requires two things: variation and selection. As long as you have both, new and improved versions will continue to emerge.
— Dave Gray with Thomas Vander Wal, The Connected Company