What counts?

clarifying the whole grammar of waiting
not removing one question from the air
— W. S. Merwin, ‘A Codex’

Because I can no longer raise
the questions,
because I cannot support
truth or its widower’s eyes,
now I will be flame,
the young man says.
— James Sallis, ‘Memory’s Empire’

A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity.
— Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

There are many men adept in those diverse disciplines, but few capable of imagination – fewer still capable of subordinating imagination to a rigorous and systematic plan. The plan is so vast that the contribution of each writer is infinitesimal.
— Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’

On 4 July 2009, as a belated 40th birthday present, I visited the Tour de France for the first time. This consolidated a fascination with the professional sport that had been further piqued in April by standing at the roadside (and then in the velodrome) for that year’s edition of the one-day classic Paris-Roubaix. As I walked the streets alongside Monaco’s Port Hercules and up into Monte Carlo in oppressive heat and cloying humidity, I watched riders from the different trade teams warm up and inspect the course for the time trial that would launch the great event. Proximity to the athletes and support staff, together with the atmosphere and anticipation among the fans, was a heady mix. I was smitten.

Elsewhere in Monaco the latest pages in the first chapter of another story were being written. This was one that would buttress and intertwine with my appreciation of professional cycling and my borrowing from it for the notion of peloton formations and the exploration of responsive, adaptive organisations. Behind the scenes the then performance director of British Cycling, Dave Brailsford, was in negotiations to establish a new professional men’s road racing team for the following season: Team Sky. Everything about the team, from its initial launch, its openness to and advocacy of new practices, its bucking of tradition, have tended to divide opinion since its black-clad riders first appeared in the peloton during the 2010 season. For some, Team Sky is viewed as an interloper, an undesired change agent. Its failures are celebrated just as vociferously in certain quarters as its successes are lauded in others.

Of course, there is no right answer. The story of Team Sky is a story of both/and not either/or. Sky serves as a bridge from the past to the present: a new team combining youth and experience; clean riders and a backroom team tainted in part by cycling’s doping past; established professional racing practices blended with new techniques related to training (of both body and mind), performance assessment, nutrition, an individual’s race schedule, clothing, sleeping habits, adoption of information technology and use of big data. You can walk around the story of Team Sky over the past five years and constantly reframe, adopt a different perspective, find an angle that suits either diatribe or eulogy. There is evidence of naivety and misplaced confidence just as there are many examples of innovation and unprecedented success. It is the story of a start-up taking on and then rapidly becoming part of the establishment. No different, really, than the story of a Google or a Facebook.

One of the factors that informs the culture and operation of Team Sky is the notion of continuous improvement. Brailsford has absorbed ideas from kaizen and from other sports, notably Manchester United’s treble in 1999, England’s success at the 2003 rugby world cup and the Oakland Athletics’ Moneyball story in baseball. He has coined the phrase ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’, which is all about making infinitesimal improvements across a broad range of things rather than a huge advance in a single thing. It echoes Clive Woodward’s argument that success often is ‘not about doing one thing 100% better, but about doing 100 things 1% better’. As Daniel Friebe argues in his article ‘Cyclonomics’, Brailsford’s fascination with Moneyball reflects a shared interest in data and what can be learned from it. It proved to be a contributing factor in an unprecedented run of Olympic and World Championship success for British track cycling under his leadership. Lessons learned also were adapted for and absorbed by his road cycling programmes too, first with the British Cycling Academy and then with Team Sky. It eventually led to close partnerships with the likes of Matt Parker and Tim Kerrison, the latter one of the architects of Tour de France triumphs for both Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome in 2013.

Grand Départ – Monaco

Grand Départ, Richard Martin, July 2009

Like many sports, cycling has always been one filled with data and statistics. It includes time measurements within each stage, aggregated time assessed over stage races, and points systems for certain jerseys. More recently, a rolling points system has been established by the UCI, the sport’s governing body, that assigns a quantified value to individual riders and can impact on the licensing of the trade teams for which they ride as well as the size of their national teams at competitive events. It is a sport in which numbers matter. As with any workplace, performance assessment is in place and it can affect individual, as well as team, behaviour. Brailsford appears to have introduced another dimension too, which others have been quick to copy. For example, the biological passports and long-term performance data of athletes were assessed prior to some of the early signings for Team Sky. With Kerrison in place now, the collection and assessment of training data is constant too, as the team seeks to understand where an athlete’s tolerance threshold is, helping them determine the correct pace for climbing a given mountain or closing the gap to a breakaway. Some of the riders now seem to find it difficult to tear their eyes away from their power meters as they hit the peaks of the grand tours.

A recent Guardian interview with Brailsford by Sean Ingle suggests that there is much more to follow. Brailsford has spent time in Silicon Valley assessing new technologies and how they might support rider performance and health, continuous improvement and effective decision making. Sensors in clothing, for example, have the potential to provide a dashboard of rider health information, real-time data that can impact on who should lead on a given day, who should attack the peloton and when, and so on. There is a danger that the riding then becomes robotic, remote controlled from team cars. It is a criticism already levelled, perhaps unfairly, at Team Sky and others in the peloton, particularly in those races in which radio contact between riders and sporting directors is permitted. It is a criticism that tends to ignore the level of autonomy the riders themselves have. It is not all about numbers or radios.

