The most famous bike race in the world, the Tour de France kicked off with 22 teams racing across 34 cities. True to form, EF Education First Pro Cycling’s team line-up has a diverse roster of eight riders with eight different nationalities and five different native languages.
To the uninitiated, bicycle road racing can appear to be an individual sport. But with all 176 riders fighting it out over 21 days to get a place on the final podium, the reality is much more collaborative and tactical. Pro Cycling involves careful team coordination management of rider abilities, energy levels, the situation on the road and most importantly the wind.
Riders at the front of the peloton (the main bunch of riders on a stage) expend much more energy than those further back and therefore it’s crucial to only release your team leader to attack when the time is absolutely right. Riders are in constant communication with each other and team staff, and even with rival teams in a constantly evolving, cat-and-mouse game with each other and the elements.
Leadership on the road
On the eve of the Grand Départ of this historic race, we caught up with GC contender – overall fastest category in bicycle racing – Rigoberto Uran of EF Education First Pro Cycling who came 2nd in the 2017 Tour de France, for his insights into communication and leadership within this very international group, and parallels with the world of business.
Like most international organizations made up of talented individuals from around the world, the EF squad uses English as its main language.
“Communication is super important. We are in the Tour de France with 8 riders, and 8 different nationalities, and it’s all managed in English. How we plan the stage, looking for attacks in the peloton, how to defend and more. It’s a message for the whole team, not just the riders, everyone needs to have the same information.”
Propelling a rider to greatness at the Tour is a case study in teamwork, and all 40+ members of the wider team play a huge part:
“It’s a company really. For me everybody is very important, the riders are very important but also the mechanics, they fix our bikes and prepare them. The masseurs, chefs, and coaches, the directors, all of them are important. Without them, it would be impossible to compete in the Tour de France.”
Rigo is himself an entrepreneur as well as an athlete these days, so knows a thing or two about achievement on and off the road. The team ethic instilled via cycling now manifests itself in the boardroom:
“In a company, you have to work as a team. Every individual wants to show their results but everyone works for the same company and should work towards the same end goal. It happens the same in cycling, we see someone make it to the podium but they are there thanks to the team that is behind them that were doing everything they could to make that happen.”
So what is Rigo’s leadership style, on and off the bike?
“A leader needs to transmit respect for their teammates, the work they do, and in moments of glory or moments of panic it’s important to have a cool head and not worry too much about the small losses and wins”
And Rigo’s top English phrases when managing the team on the road? Like the Colombian himself, suitably laid-back:
“Guys, stay calm… no stress at the moment…keep going, keep going…”
Strength through diversity
As numerous studies in the corporate world have shown, a diverse team is a more successful team. To win a grand tour you need a diverse range of talents and ideas as well:
“Each one has their specialty. Some are really good in the flat stages, others in the mountain stages, but here the most important is that to look for victory for the team.”
“The leader has to give good information, but listen as well because many riders can have better information than just one, everyone has a voice and all the voices are important.”
Continued success also necessitates a culture of innovation and continual improvement of every aspect of the organization’s activities in a form of sporting “kaizen”:
“I believe that all companies are like cycling teams. In cycling we look to be faster every day, so we study the aerodynamics, our clothing, the materials of the bike, training methods… we are continually developing. You have to evolve, if you stay in the past you will lose the year because now those methods don’t work.”
As with all cycling teams, the personnel is globally dispersed and many riders need to spend considerable time training alone where they live. That only heightens the need for effective digital communication across borders in English between riders, coaches and other staff.
Fortunately, Rigo has been able to improve his English as well as his fitness when training back home in Colombia by taking advantage of EF’s online language training program.
“I am very happy because I can bring the course anywhere with me on the computer, mobile, and tablet. When I am training at home it is really good because I can connect any time, it’s fun and easy to find good teachers, and you can connect with people from many different countries all in one class.”
Rigo also hopes to take an intensive, customized program at the EF Executive Language Institute in Boston during the off-season:
“Obviously you need to start with a first phase; right now, I am doing some hours with EF online, and it’s been helping me a lot, but I want to find some space and time to do this immersion course abroad, to share with more people from different countries, I think it’s going to be a great experience.”
Follow Rigo and EF Education First at the Tour de France from 6 – 28 July 2019 at www.efprocycling.com