Peloton interview

In Summer 2014, I was interviewed by Stowe Boyd about the concept of peloton formations. This was a topic that I had started to explore earlier in the year in a series of blog posts. Stowe published the interview, based on an email exchange, on 26 July 2014. It appeared on the Gigaom Research site under the title ‘The New Visionaries: Richard Martin on the Peloton’. I am grateful to Stowe and Gigaom for permission to reproduce it here.

Richard Martin wrote a series of posts in which he characterized people working together productively as being like the bicycle racing phenomenon of the peloton: the main group of riders that conserve energy by riding close together.

Martin’s exposition owes a great deal to Dan Pontefract, who used the analogy in a post last year, but Martin has intertwingled it with Jon Husband’s wirearchy notion, and the thinking of other theorists and practitioners.

I thought I’d ask Richard some questions, and the interchange below is the result.

Team Sky in Control
[Photo credit: Sky in Control, Will Bakker, 2 June 2011]

Stowe Boyd: I think there is a great deal of depth in the metaphor of new way of work being like the peloton, which is the formation of cyclists in a road race. The cyclists ride in close formation because of the benefits in reducing drag, but of course different teams are trying to win the race even while benefiting from the aerodynamics of being in a pack.

Richard Martin: One of the things that unites the cycling peloton is common purpose. All the teams, all the riders, are trying to get from point A to point B on a designated course as safely and in the shortest amount of time possible. Additionally, day-by-day, in long stage races like the Tour de France, each team will have a slightly different objective. Some are aiming for the overall prize of the yellow jersey awarded to the rider who covers the entire course in the least amount of time. Others target the white jersey of the best young rider, the green jersey of the points classification leader or the polka-dot jersey of the mountain climber’s classification. The composition of their team may well reflect these particular goals. Others still may simply target a stage win on a specific day when the terrain and conditions suits their team or, more modestly, may hope for lengthy TV exposure for their corporate sponsors by getting one or more of their riders into the day’s breakaway.

Because of this mixture of goals, sometimes you will witness great examples of partnership, collaboration and cooperation between riders and different trade teams. There is also, of course, a lot of competition too. In the latter case, though, it might not just be people competing against one another but against the elements, the terrain or the clock. There is wonderful human drama in evidence in bicycle racing. There is also a lot of camaraderie and mutual respect that transcends the boundaries between trade or national teams. You can get a taste for this by following a few professional riders on Twitter.

In the context of the racing itself, it is evident on the days that the race routes head steeply upwards into mountainous terrain. While TV coverage focuses on the front end of the race, behind it the peloton fragments into many parts. Right at the back a gruppetto of riders forms, usually composed of the sprinters, the riders with bigger physiques, the cooked and the wounded. They work together regardless of team affiliation. Their goal is to arrive together as a single unit at the finish line within a time limit calculated on the basis of the stage winner’s finishing time. Another example of cross-team cooperation can be seen in the way breakaway riders work together to stay away from the peloton. It is only in the last kilometres of the stage when this cooperation gives way to competition again. The breakaway usually serves as the hare to the peloton’s greyhound. Occasionally, though, the hare eludes the hound – especially in cases when the cooperation between the breakaway group persists to within sight of the finish line.

From a business perspective, there is a lot to be said for this notion of common purpose that can help unite multiple divisions and project teams. But also for those willing to partner and cooperate with others, even those outside your own company. I recently read A. G. Lafley and Roger Martin’s Playing to Win. There are some good examples in it of when P&G realised they could create more value by partnering and cooperating with companies who were competitors in other fields. I think you witness evidence of this on a daily basis in the cycling peloton.

SB: On top of the manoeuvring of the teams against each other, there is a dynamic interplay among the members of a team, where they switch off in different roles, taking turns leading, sprinting and climbing. That seems to be in perfect alignment with the notion of fluid or emergent leadership: what I refer to as leanership. There has to be a lot of planning and communication for that to work, right?

