The rouleur

So yes I guess I’m asking you
To back a horse that’s good for glue
And nothing else
But find a man that’s truer than
Find a man that needs you more than I
Sit with me a while
And let me listen to you talk about
Your dreams and your obsessions
I’ll be quiet and confessional
The violets explode inside me
When I meet your eyes
Then I’m spinning and I’m diving
Like a cloud of starlings
— Elbow, ‘Starlings’

No stop signs
Speed limit
Nobody’s gonna slow me down
Like a wheel
Gonna spin it
Nobody’s gonna mess me around
— AC/DC, ‘Highway to Hell’

April 2011. The 109th edition of Paris-Roubaix is in full flight. This is one of the great one-day challenges in the cycling calendar. It is the Queen of the Classics, one of several one-day races held in France, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands during March and April. Also known as the Hell of the North, it covers many cobblestone sections of road in northeastern France. It is a race that has been dominated in recent years by Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara. But an upset is on the cards. Some of the favourites have suffered mishaps on the road, while others have been marking one another out of the race. With only five sections of cobblestones remaining before the finish in the Roubaix velodrome, a group of four riders have pulled away. The move was initiated by Lars Ytting Bak (HTC-Highroad). He has been followed by Grégory Rast (RadioShack), Maarten Tjallingii (Rabobank) and Johann Van Summeren (Garmin-Cervélo).

As the group closes in on the velodrome, Van Summeren attacks and pulls aways. He will ride solo to victory. Behind the remnants of the breakaway, Fabian Cancellara (Leopard Trek), the previous year’s winner, puts in a huge turn, demonstrating his skills as a multiple world time trial champion. He catches the group and takes second place. Tjallingii takes the third spot on the podium. Our focus, though, is on the man who comes in fifth and instigated the breakaway, Lars Ytting Bak. A former Danish road and multiple time trial champion, Bak has just put in a performance that will earn him a place in the HTC-Highroad team at the 2011 Tour de France. It will be the first time he has participated in the race. He won the young riders equivalent, the Tour de l’Avenir, back in 2005. He is now 31 years old.

Despite his domestic championship triumphs, much of Bak’s professional cycling career has and will be spent in the service of others: sprinters like Mark Cavendish and André Greipel; climbers and general classification contenders like Jurgen Van Den Broeck. He carries out domestique duties. He fetches food, drink and clothing from the team car for his teammates. He protects them from the wind. He chases down breakaways. He helps control the peloton, either ensuring a bunch sprint at the close of the stage, or the launch of the team’s climbers up the final peak of the day. When required, he forms part of the sprinter’s lead-out train. Occasionally, as at Paris-Roubaix, his role is to get into the breakaways, riding with the baroudeurs, either aiming for the win himself, or disrupting the flow of the breakaway, enabling his teammates behind to catch them. Either way, this ensures exposure of his team sponsors for the many hours he will be visible on television. It can also enhance his personal palmarès. In 2012, for example, he will win stage 12 of the Giro d’Italia, attacking other members of the breakaway group he has been working with when there are only 2km of the stage remaining.

Lars Bak

Lars Ytting Bak riding for Team HTC-Highroad in 2011

Bak’s value to the teams for which he rides lies in his strength, power and consistency. He is a rouleur. He thrives in the race of truth against the clock of the time trial and on the cobbles of the one-day classics. This is where he displays his specialism and expertise. Otherwise he demonstrates his generalism in the service of others. In the 2011 Tour de France, for example, Bak will often be seen leading the peloton. His role is to help manage the time gap to the breakaway, ensure it is not closed too soon, prevent new attacks from being launched, and perfectly set up a sprint finish. Cavendish will win five stages for the team, with Bak and his teammates making significant contributions. He is the embodiment of the rouleur that Paul Fournel describes in Vélo:

The rouleur has long-lasting majesty. His talent consists of a statuesque position: the rouleur knows how to stay in an impeccable (and unbearable) position for hours, body bent in two, arms at right angles, face lowered, the top of his head open to the breeze. He manages the wind like a bass manages the sea. He rides gears as heavy as anvils while having the elegance never to show it.

The rouleur, then, leads in service. He is the foundation block for his team. What Fournel describes as ‘the indispensable base of the trade of cycling’. In a business context, I see the rouleur as the equivalent to those people who make up business services functions – HR, learning and development, knowledge management, finance, IT, facilities, communications. If an organisation exists to meet its customers needs, then the same applies in its internal operation. There is a supporting infrastructure in place, where certain roles and functions are intended to service internal customers. The HR or IT professional work as domestiques for colleagues who are themselves delivering products and services to external people. Their role is to enable and support. They take the wind, fetch the water bottles, so that their colleagues may excel to the benefit of all. Occasionally they get to exercise their own specialisms, guiding on policy, deploying new technologies, ensuring the smooth running of the company.

The rouleur is the bedrock and the organisational spine. They are the first follower, putting in place the foundations that will result in the corporate vision being achieved.

What happens to our values, and therefore to the quality of our civilization in the future, will be shaped by the conceptions of individuals that are born of inspiration. Perhaps only a few will receive this inspiration (insight) and the rest will learn from them. The very essence of leadership, going out ahead to show the way, derives from more than usual openness to inspiration. Why would anybody accept the leadership of another except that the other sees more clearly where it is best to go? Perhaps this is the current problem: too many who presume to lead do not see more clearly and, in defense of their inadequacy, they all the more strongly argue that the “system” must be preserved – a fatal error in this day of candor.
— Robert Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader

A more accurate envisioning of leadership and followership in the second decade of the 21st century is one in which leaders and followers have greater parity – in which it is immediately obvious that change can be created by anyone anywhere at any time, and that followers have an impact on leaders as well as the other way around.
— Barbara Kellerman, ‘Closing the Gap – Between Leaders and Followers’

The collective is reflected in the individual.
— Faisal Hoque and Drake Baer, Everything Connects