The sprinter

Don’t look back into the sun
Where you’ve cast your plans and you’re on the run
— The Libertines, ‘Don’t Look Back into the Sun’

We gonna march, a long way,
Fight, a long time,
We got to travel, over mountains,
Got to travel, over seas,
We gonna fight, your brother,
We gonna fight, ’til you lose,
We gonna raise, trouble,
We gonna raise, hell.
We gonna fight, your brother,
Raise, hell.
Death or glory, becomes just another story.
— The Clash, ‘Death or Glory’

People get ready there’s a train a comin’,
You don’t need a ticket,
Climb on board.
— The Doors, ‘Black Train Song’

It is Sunday 4 May 2014. 5km remain of the eighth and final stage of this year’s edition of the Presidential Cycling Tour of Turkey. A line of Orica-GreenEDGE riders leads the peloton at a high tempo. A bunch sprint finish looks almost certain to determine the outcome of the day’s stage. The focus of the Orica-GreenEDGE riders, however, is elsewhere. The stage victory is not their goal. One of their number, Adam Yates, is wearing the race leader’s jersey. If they can usher him safely to the 3km-to-go marker, they know their job will have been successfully accomplished. Should any rider in this leading bunch crash during those last 3km they will be awarded the same time as the stage victor. In other words Yates’s overall victory will be assured.

The Orica-GreenEDGE team hit their marker and drift back into the peloton. As they do so, the red-clad Lotto Belisol sprint train pulls to the front. They have one of the world’s best sprinters, André Greipel, in their number. Lotto Belisol is one of several teams who have perfected the art of the sprinter’s lead out. Other masters in the 2014 peloton include Giant-Shimano, who are not taking part in this event, and Omega Pharma-Quick Step, who are and have already won three stages during the week with their dominant sprinter, Mark Cavendish. Lotto Belisol appear to fancy their chances today but remain alive to the dangers presented by some of the other teams who are also beginning to form their lead-out trains.

This technique was popularised in the 1990s when Mario Cipollini was in his pomp riding for the Saeco team, and going on to win an unprecedented 42 Giro d’Italia stage victories. To see this performed well is like watching a shoal of fish or flock of birds in motion. Everything is performed with speed and fluidity. A line of riders line up one behind the other, wheels almost touching. At the back of the line is their protected rider, the designated sprinter for the day. Occasionally this individual will call out instructions, particularly as they observe threats from other sprint trains or solitary riders who are improvising their finales to the race without the support of their teammates. The rider at the front of the line, provides protection for those behind them, taking the wind and air resistance, punching a hole through it. One by one the riders at the front of the line peel off until, finally, with usually 200-300m remaining of the stage, the sprinter jumps from the slipstream of their final lead-out man and launches themselves at the finish line.

A dark shadow looms behind the Lotto Belisol team. Wearing this season’s black and white jerseys, the Omega Pharma-Quick Step train of Gianni Meersman, Alessandro Petacchi, Gert Steegmans and Mark Renshaw begins to make its presence known. At their tail is Cavendish adorned in the green jersey of the race’s points competition leader. All five are highly accomplished sprinters in their own right. But today, and for much of the season, they have recognised Cavendish as their leader and put themselves at his service. Victory for Cavendish is a victory for the team. Victory for the team pleases its commercial sponsors, which often equates to continuity for the team and new contracts for the riders next season. All for one and one for all.

With just over 2km remaining, Omega Pharma-Quick Step’s sprint train moves to the front of the peloton. Each member of the team executes his role perfectly, maintaining a high speed, safely negotiating the street furniture, seeing off the threats from the other well-organised lead-out trains. The last man drops Cavendish off with less than 200m to go. The Manxman stamps on his pedals and, from the apparent chaos of a swarm of sprinters throwing themselves towards the finish line, the team’s fourth victory of the week is duly delivered. Planning, camaraderie, leadership and trust have all contributed to the team once again successfully negotiating the apparent complexity and chaos of the bike race.