There are many riders in the peloton who are not quantified serfs. Like the corporate employees who rebel against the calibration process that accompanies the annual review, there are prominent athletes like Mark Cavendish who mount a numeric challenge. It is well known that Cavendish performs dreadfully on the static testing equipment that generates assessment metrics. Thankfully, his abilities on the road, his capabilities among the peloton and his strength of purpose were all recognised early in his career and this overrode the story the numbers told. As a consequence space was made for the qualified self. One of the most successful careers in road cycling sprinting followed. Numbers do lie. We should not always be in thrall to them. Brailsford himself is one of the first to observe that data or technology will not themselves give riders an edge. It is the application of these things, their enabling potential, that matters together with the athlete’s own talent, the mastery of their discipline, their decision making and autonomy within the context of a loose framework.

This was brilliantly illustrated at the 2015 edition of the one-day race Omloop Het Nieuwsblad. Another example where the story suggested by numbers was turned on its head. Riding for Team Sky, Ian Stannard was the reigning champion from 2014. Through smart riding and great awareness, he had managed to manoeuvre himself into the decisive breakaway in the final kilometres of the race. There was one problem, however: a significant numeric disadvantage. The three other riders in the breakaway all belonged to the same team, Etixx-QuickStep, specialists in the north European races over the cobblestones. Among their number were Stijn Vandenbergh, Niki Terpstra, winner of the 2014 edition of Paris-Roubaix, and Tom Boonen a serial winner of one-day classics and one of the most successful cobblestone riders of the past decade. This, however, was a race without radios, the breakaway’s bubble punctured by occasional visits by team cars to the front of the race. In other respects the riders were on their own and had to self-organise. The Etixx decision making proved to be flawed, and Stannard, through a combination of his own skill, mental fortitude, physical strength and canniness was able to outwit his companions and win the event. It was a demonstration of talent and autonomy. Evidence that the riders selected to represent the team will always outweigh any interest in data or technology. People first. Always.

After a far-from-perfect season in 2014, Team Sky’s dual emphasis on both its people and its drive for continuous improvement is already bearing substantial fruit, of which Stannard’s solo efforts are just one example. Elsewhere Chris Froome and his teammates overcame the challenge of Alberto Contador to win the Ruta del Sol, Geraint Thomas claimed overall victory in the Volta ao Algarve stage race and Richie Porte prevailed after eight days of Paris-Nice. Cycling is a team sport where individuals win, one person stepping onto a podium representing the networked efforts of teammates on the road and the support team of directors, coaches, chefs, psychologists and data analysts which orbit them. The marginal gains have effectively blended training methods, professional mastery across a spectrum of disciplines, a balance between quality and quantification, planning within broad frameworks, the adoption and application of appropriate technology, and trust placed in the ability and decision making of the athletes on the bikes.

So, what counts? Certainly not just the numbers. As with the operation of any organisation, from small-scale cycling team to huge corporation, the people matter above all else. They flourish in the right environment, with a supportive culture, enabling technology, common purpose, freedom to express their professional mastery, and autonomy to respond and adapt to context. Cycling is a fascinating mix of human endeavour, mechanisation and technological advancement. The way each element is harnessed to achieve objectives is crucial to the concept of peloton formations and its broader application to business.

The scientific part comes, for me, before the race, in terms of my position, training and looking at the course. But once you have the strategy, you just go out there and give it everything.
— Steve Cummings quoted by Colin O’Brien in ‘The Art of Time Trialling’

Dave Brailsford had famously coined the phrase ‘aggregation of marginal gains’, and there was some of that in here, but really all we were doing was aggregating a lot of common sense and mixing in some passion, determination and a bit of camaraderie.
— Mark Cavendish, At Speed

Here, what paid off was the way the riders had been trained to think for themselves during the race, to communicate and to be honest.
— Rod Ellingworth, Project Rainbow

In a race, you don’t have five seconds to think about things. You make a decision in an instant. You feel it.
— Johann Museeuw quoted by Harry Pearson in ‘Last of the Flandrians’

A racer’s life is the constant pursuit of a goal. To push ourselves to extremes we are always looking beyond the present. Our bodies move in the moment, but our minds are two steps ahead … During the races we are constantly counting down our lives. Our cyclocomputers tell us how many kilometres we have covered, so we calculate how many are left. The directeurs remind us over the race radio how many kilometres there are until a climb, a corner, a windy section, an intermediate sprint, a town, and the finish. The markers are both tactical and psychological … Along the way we tick boxes as objectives and targets are achieved. We are constantly working towards improvements, setting greater goals once we have achieved the first ones and recalibrating after missing others.
— Michael Barry, Shadows on the Road