Cycling and Sporting Leadership: The resignation of Sir David Brailsford

April 11, 2014

Richard Crackett

Sir David Brailsford announces his retirement as performance director at British Cycling to focus on Team Sky. We publish a post which had been in preparation written by LWD subscriber Richard Crackett

As the sun set on the Champs Elysee, Chris Froome crossed the line, arms linked with his team mates, wearing the famous maillot jaune, in the 100th Tour de France. The story is replete with issues of distributed leadership and sporting ethics.

For a second consecutive year, Dave Brailsford’s Team Sky had won. This was the first tour since Lance Armstrong admitted to doping in winning all seven of his now rescinded titles. Brailsford hailed it as a victory for hard work and ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’, but the popping of champagne corks may have been drowned out by the cacophony of questions about doping.

The King is Dead, Long live the King!

The build-up to the Tour was dominated by the fact the top contender for the title, Froome and the current holder, Bradley Wiggins, rode for the same team. Froome had been picked as the team leader with Wiggins expected to ride in support of him. At first, Wiggins let the press know that he intended to ride as if the leader, with Froome dismissing this point.
Brailsford seemed not to back either rider, and Froome described Wiggins’ withdrawal through injury as a ‘relief’. Perhaps Brailsford thought that two competing leaders would lead to greater performance from each, with a greater chance of one winning. It seems serendipitous that W iggins pulled out through illness, as it could be argued that his involvement may have harmed Sky’s chance of winning.

Aggregation of Marginal Gains

Brailsford’s approach to sporting excellence involves the aggregation of marginal gains. He seeks to break down every process to its smallest component and attempting to improve on each one. The multitude small gains in performance will be significant. His track record in the Tour and Olympic cycling suggests his approach to be very successful.

‘Relativity applies to physics, not ethics’ – Albert Einstein

Even before the Lance Armstrong crisis, Cycling was mired in suspicion about doping. Brailsford brought in a zero-tolerance approach at Team Sky. Anyone with any history of doping was made to leave the team. When the suspicion didn’t go away, he offered the medical records on Froome’s historic performance to a newspaper, which confirmed it showed nothing untoward.

The zero tolerance approach was criticised by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) for being too draconian, meaning people would be afraid to speak out damaging the efforts to catch more cheats. His effort to distance his team from doping, they argued, could actually hurt the more global fight against doping.

The exception

Brailsford’s zero to team member David Millar, an ex-doper for the 2012 Olympics. He also seems willing to ‘push the boundaries’ of competition and bend the rules in pursuit of marginal gains. In Olympic cycling, the equipment that the cyclists use must be commercially available. Brailsford developed the best bikes using many bespoke innovations, and made them ‘available’ commercially through British cycling at exorbitant fees .

Marginal Gains or Pushing the Boundaries?

Brailsford is a transformational leader for British cycling. He has produced incredible results, but we are left questioning his leadership. Did he really think Wiggins’ and Froome could work together? Does his law of marginal gains apply to the advantage he tries to squeeze out by bending the rules? It is no surprise that his willingness to push the boundaries has meant his reactive response to the doping issue has not been universally accepted as solely in the spirit of sporting competition.


On Pelotons, Tigers, and Leading from the Front in the Tour de France

July 17, 2009

Peloton

Peloton


The Tour de France, and the Open Golf Championship both offer insights about leading from the front

Susan asks good questions. Ones I don’t have answers to. This week, as we were watching Tour de France highlights on Eurosport, she broke in with

“How is it the main group always catches the breakaway leader?”

Our cycling friends have been quick to provide us with answers. It seems that sometimes, the front-runner does escape and win. But far more often, the breakaway leader is overtaken by the main group or Peloton.

The peloton is like some monstrous cycling centipede possessing the wisdom of the swarm. The arrangement conserves energy for individuals which has to be sacrificed by anyone who breaks away and becomes a breakaway leader. That provides for numerous tactics and team work.

As we watched, the process looked as if the one-time leader was caught and somehow then trick-cycled backwards through the swarming riders making up the peloton.

A few years ago, Paul Hochman wrote a brilliant journalistic description of how it all works:

Nothing in [American] sports resembles the bizarre dynamic of the cycling peloton, partly because a stage race is less a sporting event than a commodities exchange on wheels. What appears to be a random mass of bicycles is really an orderly, complex web of shifting alliances, crossed with brutal competition, designed to keep or acquire the market’s most valued currency: energy.
Amassing it (i.e., letting as little of it as possible drain away) is the only way for a racer to survive the brutal physical strain of a Tour de France, the metabolic equivalent of running 21 marathons in 23 days. Bikers save energy by riding together in a massive slipstream. Those who save the most energy can “buy” various goods – international glory, TV time, a bright yellow jersey, attractive French girls.

But here’s the key: To thrive in the angry little swarm that is the peloton, enemies often have to stick together and make deals with one another. Cooperation across enemy lines is the centerpiece of a winning game plan. It’s a weird concept to those accustomed to the zero-sum, us-them finality of the walk-off home run or the Hail Mary touchdown pass.
Why play nice with someone who might beat you? Racers in the peloton are not pals; they’re enemies without options.

To which it might be worth mentioning that not winning a stage may not be the same as losing one. The gallant front-runners are still doing a good job for their sponsors whose branding they are sustaining. The breakaway will have been worth a lot of prime-time ads.

The golfing front-runner

How about golf? Is there a peloton principle at work? Not quite. Tiger Woods has a fearsome reputation for winning when he does hit the front.

However, there is general principle which is more statistical than psychological at play. It explains why a relatively lowly-ranked golfer can leap into a substantial lead after the first round of a tournament, and why is almost always caught by many of the pursuing group.

Simple stats can test whether there is a random deviation around an average score. Some high and some low scores are the inevitable result of the expected distribution of scores. The stats can reveal if variations are due to a few exceptionally good (and exceptionally bad) players, or may be no more than a statistical effect.

When more data become available in the next round, there will be similar expected distributions of scores. For the front-runner, there is only one direction to move. Down. The result is that the one-time leader appears to be going backwards. Just like the would-be leader in the Tour de France.

Tiger, and Tiger alone for much of the last decade, plays golf in a way which can’t be explained as a random distribution of scores. If Tiger appears in the lead, the greatest of modern players, the rest of the competition, and almost all watchers of the event reach the same conclusion. Tiger is on his way to another win. Tiger’s scores are those of a statistical outlier.

How about Leadership Behaviours outside Sport?

Just a few speculative thoughts. Might the processes of the Peloton and of statistical theory help explain more mysterious phenomena such as momentum (leader going forward) and loss of momentum (leader going backward)?

And what about the tall-poppy syndrome, or the more folksy principle that pride comes before a fall? Might we have some explanations from tales of the Tour and the Tiger?

Much food for thought on the dynamics of leading from the front, the hero-to-zero phenomenon, and maybe even the tall-poppy syndrome.

Image

The brilliant illustration of a peloton in action is from the social networking site Fark. The post also explains the how and why of the flocking process of Geese.