Mark Cavendish wins on the Champs Élyssées

Mark Cavendish wins on the Champs Élyssées

This is the latest instalment in a series of peloton formation posts. Others have focused on the general idea of the peloton formation, as well as the characters of the baroudeur and the climber. Today it is the turn of the sprinter – and not just as the individual who blasts their way through the last few hundred metres of the bike race. The sprinter both leads and is led. They are the protected ‘child’, wholly dependent on the kindness and nurture of others. They are the leader who guides, directs, cajoles and inspires others to ensure that the team is in the best possible position to contend for the stage victory. They are also the team’s David sent forth to combat the Goliath of the peloton. They are someone who is able to find moments of clarity and cool judgement while riding out the emotional roller coaster of the highly volatile sprint finish. Again, Paul Fournel captures the sprinter beautifully in Vélo:

He is putting the tools of his trade to the test. Torsion on the handlebars, squashing of the tyres and rims, torture of the bottom bracket, efforts to drop the chain, destruction of the pedals. Going off at a patently unreasonable speed, he knows he is guilty of a folly but he has confidence. Confidence in himself and confidence in the privileged few who still fight it out with him and barge him with their shoulder, brushing against his spokes with their pedals, zigzagging on the road in front of him. When he is finally sure of his victory and when the finish line is his, he lifts his head and then his arms in a beautiful unfurling which resembles taking flight. At that moment of glory, he smiles at his strength and the logos inscribed on his jersey are perfectly readable. He’s a good salesman, the sprinter.

As Dan Pink has observed, to sell is human. There is no doubt that the sprinter is an excellent salesperson, the perfect advertising hoarding. Often you’ll see them crossing the line pointing at their chests, not as a bravura statement of their own excellence but drawing attention to the names of their corporate sponsors. This extends to great communication skills too, with many of the sprinters proving to be engaging personalities comfortable in front of the media cameras and microphones. While there is no doubt that in the adrenaline-fuelled finale of a race, the confidence that Fournel alludes to can translate into the inflation of ego, there is another dimension to these sprinting supremos. Watch the first actions of a Cavendish, Greipel or Marcel Kittel after a stage victory. What you see is them greeting, embracing and thanking their teammates one by one. There is a form of servant leadership in play here, evidence of that versatility so necessary in the modern organisation. People who can lead, follow and exercise their own specialisms as required.

This was illustrated fantastically by Cavendish during the 2012 Tour de France. Riding for Team Sky at the time, Cavendish was required to put his personal ambitions on hold as the team rode in service of a different goal: a yellow jersey for Bradley Wiggins. Cavendish, himself wearing the Rainbow-striped jersey of the reigning world champion, was to be seen working tirelessly for the cause. He often led the peloton into the foothills of climbs, and was to be observed trekking back and forth from the team car, ferrying water bottles to his teammates. With Wiggins’s overall victory assured, the efforts of Cavendish were recognised and rewarded by his friend. One of the great sights from that Tour was that of Wiggins in the yellow jersey playing a key role in the lead-out train that would result in Cavendish’s stage victory on the final stage on the Champs Élysées.

There is something here that reminds me of the 20% time at Google and other organisations. Companies have their own objectives to meet, strategies that span several years, products with time-bound life cycles, multiple projects to deliver. Nevertheless, some of the more enlightened companies also recognise the importance of their people and giving them the space to develop both personally and professionally. As such, a percentage of the working week, sometimes as much as 20%, is allotted to staff working on personal projects. The individual builds competency and broadens their range of interests, while the company derives benefit from a contented, well-rounded workforce. Sometimes even from the output of the side project too; the post-it note at 3M and Gmail at Google being well-documented examples.

The sprinter demonstrates great skill and awareness, knowing when to assume the lead and push for the delivery of their personal project, and when to put themselves at the service of others and their objectives. In the apparent chaos of the peloton, they are surprising sources of insight and logical calm; more chess masters than frenetic athletes until they are called into action in the bunch sprint. They seek patterns in complexity, helping their teammates react to and navigate subtle shifts in their circumstances and environment. As the occasion requires it, the sprinter and their train respond with flexibility and agility. Humankind’s answer to the murmuration of starlings.

Leaders who try to impose order in a complex context will fail, but those who set the stage, step back a bit, allow patterns to emerge, and determine which ones are desirable will succeed. They will discern many opportunities for innovation, creativity, and new business models.
— Dave Snowden and Mary Boone, ‘A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making’

New organizational forms are the result of strategic imperatives. It follows that you can have all the will in the world but without the right structure in place, your strategy won’t be successful.
— James Kerr, Legacy