RM: My thinking about this has been strongly influenced by Jon Husband and his concept of wirearchy. Jon defines wirearchy as: ‘a dynamic, two-way flow of power and authority, based on knowledge, trust, credibility and a focus on results, enabled by interconnected people and technology.’ What intrigues me about Jon’s concept is that he is not denying the existence of a hierarchy, but he recognises that this has shifted from a pyramid to a network model. Do any network analysis, and you will identify nodes of influence and authority. These do not recognise the stripes on the arm or the job titles that we associate with military-industrial ideas about hierarchy. These influential nodes are also in a constant state of flux. Leadership roles may be defined, as in more traditional notions of hierarchy, but what is different here is that people move fluidly to and from these roles, dependent on context and circumstance. So, as I work on multiple projects for my employer, in one situation I may be the leader, in another I will follow someone else’s lead, and in yet another I may be acting more in a consultancy capacity, providing specialist subject matter expertise.

You certainly observe this fluidity of roles and leadership responsibilities in the cycling team. This can be determined by a number of factors: terrain on the day, weather conditions, the form of the rider, experience. Even on the day itself leadership responsibilities will shift as the race progresses. Usually teams will have a road captain. In most cases this is not the team’s main sprinter or climber but one of the support riders or domestiques. This individual will be liaising with the directeur sportif via radios or visits to the team car, but there will also be a high degree of autonomy for the other riders, with each of them responding to what they see around them, assessing risks, seizing opportunities.

Some teams are built around sprinters who come into their own on flatter stages. Sprint trains form in front of the sprinter, with a line of riders following closely on one another’s wheel. The front rider punches a hole through the air, takes the wind resistance, and their colleagues ride in their slipstream. When they peel off another comes to the front, and so on until, with about 300m to go, the sprinter comes to the fore. All along, they will have been calling our instructions and encouragement from the rear of the sprint train. On mountainous days, the team puts themselves in service of their climber, who also, if they can time trial too, is often their contender for the overall general classification. The team members aim to deliver their leader to the foothills of the day’s final climb in the leading group so that they are in a position to compete for the stage victory or minimise the loss of time to their main rivals.

Cycling, in this sense, is infused with the idea of servant leadership. I think there were a couple of great examples of this from Team Sky at the 2012 Tour de France. Often we would see television images of Mark Cavendish, adorned in the rainbow stripes of the reigning world champion, ferrying water from the team car to his teammates. This, bear in mind, was the world’s dominant sprinter at the time, who was putting personal ambitions on hold in support of the team’s overall objective: securing the yellow jersey for Bradley Wiggins. On the final stage of the same race, with Wiggins’s and the team’s victory assured, we then witnessed a role reversal. The final stage is an iconic race for sprinters, one that Cavendish had won each of the previous three years. There in his sprint train, in service of Cavendish and his goal, was Wiggins leading out his friend and teammate.

As for planning, there is certainly a lot of work done. Many teams will visit certain climbs and stage finishes well in advance of the grand tours. On race day itself, they will send former road racing professionals ahead to check conditions (both of the road and the weather) and to communicate their findings back to the team car and the riders. British cycling coach Rod Ellingworth has written an illuminating book called Project Rainbow. It describes the collaborative work of backroom staff, coaches and riders in planning for the 2011 men’s world road race championships and for the 2012 Olympic Games race. For the GB team, their aim of securing bunch sprint finishes for Cavendish earned victory in the 2011 world championships and nothing at all at his home Olympics. The team rode strongly on both occasions, but others had learned how to counteract their tactics by the time of the latter race.

What emerges in bike racing are loose frameworks rather than detailed plans. This is not racing by remote control. It involves decision making at the edges as well as in team management. Not all variables can be accounted for, and riders need to be able to respond to what they see before them. This is well illustrated in a video exploring Team Garmin Sharp’s targeting of stage 9 of the 2013 Tour de France. Dave Brailsford, one of the leaders behind the recent success of British Cycling and Team Sky, is interviewed in Richard Hytner’s recent book, Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows. He makes an interesting observation: ‘My approach is as an orchestra conductor, with an absolute recognition that the most important people in our world are the people who win and they’re the riders.’ Brailsford and colleagues can select the nine-man team for the Tour, but then they have to get out of the way and trust the instincts, expertise and experience of the riders on each day of racing.

