What makes a good team leader for a stage race like the Tour de France? That's not an easy question to answer, and it depends on exactly what the team wants to accomplish.
If you've got a proven contender for the yellow jersey—much like the old U.S. Postal/Discovery Channel squad had with Lance Armstrong—then it makes sense to build a team around your top dog with guys who can climb but also do well on the flats. When Super Mario Cipollini brought a team to the Tour, the selected riders were usually gravitationally challenged, but boy, could they motor on the flats.
Once you have the correct personnel in place, the next step is to provide the proper motivation to do the job. Certainly, the sponsor or team director can threaten the riders to either perform or not get paid. But the Tour is hard enough; mere monetary rewards often won't get the riders to dig deep enough to do all that it takes to work for a contender who may or may not win. That's not to say that getting to keep your job isn't a huge motivator, but there is more to it than that.
Appreciating Your Performers
Back in the U.S. Postal/Discovery Channel days, Lance used to present a five-figure bonus check out of his personal account to all riders who made it to Paris with him in yellow. That's a nice way to say thanks, and he was clearly putting his money where his mouth is. Other riders have clauses written into their contracts which will pay a bonus—from the team's coffers—to any rider on their team who finishes in Paris if they win the Tour.
Bonuses such as this make sense if you are asking a rider to put aside their own personal glory to help one man win. Clearly, sacrifices have to be made, but rewarding riders for their sacrifices seems fair. It could be argued that riders like Roberto Heras, Chechu Rubiera and Jose Azevedo could possibly have won the Tour, or at least been on the podium, but they gave up their personal chances for Lance and he showed his appreciation.
So, a good leader must show his appreciation for the work done by his teammates. Simply reminding the riders that they are doing their job is probably not sufficient, especially at an event like the Tour where the stakes are so high. A good leader has to let his support riders know how they are doing and how he feels about it.
Communication is Key
Therefore, a good leader must also be a good communicator. Not only does he need to be able to clearly express how he feels a rider is performing, but he also needs to be able to clearly communicate his expectations for that particular rider as well as the overall team.
Each rider has a role to play, though it could change on a daily basis or even during a stage. Lance's teammates have told me that one thing he did exceptionally well was to let each rider know exactly what was expected of them each day. There is a huge benefit to setting expectations. Obviously, when you have a proven winner in a guy like Lance, everyone wants to do whatever possible to insure that he wins.
However, a race like the Tour is so long and complex, an overly-enthusiastic rider can waste a lot of energy that he might need later—most likely in the all important third week. If a rider knows exactly what is expected of him, he can save his energy and only expend it when the team needs him to do so. I cannot stress how important this is in a three-week race, where conservation of energy and recovery is so critically important.
Coming Through in the Clutch
A team leader can be a great communicator and very generous with his appreciation for his team's support, but if he can't deliver the goods, it really doesn't matter. Obviously, the most important characteristic of a great team leader is the ability for him to attain the goals he has set for himself.
But, there is a synergy here that may be missed. If his teammates aren't giving him that armchair ride to the base of the final climb, he may be wasting energy and could come up short at crunch time. If the leader's teammates aren't shielding him in the pack on a flatter stage, the leader may not have enough gas in the tank to ride a fast individual time trial the next day.
Another aspect sometimes overlooked is that hard work without any reward is a huge de-motivator. Support riders will work even harder if they know that their efforts will result in a stage win or the yellow jersey. Nothing takes the wind out of a domestique's sails faster than delivering his man to the final kilometers only to see him go backwards up the finishing climb.
There are a number of reasons why Lance Armstrong won seven Tours. Obviously, he had the talent to go fast on the bike. But, more importantly, he was a great team leader who could communicate to his riders what he expected them to do and then offer constructive criticisms of their performance. He also rewarded them well for their sacrifices and efforts, all of which created a supremely motivated team which was completely dedicated to winning the Tour de France.
Bruce Hildenbrand is a freelance journalist covering cycling and a host of other outdoor-related sports. He splits his time between Mountain View, California, Boulder, Colorado and Europe.
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