10 Business Lessons you can learn from a Professional Cycling Team

 Cycling is booming in the UK, road cycling particularly following the success of Bradley Wiggins at the Tour de France in 2012.  The roads are busy with new bikes and men in lycra!  I write a popular road cycling blog after getting into the sport in 2008 and have been learning about it ever since.

One common misconception I initially had about professional cycle racing is that they all set off at the same time and race as individuals, with the strongest cyclist going over the line and winning the race.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Professional road cycling is a team sport.  Here’s a short post with some simple observations about how it all works with some business lessons thrown in: –

  1. They back a winner.  Bradley Wiggins was the nominated Team Sky rider to win the Tour de France before they had even turned a pedal. The entire race had been planned around him, training camps, team selection and race strategy.  What/who are the products/people in your business that you should over-invest in and build a team around?
  2. Every rider has a clear role/function.  Each brings something different to the party.  You can’t win the Tour de France without being backed by mountain specialists, riders with big engines to take the wind, and good all rounders.  Appreciate every member of your team if you want to get over the line and build teams with differing skills and attributes.
  3. Air resistance is key.  Cyclists hate wind, unless it is a tailwind!  All their technology from clothing, bike position and equipment is designed to reduce drag.  What are you doing to reduce drag in  your business?  When did you last overhaul how and why you do what you do to speed up?  A cycling team would be re-assessing/re-inventing pre, during and after race season.
  4. The only time a rider races as an individual is on a Time Trial.  This is the so called race of truth when there are no other riders to ride behind or ride with in a group.  This involves riding at a controlled heart rate, often high up in your heart rate zones to deliver power smoothly and in a measured way across a set distance.  This means that although are part of the team, you also need to deliver a good result when the spotlight turns on you individually.  Although you may have a brilliant team, you also need to ensure that you encourage specialism for those moments when you need individuals to perform against specific outcomes/tasks/projects.
  5. A road captain keeps his eye on changing tactics on the ground.  Although the team will have already planned their race, they need to adapt their tactics as the race unfolds.  The road captain will be keeping an eye on his own team mates aswell as feeding back intelligence to the team car and race directors about how other riders are performing. Like a market, conditions change rapidly and you have to be ready to adapt.  Make sure you have feedback mechanisms to get ‘real time’ feedback into the business which can be acted upon.  Who are your road captains in the market?
  6. The lighter and stronger you are, the faster you go up hills.  Successful climbers are normally very low in weight, but incredibly strong.  Their appearance can be deceiving.  Technology will take you so far, however your body weight and strength are key.  Consider whether you are carrying any excess weight in terms of process overhead, you need to be lean in conjunction with the right technology to compete in the market.
  7. Riding in groups is key.  Cyclists ride in large groups (pelotons) wherever possible.  By doing this, it can reduce effort needed by around 25%, with the wind rushing over the group as it breaks through the wind.  This takes incredible trust as they are riding inches away from each other at considerable pace as competitors.  If one rider makes a mistake, the whole group risks crashing.  An important lesson in trust here and putting your faith in others plus the importance of collaboration to achieve your end state.
  8. Every bike is set-up “inch-perfect” for the rider.  Everyone is different in terms of their shape and riding style, there isn’t a ‘one size fits all’.  Like an organisation, if you use a ‘one size fits all’  approach with people or customers, you’ll quickly become unstuck.  Modify communications methodologies to suit your market/audience.
  9. Marginal Gains.  Team Sky particulalry work on a methodology called “marginal gains” which aggregates tiny 1% improvements in everything, to add up into larger benefts when consolidated.  An example of this is shipping mattresses and pillows for each specific rider so they get a good nights sleep every night.  Great lesson here in excellence and continuous improvement.  The pillows is recognising that an off-bike improvment can dramatically affect on-bike performance.  What are the surrounding processes to primary functions in your organisation which could do with improving?
  10. Prize Money is Shared.  Given one rider is given such significant resources to be the person on the podium, it would be pretty gut wrenching to see him take all the benefits.  Prize money is generally shared out amongst the teams, including the back room staff to motivate/encourage a team ethic.  In a business, a salesperson is normally the equivalent person on the podium, make sure you search out all the backstage contributors and reward them too.