I’ve been fascinated by politics and campaigns from a young age, but my parent have evidence that I’ve been making Tour de France scrapbooks to follow the annual cycling race since I was 10!
So as Chris Froome wins his 4th Tour de France, I’ve been thinking a little about what lessons campaigners can draw from cycling, and in particular Team Sky (who’ve won 5 of the last 6 races) when it comes to strategy, approach and execution.
1 – Be totally focused on winning – Team Sky come to the Tour de France with one clear objective each year – to win the race. Throughout the 3 weeks that the race moves around France, there are plenty of other sub-objectives to distract – you can win stages, win other jerseys, and more. But Team Sky don’t get distracted by them – they just care about getting their leader across the line in Paris at the end of the race. It’s a ruthless focus on a single goal.
2 – Adjust your plans daily – The old adage that ‘no plan survives first contact with the enemy’ is true in the Tour. There are so many factors the can’t be immediately planned for or predicted – the weather, someone on the team might be injured and not able to race or a mechanical problem. Anticipating what might happen, and then adjusting has been evident throughout the race, when Froome got a puncture, the team member riding alongside him was ready to sacrifice his wheel, while others were ready to pace him back to the front. And because the team have a clear objective, they know what the implications of adjusting the plans are.
3 – Poor planning leads to poor performance – Let me take you to Rodez and the end of stage 14. Chris Froome has lost the Yellow Jersey (worn by the leader of the race) to Italian Fabio Aru, but his team have spotted that the finishing line is uphill and could allow Froome to get some time back on Aru. So the team ride the whole day with the objective of getting Froome to the foot of the climb at the front of the field. Aru’s team don’t and he loses the jersey.
Other examples abound, from having support staff down the narrow roads of the French countryside to give out bottles and musettes (the bags with the cyclist food) rather than rely on going back to the support cars, to exploiting the changing direction of the wind on stage 16 to break the field into a smaller group, to having mechanics double-check everything on the final Time Trial stage because Froome couldn’t afford a mechanical mistake. Team Sky don’t let anything get past them when it comes to being brilliantly prepared. It’s a good reminder for campaigners to apply the same approach.
4- Marginal Gains – Team Sky are built on the concept of marginal gains – the idea that you should be looking for ‘the 1 percent margin for improvement in everything you do’. It’s about being data driven and question everything + challenge existing assumptions. Earlier this year I read ‘The Talent Lab‘ which looks at the approach of the British Olympic team, which shares many of the same approaches as Team Sky.
When members of British Cycling, who work closely with Team Sky, identified that they could improve the power output of there cyclists by making small adjustments to the saddle angles they lobbied for the rules to be changed. Nothing is left to chance when it comes to the approach they’re taking, but perhaps more importantly no question or assumption is a dumb one to asks. For campaigners I think it’s a reminder to look for improvement in every area, but also have a really questioning mindset.
5 – It’s a team effort – Sure it was Chris Froome standing on the top step of the podium in Paris, but he’ll be the first to tell you that he couldn’t have achieved it without the 8 other members of his team. Everyone in the team has a clear role to play across the range and through each stage. Some to support on the flat, some when the race goes up hill. In some way cycling is the ultimate team sport. It reminds me of this list of roles needed in an advocacy movement. You often need all of those roles to be successful.