SB: You’ve written about the various roles in a cycling team, and how these roles are similar to archetypes in the new way of work. The climber, for example, has attributes of a driven, high energy visionary. Perhaps you could give a short explanation of the other roles?

RM: When they step into their leadership roles on the flatter ground, sprinters are great salesmen. I mean this in the sense intended by Dan Pink in To Sell is Human. They sell ideas, galvanising their teammates, getting them to believe in their objective for the day, building common purpose, and inspiring them to invest effort in delivering them to the finish line, where they will complete the job. It is notable that the first action of the highly successful sprinters like Mark Cavendish, André Greipel and Marcel Kittel is that they greet their colleagues at the finish line to thank them for their efforts. There is also a commercial aspect to the sprinter’s salesmanship. They are often great communicators, comfortable in front of the media cameras and microphones. Their job is to cross the finish line, arms in the air, displaying the names and logos of their corporate sponsors. They are mobile, high velocity advertising hoardings.

Rouleurs are strong riders, adept in rolling terrain, time trials, sprint trains and chasing down breakaways. These are team people whose primary role is service of others, assuming domestique functions. I liken them to the internal service roles in corporations, the people in finance, facilities, HR, IT, learning and development and KM departments. Occasionally they are set free to pursue personal goals, getting into breakaways, winning time trials. This is not unlike the occasions when somebody from a support function takes on a leadership or specialist expert role in a corporate project.

Baroudeurs are among my favourite riders. These are the change agents, the chancers and experimenters. They constantly challenge the status quo, making things up as they go along, taking risks, testing their colleagues in the peloton. There was a great example of this in Tuesday’s Tour de France stage this week. A strong group of baroudeurs – people who can climb but not overall contenders for the Tour win – had formed an impressive breakaway. As they hit the final climb they began challenging one another, comfortable in the knowledge that one of their number would win the stage. Two riders from Team Europcar were working together, taking it turns to attack. They could not shake loose Michael Rogers from Team Tinkoff Saxo, though, and in the end he chose his moment to attack and just rode away from them. His post race interview was brilliant, demonstrating a cool, calculating mind, mental fortitude, a tolerance of risk and an acceptance of possible failure. If you do not try things out, how will you learn if they are going to work or not?

That covers the riders, but we must not forget that a role is also played by the tour organisers, the local government for the towns that play host to the start and end of each stage, the police, the backroom staff for each team, the directeurs sportifs, and the riders’ coaches, not to mention the crowds that line the route. These are the policy makers, the regulators, the landlords, the suppliers and customers that are all involved to varying degrees in a company’s business.

SB: It’s the fluidity and near flight of the peloton that makes it such an inspiring image. In one of your pieces you call it ‘humankind’s answer to the murmuration of starlings’. How can we transcend the poetic and aspiration of the peloton into concrete learning for the business, today?

RM: The reason I am so drawn to the metaphor of the cycling peloton as a model for organisational structure is because it is suggestive of responsiveness, fluidity, agility and adaptiveness. I like the idea of small pods or teams loosely joined, which respond and cater to their customer needs. This can mean the rapid forming, disbanding and reshaping of teams to deliver different projects. These can extend beyond organisational boundaries too, suggesting the permeability of the modern, responsive company. A project team can be comprised of your own employees working in partnership with people not on your payroll. It can include your customers and suppliers too.

