Cycling Insights – lessons from business leaders

This was first published in the Huffington Post on 14th July 2014.

I looked at my beer glass, relishing the ‘Ice cold in Alex’ moment having just cycled 565km from Paris to Geneva in 2.5 days. I listened to the banter and laughter of my fellow cyclists – mostly a group of senior business executives from some of the world’s best known companies.

Whilst watching the condensation bead on the outside of my beer glass the thought struck me – almost everything on the link between sport and business draws links from elite athletic performance to business. But these were business people participating in a sports event. How did they interpret the link between sports and business from the perspective of being an elite business person training for and participating in an ultra distance bike ride?

I set up an online survey and invited them to comment. I found their analysis compelling and thought provoking. Here are just a few of the many insights provided.

Profit and cash

The President for some of the largest markets of one of the world’s biggest automotive manufacturers picked up on the importance of understanding inputs in cycling as well as in business. Too often, in his view, people focus on profit and cash as if they are the activity in themselves rather than the outcome of well executed strategies and activities, just as in the same way cyclists focus on average speed.

This lesson was brought home to him from the cycle ride where much emphasis was placed by the ride leader on controlling effort as measured by heart rate and in managing energy and fluid consumed in order to ensure a sustainable performance. The outcome of carefully managing these factors contributed to a good overall average speed. However, on it’s own, average speed, like profit, is to an extent uncontrollable. Weather, terrain, wind direction can all impact on speed and there is little that can be done about these things. Just as in business the economic climate and political decisions can impact profitability. The key is ‘controlling the controllables’ – focussing on those inputs that will deliver the outcome sought whether that be profit or speed.

Delegation means neither abdication nor losing control

The leader of the group at one point was juggling information coming into his ear from the team radio about some riders who had taken a wrong turn and at the same time his phone was ringing with information from the team in the support vehicle as he was trying to check on the GPS on his bike that we were heading in the right direction (this was in addition to pedalling, changing gear and negotiating the traffic). It was too much and he realised this. So he passed on radio duties to another rider and eventually passed on the navigation role too. This left him considerably freer to focus on the overall management of the ride. It worked. The reduction in stress he felt was palpable.

As one of the riders pointed out this was a great reminder of the importance as leader of creating the space to think about the broader picture by delegating but without losing overall control. The lesson was about making sure you have the bandwidth to deal with the big picture by identifying all those things that could be done by others and letting them get on and do it. Having delegated responsibility to other riders, initially there was a lot of feedback as to what was happening but overtime, as confidence grew, less feedback was required. This observation raised some interesting observations about ‘followership’ as well as ‘leadership’.

Planned spontaneity

For everyone in the group, the quality of the planning was key to the success of the ride.  The riders were supported with a vehicle that carried their luggage. It also carried food and water and bike spares for use during the ride. Everyone was clear that there is no substitute for great planning and efficient execution of that plan. Several people picked up on the adaptability of the plan in the face of events without any fuss or difficulty, for example, the ability to be able to respond to a rider having difficulties without compromising the support for everyone else. On several other occasions a mechanical problem meant the support vehicle had to double back to enable the problem to be fixed, requiring the original support plan to be adapted to suit the changed circumstances. Because the purpose of the support vehicle was clear and the goal of the ride transparent, it was a relatively easy process to decide what change to the plan was appropriate. It was this clarity of purpose and a clear goal that most resonated for those from a business environment.

Riding the wave of euphoria

The banter at the celebration meal inevitably ended up discussing the next challenge. People were flying high on the success of having achieved what for almost all was a significant and demanding challenge. Within three days of the end of the trip another challenge had been circulated. Just as this year’s challenge was a bit harder than the previous challenge, the next planned ride steps the level of challenge up again. Within hours everyone had signed up. In so doing, they had signed up for the ride and more significantly another 12 months of preparation.

The power of this was not lost on many. By creating a successful experience people had volunteered for considerable further hard work, inconvenience and the pressure of trying to juggle work, family and leisure. The message was clear – create opportunities for success in order to breed more success. This positive experience is a powerful driver of engagement.


What struck me from the comments made was the subtlety of understanding these business leaders brought to the link between sports and business. The lesson for me was to spend less time considering how an elite sports person sees the links and more time asking elite business people about their experience. They are more relevant, applicable and far richer in insight.

© Dominic Irvine July 2014 All rights asserted.

Read this article for Dominic’s thoughts on lessons to be learned from Europe’s success in the Ryder Cup in 2013.  If you would like to read about our experience in developing business leaders, read this article here.