Road captain

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting
— Walt Whitman, ‘O Captain! My Captain!’

It is a mistake to think that being called “captain” means you do everything yourself.
— Martin Johnson, The Autobiography

When you’re dealing with ongoing challenges and changes, and you’re in uncharted territory with no means of knowing what comes next, no one can be expected to have all the answers or rule the team with an iron fist based solely on the title on their business card. It just doesn’t work for day-to-day operations. Sometimes a project is a long series of obstacles and opportunities coming at you at high speed, and you need every ounce of your collective hearts and minds and skill sets to get through it.
— Robyn Benincasa, ‘Six Leadership Styles’

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

It is 28 July 2012. The peloton is on the ninth and final circuit of the Box Hill climb in the London Olympics men’s road race. This is a gold medal target for the GB team, who are riding in support of one of the world’s top sprinters, Mark Cavendish. A breakaway has formed ahead of the peloton, and one of the main threats to Cavendish’s ambitions, Fabian Cancellara, takes this opportunity to attack and bridge across to them. As Cancellara makes his move, Cavendish seeks to follow him. But he is called back by his road captain, David Millar. Millar has judged that they are still too far out from the finish line, and that they have a strong chance of reeling the breakaway in during the remaining kilometres. He does not want Cavendish to expend unnecessary energy on the chase now and have nothing left for the sprint finish they hope to set up.

As things transpire, however, the victor and other medallists all emerge from the breakaway. The GB team’s attempts to control the peloton in the same manner that they did in the previous year’s World Championship, admittedly with a larger team, will prove ineffective. Other teams have learned from 2011 and know that if they work with the GB team to close down the gap to the breakaway, there is every chance that they will be helping set up Cavendish to add a gold medal to his World Champion’s Rainbow jersey. There is no cooperation today. While Millar’s seemed the right call to make, in retrospect it backfires on the team.

The point here is not to highlight the wrong decision made but two other factors. First, the autonomy of the cyclists on the road. The Olympics road race title was a long-term objective for GB cycling, one element in their Project Rainbow, which included the 2011 success. It involved several years of collaboration between coaches, administrators and riders from competing trade teams. Both events had Cavendish as their nominated leader – the sprinter the others were riding to protect and to position for the race’s finish – and Millar as the on-the-road captain. For all the planning and training, the riders have to respond to conditions and context on the day. Both the Worlds and the Olympics are races that do not allow for radio communication between team support cars and the riders. Trust therefore has to be placed in the experience and decision-making of those on the bikes, in particular the road captain.

Trust is the second factor to highlight. Cavendish’s trust in Millar is unwavering. While they have a history of competing against one another for their respective trade teams, with Millar working for one of Cavendish’s great rivals, Tyler Farrar, they have established a burgeoning friendship. This is a consequence not only of Project Rainbow and the occasional training ride in one another’s company, but also of shared experiences at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Millar is the elder rider who has experienced both the highs and lows of the sport, including a ban for doping. He is knowledgeable and experienced, nearing the end of his career, but still able to deliver moments of adventure and panache. He is not unlike some of the player-managers that enjoyed success in the top flights of football in the 1980s.

The road captain is most definitely not a position of command and control. There is a nurturing aspect to it. One founded on service of others; the team as a whole, the cyclists on the road, the directors in the team car, the protected rider for the day, the climber, the sprinter. Bernie Eisel is another close friend of Cavendish who has emerged as a natural road captain at the trade teams in which they have ridden together, including HTC Highroad and Team Sky. The supportive nature of his role is often hidden from the television cameras. As the action happens up the road on the high peaks, towards the back of the race, Eisel can be seen coaxing his sprinters up the long climbs. In 2012, he also was instrumental in organising the team on the road in support of Bradley Wiggins’s pursuit of the race leader’s yellow jersey in the Tour de France.

Bernhard Eisel

Bernie Eisel, road captain for Team Sky at the 2012 Tour de France

In other situations, the road captain, often themselves adept rouleurs, good time triallists and occasional one-day race contenders, assumes the role of teacher. They are tutor, guide and friend in a master-apprentice relationship with upcoming stars. This comes across strongly in Beatrice Bartelloni’s description of her friendship with and respect for two-time Road World Champion Giorgia Bronzini at the Wiggle-Honda women’s team. On other occasions, teams contract with grizzled veterans like Roger Hammond, Alessandro Petacchi, Juan Antonio Flecha, George Hincapie and Michael Rogers to take on leadership roles in support of riders who were formerly their competitors and peers. Petacchi’s role in support of Cavendish at Omega Pharma-Quick Step during the 2014 season is a case in point. At Team Katusha, in another example, Luca Paolini, still a hugely accomplished rider in his own right, uses his craft, experience and decision-making skills to enable sprinters like Alexander Kristoff and general classification contenders like Purito Rodríguez to achieve podium success.

What cycling illustrates constantly is that leadership can come from anywhere. At the heart of the peloton formations concept is the notion of fluidity; fluidity of organisational structure, as well as fluidity of roles and responsibilities. The road captain is not a hierarchical role but more an articulation of the knowledge and mastery that are necessary for success on the road. The role is taken on by different people on different days. Context is important, as is the individual’s relationship with the designated protected rider. The road captains mentioned here share a strength of character, conviction in their own decision-making, mutual trust with their teammates and a willingness to share their experience. They are great tacticians and excellent communicators.

As Millar’s Olympics story suggests, the road captains do not always get it right. Nevertheless, they invariably enjoy the loyalty of fellow riders and support staff for whatever decisions they make. This is not a blame game. Trust is all. This is built over time through shared experiences. Evidence that their on-the-road guidance to teammates can often make the difference between failure and success only serves to strengthen that trust. Reigning Commonwealth Games champion Lizzie Armitstead recently described the effect of her trade team road captain, Chantal Blaak, during the third stage of the 2015 Tour of Qatar. Blaak recognised the over-eagerness of her teammates, coaching them and keeping them calm, guiding as they organised themselves for the stage win. Her actions and encouragement of teammates helped secure the overall victory for Armitstead and the Boels-Dolmans team the following day.

Like a good project manager or internal consultant in the corporate world, the cycling road captain can lead from the front, from behind, from the side or from the shadows. They coach, mentor and enable others, serving as social connectors between riders on the road and the support teams behind the race. They are master craftsmen, big-picture thinkers who improvise strategy on the fly. They are decision-makers who unite teammates in common purpose, maintaining that unity through both failure and success. They are champions of the framework within which the team operates, the glue that holds the team together.

It is at once a position of great responsibility and total subservience, fulfilled by a shifting cast selected on a race-by-race basis both for their suitability for a given event and for their relationship to the rider that the team hopes will win it.
— Timothy John, ‘The Role of the Road Captain in Professional Cycling’

Riders who are willing to adapt and learn will succeed. All it takes is a bit of guidance that instils confidence … In races, we can’t control the unpredictable external pressures – the peloton, nervousness, our rivals, the wind – and they force our bodies and minds to adapt.
— Michael Barry, Shadows on the Road

There’s more than one type of professional cyclist. There are those who have the potential to win big, and there are those who may not ever get near a big win, but who still make themselves valued in the professional peloton.
— Tom Southam, ‘The Nearly Men’

The role of road captain demands so much more than talent: it is racing with the mind as well as the legs, calculating tens of tiny, ever-changing elements in the heat of battle. It is patience, experience, intuition, tactics, reading of tiny signs in yourself, your leader and your rivals, knowing the course, weather, racing instinct, nerve; even personality and comportment off the bike.
— Andy McGrath, ‘Luca Paolini’