The other thing I take away from bike racing is this idea of multiple systems being interdependent on one another. On any given day you could have a route that covers 200-plus kilometres, travelling through numerous towns and cities, over railway crossings, bridges and roundabouts. Agreements have to be drawn up with these communities, crowd control needs to be put in place, and the roads closed for a period of time. Then there is all the infrastructure of the race itself, the catering vehicles, publicity caravan, the media, the gendarmerie, the team cars and support vehicles. There are the huge crowds too, who on mountainous stages will be spilling on to the road, and who have to be trusted not to interfere with the riders as they pass by. On top of all that there are the meteorological conditions and the state of the roads to be traversed too. A huge spaghetti soup of complex interlocking systems. No one of these systems can be treated in isolation. Just like the different systems that shape and inform the operation of any other business.

I get frustrated when I hear people talking about work as an ecosystem operating in splendid isolation from everything else – government policy, financial markets, customer needs. As a counter argument I’m inclined to use an example that affected me earlier this year: we experienced heavy rainfall in Kent where I live. When the rain stopped our streets were lightly dusted with sand from the Saharan desert. What a great example of how different ecosystems connect and are dependent on one another.

Richard’s expansion of Pontefract’s peloton metaphor is rich and illuminating. The interplay between different roles in the teams is captivating, and so is the manner in which individuals lead at the front – to break the air for the peloton and their teammates in it – and then fall back into the pack as another – often a competitor – presses forward to take a turn at the front.

Martin draws our attention to the image of ‘small teams, loosely joined’ – an allusion to David Weinberger’s Small Pieces Loosely Joined, I’m sure. I’ve written on the distinction between different social scales, and the way that the interplay differs in small sets of people – networks of a few or a handful of people – versus the louder and less intimate interactions of social scenes, where dozens or hundreds may be connected.
I’ve made the claim that we live our work lives in our sets, although businesses may want to treat us as scenes, thinking that it is easier and more efficient. But we are more at home and at ease when working as a sprinter or climber on a team, jostling for position in the peloton, signalling and pushing the team ahead, one of the loosely joined.

Race day

Just that one man is empty
and done with listening to others; and another
finally found a way to speak, to say
all the things he wanted, dumb for years.
— James Sallis, ‘Nine Below Zero’

Throw me in a landfill
Don’t think about the consequences
Throw me in the dirt pit
Don’t think about the choices that you make
Throw me in the water
Don’t think about the splash I will create
— Daughter, ‘Landfill’

When the spirits are low, when the day appears dark, when work becomes monotonous, when hope hardly seems worth having, just mount a bicycle and go out for a spin down the road, without thought on anything but the ride you are taking.
— Arthur Conan Doyle quoted in an 1896 edition of Scientific American

July 2013. Stage 9 of the Tour de France is under way. It is a challenging, mountainous stage from Saint-Girons to Bagnères-de-Bigorre, taking in a number of Pyrenéen cols. Chris Froome is already in the leader’s yellow jersey, and Team Sky’s role is to protect and consolidate his lead. Teammate Richie Porte is second on the general classification at the start of the day. But lurking behind them are a number of dangerous riders, including Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana from Movistar, Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam from Belkin Pro Cycling, and Alberto Contador and Roman Kreuziger from Saxo-Tinkoff. Team Sky, who put in a dominant mountain display the previous day on stage 8, are about to be seriously tested, prompting Froome at day’s end to observe that it has been one of the hardest days he has ever experienced on a bike.

Teams enter stage races with different goals. Some target overall victory, others solo or team time trials. Some are sprint specialists, while others are on the look out for opportunistic stage victories, putting riders into breakaways. Choices are determined by the composition of their teams, the route chosen by the race organisers, the weather conditions on certain days, the health of riders during the course of the race, and, naturally, race plans devised by the backroom team in collaboration with the cyclists. A well-documented example of the latter, covered in Rod Ellingworth’s book, Project Rainbow, is the extensive planning the British Cycling team put into the winning the Men’s UCI Road World Championships in Copenhagen in 2011. Stage 9 of the 2013 Tour was to see a different example of unconventional ideas getting beautifully executed by a team.

