Remarkable teamwork in action

Everyone is a cycling fan now, so no apologies for a Brad based blog this week, from Neil Crofts.

Team Sky did something remarkable at the Tour de France over the last three weeks: they worked as a team.

The term team is used a lot in many different contexts, but it is rarely used accurately. The reason it is rarely used accurately is that to understand what a team really is you have to experience it. And experience of teamwork is sufficiently rare that few us have had it.

Wiggins may have been the one who ended up on the top step of the podium, but the triumph was all team. Team principal Dave Brailsford’s key innovation, among many, was to “de-ego” the athletes sufficiently that they could be a team.

The difference between a group of people and a team is that a team is aligned in pursuit of a common goal that is more important, to all of the individuals, than any personal ambition. That is not to say that personal ambition is erased – it is that personal ambition and team ambition are the same.

Team members require the humility to align their personal ambition with that of the team. We saw Mark Cavendish, the World Champion, having the team commitment and humility to serve the team by fetching water bottles for his team mates and taking his turn to pull on the front of the peleton.

Leadership and followership, in a team, become fluid. They move to where they are most relevant in the moment. They are not appointed and stuck to hierarchically. Most commentators, many of them ex-pros themselves, were sufficiently unfamiliar with teamwork to misinterpret Chris Froome’s “leadership” of Wiggins on the ultimate climb of the tour as a challenge.

On the final climb of the tour Wiggins and Froome dropped their last realistic challenger for the race overall. Wiggins admitted afterwards that he lost concentration and started to think about what they had achieved, with 3kms left to climb. Froome looked back repeatedly and called to Wiggins, to focus him. Froome took the lead and the responsibility in the moment when it was required. In a team leadership is assumed and released when appropriate, it is not sought, appointed or clung onto.

A team is not just about the short term objectives around which they are aligned. It’s about the long term vision around which they are also aligned as well. Team Sky’s original vision was to win the Tour de France, drug free, with a British rider in five years – they did it in three. Cavendish, Froome and others may appear to have “sacrificed” personal ambition at the tour, but their focus was on the vision. They had agreed in advance that given the course and Wiggins’ strengths, experience and form he was the one most likely to deliver that vision, with Froome as back up.

In the bigger picture, Cavendish was paying back the support he had enjoyed to get the World Champions jersey last year and was, in turn, paid back with full team support in the final two flat stages of the race, including the epic sight of Wiggins in the Yellow Jersey stringing out the field at 60 km/h over the penultimate kilometer, setting up the win for Cavendish. The same tactics are likely to be replayed in the Olympic Road race next week.

Froome too, will have his day. Team Sky is very different from any previous cycling team, built around the great hero / ego leader in the mould of Merckx, Armstrong or even Indurain. It would have been impossible to imagine any of these swapping roles with one of their talented team members in a big race (although Indurain occasionally did on smaller ones). Team Sky’s updated vision is now to win all three Grand Tours in a season, and their strategy will be to support the rider best suited to the course at the time. If Froome (or any other rider on the team) is the one in form for the next Vuelta, Giro or Tour and the course is suited to their strengths, don’t be surprised to see Wiggins riding in support as the loyal team member.

Wiggins’ win was not a personal victory driven by ego. It was a team victory driven by whole hearted team commitment to an objective and a vision, with humility and reciprocity.

This is the nature of teams – anything else is just a group of people, who happen to be in the same place at the same time, pursuing their own objectives.