Dan Martin of Garmin Sharp lies in thirteen place on the general classification at the start of the day’s stage, some 2 minutes 48 seconds behind Froome. He has lost most of that time on the previous day’s stage as Froome and his Team Sky colleagues delivered a tour de force securing victory atop Ax 3 Domaines. Martin’s team has narrowly missed out on securing the leader’s yellow jersey on the opening stage of the Tour. They have also failed to achieve one of their pre-race objectives: winning the team time trial on stage 4. Their focus now shifts to a more disruptive, high-risk goal. Operating within a loose framework, informed by data analysis, but with decision-making delegated to the directeur sportif in the team car, as well as the riders on the road, they opt to do away with cycling tradition and attack the race as a collective.

This is a challenge to the status quo; change agency in action. As a team, in only the ninth stage of a 21-stage event, they are prepared to sacrifice riders and harm their chances of placing well in the overall race. Instead they adopt an all-or-nothing strategy, placing their trust in Martin, their designated leader and protected rider for the day. As the peloton climbs one col after another, the Garmin Sharp team attacks in waves, until Martin recognises an opportunity and launches an attack of his own. Even then, having traversed 169km and climbed five categorised cols, he will still need to beat Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) in a two-up sprint finish into Bagnères-de-Bigorre. By the end of the day Martin has raced into the top ten on the general classification. In the process, while not dislodging Froome from the race lead, Martin and his colleagues have exposed Team Sky’s vulnerabilities. Porte’s chances of finishing on the podium now lie in tatters.

Tour de France 2014 spectator hub
[Photo credit: Tour de France at London’s Olympic Park, Richard Martin, July 2014]

Martin’s victory, though, is not so much the product of team tactics, as of a number of interdependent factors that favoured them on the day. Certainly team spirit and common purpose are both features, as are Martin’s own intuition, decision-making and athletic capability. But so too are the route chosen for the stage, the favourable weather conditions, the temporary dip in form of the Sky team, the concerted effort of other teams, especially Movistar, to take the race to Team Sky, and the early isolation of Froome himself. Serendipity and luck play their role too. These are not things you can plan for. Indeed, the racing aggression and risk taking displayed by Garmin Sharp and Movistar, in comparison with Team Sky’s more conservative approach on the day, illustrate the misguidedness of conventional planning. As Ian Sanders and David Sloly argue in Mash-up!, ‘Most plans are rubbish, written by people who are guessing the future based on what has happened in the past. The past is exactly that, the past; it has gone, and even though it has a habit of repeating it can’t be used as an absolute map for the future.’

Grand Tour bike races are great examples of the interconnectedness of multiple systems. That applies within the context of the race itself and the actions of the cyclists, as demonstrated by Martin and his fellow members of the peloton. More broadly, it also applies to the organisation of the races and their impact on the numerous communities that host the start and finish of each stage, as well as those that lie on the day’s route. This was really brought home to me yesterday as I stood by the roadside next to London’s Olympic Park as stage 3 of the 2014 edition of the Tour came to town. Everywhere was evidence of the Tour organisers’ collaboration with British counterparts. Different bodies had been mobilised, including Transport for London, the British police force and the French gendarmerie. Roads were closed. Crowds controlled. The media flitted in and out of the race on motorbikes or hovered above it in helicopters. The cyclists were preceded by the commercial excesses and blaring Euro pop of the Tour caravan, as well as by VIP vehicles, press cars and police outriders. Then in among the cyclists and bringing up the rear were race officials, team cars, cameramen. It was fluid, chaotic, agile and speedy. Elsewhere team coaches and other vehicles carrying support staff, chefs, soigneurs and mechanics were heading into central London. Yet other systems came into play too, not least the weather, which turned from sunshine to rain as the riders headed towards the finish line on the Mall.

Cycling history is littered with stories of the impact of inclement weather, notably, in recent memory, the snow-affected Milan-San Remo race of 2013. Then there is the rogue or simply vacant element in the roadside crowds, such as the tack droppers who attempted to sabotage the 2012 Tour and the selfie-photographers that lined the Yorkshire roads in 2014. There are also numerous tales of the role railway level crossings have played in proceedings, holding cyclists up as others, who managed to get over the crossings before the barriers came down, race away to victory. It is a sport that demonstrates that everything connects. A sport steeped in and interwoven with politics and media throughout its history, with both the Tour and the Giro d’Italia originally conceived to sell newspapers.

It is this very interconnectedness, this interplay of multiple systems, that reinforces my belief in the peloton formation as an apt metaphor for a modern, agile, adaptive and responsive organisation. One that has to operate under loose frameworks, tolerating risk, constrained by Government and regulatory policy, responding to shifting market conditions, seeking to evolve, transform, succeed, survive.

Well I think in a lot of organisations we actually create quite a muddy picture of the goals and priorities that we have got. I think in all organisations we can be much clearer about the strategy, what it is we are trying to achieve, to get buy in to that, to be absolutely sure about the roles and responsibilities that individuals play in reaching those goals. Unless people have a shared set of goals that they can identify with and they are getting constant feedback that they are moving towards those goals or moving away from those goals, then they are not going to achieve them. So I think we can all learn something from really discussing the goals amongst the stakeholders involved and really ensuring that there is some clarity.
— David Denyer, ‘Leadership Lessons from British Cycling’

Using vivid storytelling techniques, including themes, symbols, imagery, rituals, mantras and metaphor, and bringing them to life with imagination and flair, leaders create a sense of inclusion, connectedness and unity – a truly collective, collaborative mindset. It begins by asking Why? Why are we doing this? Why am I sacrificing myself for this project? What is the higher purpose?
— James Kerr, Legacy

Systems thinking bridges these two approaches by using both analysis and synthesis to create knowledge and understanding and integrating an ethical perspective. Analysis answers the ‘what’ and ‘how’ questions while synthesis answers the ‘why’ and ‘what for’ questions. By combining analysis and synthesis, systems thinking creates a rich inquiring platform.
— Kathia C. Laszlo, ‘From Systems Thinking to Systems Being’

 

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
[Photo: 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

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
[Photo: 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

The climber

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
— T. S. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’

Where do we go from here?
The words are coming out all weird
Where are you now, when I need you
— Radiohead, ‘The Bends’

Everybody going and I want to go too
Don’t wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could, I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed, no need to confess again
— Bob Dylan, ‘Thunder on the Mountain’

It is a damp and miserable March day on the island of Corsica. The third and final stage of the Critérium International 2013 is building to a conclusion. The peloton began the day in Porto-Vecchio and are now on the lower slopes of the Col de l’Ospedale. Richie Porte (Team Sky) wears the race leader’s yellow jersey having won the previous day’s time trial and safely negotiated the opening stage bunch sprint. His friend and teammate, Chris Froome, is fourth in the overall standings. Froome is the designated leader of Team Sky for this race, building and testing his form prior to the Tour de France later in the Summer for which he will be one of the favourites. The mountains are the territory in which he comes into his own. As the road begins to ramp up, it is likely that today’s stage will enjoy an explosive finish – if Sky can successfully implement their race plan.

One by one Joe Dombrowski, Jon Tiernan-Locke, Xabi Zandio and Kanstantsin Siutsou put in efforts that help control the peloton and limit the number of escapees, before themselves slipping back into the ranks. There follows a huge turn at the front by Vasil Kiryienka, stretching out and fragmenting the bunch, leading it into the foothills of the day’s final climb. By the time Froome floats to the front, there is only a select group of riders, all accomplished climbers, left chasing the last of the escapees. Froome puts in a dig and Porte stays back allowing his teammate to build a gap between himself and the group. Froome checks over his shoulder then accelerates away. Within moments he has caught and overtaken Johann Tschopp (IAM Cycling), towing Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) with him. He pauses, assesses the condition of the other two riders then dances on the pedals again. Neither Tschopp nor Péraud can stay with him. Back down the road Porte bides his time, not leading the chase but monitoring the actions of those remaining in the group.

With 2km remaining, Froome has established an unassailable lead. It is at this point that Porte launches an attack of his own, catching and leaving all those who were chasing Froome. Sky have executed their plan to perfection, catapulting Froome to overall victory and enjoying first and second placings with Froome and Porte on both the day’s stage and the general classification. This will serve as a platform for greater things later in the season, with Froome going on to win the Tour de Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné and, the ultimate prize, the yellow jersey of the Tour de France. Common purpose, a shared vision, planning, practice and the magic dust of the climber freed from constraint will all contribute to this second successive season of stage racing accomplishment for Team Sky.

Chris Froome climbs Mont Ventoux
[Photo: Chris Froome rounds the final bend en route to stage victory atop Mont Ventoux in the 2013 Tour de France]

As we continue our exploration of the peloton metaphor, then, it is to the climber that we now turn. This is the individual around whom myth and fable hang like a cloak. The nicknames acquired by these giants of the road speak volumes: The Angel of the Mountains (Charly Gaul), The Eagle of Toledo (Federico Bahamontes), Il Campionissimo (Fausto Coppi), The Cannibal (Eddy Merckx, who was in truth the master of all terrains and all road cycling disciplines), The Badger (Bernard Hinault, another accomplished all-rounder) and the drug-addled but nevertheless mesmerising Il Pirata (Marco Pantani). The stories that swirl around them speak of immense feats, defiance of the natural order, resistance of gravity and overreaching to the point of personal destruction. It is the stuff of comic books; dreams made reality, visions made manifest. These are people set apart from their companions in the peloton. As Paul Fournel puts it in Vélo:

From the first accelerations on the early slopes of a col, the peloton splits and transforms itself into a contest of grimaces and every man for himself. The climber dances, plays with the slopes and the hairpins, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing. Whereas the average cyclist opens his mouth wide and looks for a steady pace as protection against deadly accelerations, the climber takes up the pace of his kind and casts stones before taking off for good. Setting off at high speed, the small motor of the climber doesn’t seem to suffer from the lack of oxygen of Alpine altitudes. The climber hides a big secret in his little torso.

There is a great, perhaps apocryphal, tale about Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes racing ahead of the peloton up the climb of the Col de Romeyère in the 1954 Tour de France. The first to reach the summit, many minutes ahead of the next rider, he then wheeled his bike over to a metal cart and stopped to eat an ice cream. Bahamontes then bided his time waiting for his competitors to catch up. As a metaphor, I love this. The visionary trail blazer, showing the way, striking out ahead, leading his people to the summit. Then waiting for them to follow, in their own way, learning much about their personal abilities and potential. When the descent begins, he is happy for others to take the lead, following the wheels of fellow riders, reintegrating himself into the pack, seeking the protection and nurture of his teammates, who will again follow his lead when the next slopes are attained.

When I think of both the apparent physical delicacy, the single-minded vision, strong will and purpose of the climber, I cannot help but draw analogies with similarly driven business leaders like the late Steve Jobs or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Pixar’s Ed Catmull. Such people seem to be able to see things that many of us cannot even imagine until we suddenly find that we have been led there. Think the iPhone. Think the iPad. Think different. While we’re coming to terms with yesterday’s ideas, technology, entertainment and working practices, they’re busy laying the foundations for new cathedrals, building the future for our grandchildren to enjoy. They’re planting a flag on the summit, while we’re back with the gruppetto in the foothills.

Every company needs a climber. Someone to paint a vision of the future, forcing us to reach for the ineffable. Their energy and drive is what keeps entropy at bay.
You cannot tell a flower to grow, but you can provide the environment for it to bloom.
— Faisal Hoque and Drake Baer, Everything Connects

Yes, how many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
— Bob Dylan, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’

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.

Moronic by Hugh MacLeod
[Picture credit: Moronic by Hugh MacLeod. 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. The workplace baroudeur is the one likely to challenge the status quo, to seek out new ways of doing things, to experiment and play, 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