7 Business Lessons from Life in the Saddle

It takes years to build up the strength and savvy to be a professional athlete. I always find it amusing when people talk about the number of years that a rider was as a pro and ‘only’ had 8 wins in his 16 year career. Case in point, Matt Hayman at this year’s Paris-Roubaix. What they fail to mention are the years and years and years of pedaling at the pre-pro time of your life when you are adding the building blocks for later.

So much sacrifice takes place by so many young athletes, it’s a miracle that many make it through this natural selection process in one piece. I discovered cycling because I found out that I loved the solitude and adventure of riding somewhere I’d never been to, getting lost and finding my way home. Along the way, this playfulness helped me keep the joy in bike riding, something that I still treasure today.

Of course, some don’t make the grade and fall through the cracks, never to be heard from again. Some ‘retire’ early for various reasons and go on to lead prosperous lives in another world outside of the tight circus-like circle that is ‘pro biking’.

Those that do make it through this initiation process find themselves at the bottom of the heap as a neo-pro. Just when you think you are ready, you get the sh*&* beat out of you in race after race, in conditions that most people wouldn’t contemplate going out to walk their dog in. It’s a brutal blow to the psyche and again, there is a weeding out of the guys who make the transition to year two and three as a pro. Once you’ve established yourself after two or three years, it’s time to watch your back as the young ones are gunning for your spot on the team. Getting your 10,000 hours in to become an expert as pro biker is a never ending cycle of ride-eat-sleep, and repeat over and over again.

However, looking back I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to have learned very useful lessons that are now helping me in my software sales business career. Here are 7 key lessons that I learned from cycling that I lean on every day in my business life.

Race Days are Like No Other

A hard day at work is an easy day on the bike. I sometimes chuckle to myself when I hear co-workers complaining about their ‘hard day’ at the office. Stressful encounters with sales managers and their quotas and clients with their demands can certainly be trying. But, all it takes is to remember a circle of death stage such as Galibier, Croix de Fer and a finish up Alpe d’Huez and things fall into perspective.

Save Your Matches

Work Hard but Ride Smart. I was a decent amateur rider winning a few national championships but turning pro quickly made me realize that I wasn’t close to being the strongest guy. It became a matter of survival and strategic cunning to finish some races, especially when you weren’t on good form. Racing smart taught me to save my ‘matches’ for just the right moment when they were needed most. Simple things like missing a turn in the break through a corner saved me just that much more energy for the finale. These days, I take the meetings that matter and say no to others – saving mental energy for the right ones.

Domestiques Count

I have been a rookie many times over in my life. Changing jobs mid-career has put me on the back foot for a while and all eyes are on me. I remember my first days with the new teams that I rode for and there was certainly an expectation to prove myself. In a race situation, I was never prouder than when I was able to set up a teammate with an initial attack that led to his winning counter-attack. My simple solution was and always will be to stick to a game plan and do the work. Good leaders will recognize your efforts.

No Matter What - Keep Pedaling

There were a few times during my athletic career when I was really ready to hang up the cleats. Somehow, I found the mental energy to keep going even though I was at a physical and mental low. Often, I needed a break from the racing intensity to recover and re-discover my love for the sport. You can’t win every race (or business deal) and the best you can do is create a learning opportunity from the loss and live to tell the tale.

Prepare to Win

Reward has a way of surprising you. I can’t tell you how many times I ‘couldn’t get out of my own way’ on the bike, only to have the form of my life a week or two later. I hadn’t expected to put myself in a winning position, I just happened to ‘fall into the break’! I found that when I tried to force my presence on a race, I ended up thrashing around getting frustrated and losing my temper at my fellow riders. Doing my homework to build a solid sales pipeline paves the way for many future wins, sometimes when you least expect it.

Feel the Moment

This lesson is a feeling that comes with experience.  As a 20 year old, racing two Kermesse races a week as an amateur in Belgium taught me a lot. Of course, I couldn’t waste energy but which attack would lead to the winning break? At first, I couldn’t figure it out. Every attack that I followed died out only to see the winning move ride up the road. I learned to be attentive, anticipating cross winds, studying my competitors’ habits and understanding and optimizing my own strengths. All of this comes together for the ‘moment’ when you strike hard. Winning at sales if often very similar. It’s always tempting to jump the gun and ask for the order too soon. I’ve learned to get the lay of the land (as my Dad often told me!), do the homework and then feel for the right moment – I know I will know when the time is right.

Share Your Knowledge

A final lesson that creates the most value. As a veteran pro, it was fun to mentor a young ‘up and comer’. Frankie Andreu was still wet behind the ears when he joined 7-Eleven in the late-80’s. Since he was willing, we taught him everything we knew and I was proud to see him racing as a trusted domestique well into the 90’s. This year, a couple ex-junior bike racers - now young business students - will be working side by side with me coaching our Juventus youth development program. I hope to share some of these business and cycling skills with them so that they can carry on the tradition.



Originally appeared in Pedal Magazine – Spring 2017

My legs are screaming, my lungs are on fire and my mind is racing…can I beat the peloton to the line and win the time bonus away from Eric Vanderaeden? It’s 1km to go on the 1st road stage of the 1986 Tour de France and I’m hanging on for dear life in the breakaway…pulling on the bars with everything I have left.

Suffering on the Rivet

Suffering on the Rivet

At the age of 25, I’d been bike racing, full time for 10 years. I’d already learned many lessons on how to maximize my potential as a cyclist. Efficiency, strategy, grit, perseverance, sacrifice…and I was drawing on ALL of them to stay strong all the way to the line…

Looking back, I often wonder where these skills came from. I certainly acquired aspects of these attributes as I raced as a junior and with the 7-Eleven and National teams, however, were these learned skills or inherent in my psyche? This is something that I’ve always wondered about. 

Over the years, I’ve raced with and against many talented riders who were often stronger than me on any given day. I noticed that if I played it smart and used my energy wisely, I could often find a way to beat them. Even then, there were times in the race when it came down to “mano-a-mano” where we each simply had to grind it out to see who could suffer the most and mentally “crack” the other guy. 

On the topic of Grit, I recently read an article written by Jared Smith, owner of Incite Marketing and an adventure seeker who loves to ride and who recently trained with Navy SEALs in a 5 day "suffer-fest". As part of Jared's preparation, he interviewed Dean Golich with Carmichael Training Systems who has years of research on the topic of "grit" under his belt. Here's an excerpt from Jared's article: 

Golich, citing Angela Duckworth, (who’s studies have concluded that "single mindedness" or "lifelong deliberate effort" result in “true grit”, which results in higher and greater achievement in any field) has concluded that personality traits can be a predictor of one’s ability to breakthrough mental ceilings in performance.  Using profiling tools, Duckworth has extrapolated the willingness of different athletes to push past their max efforts.  

 According to Duckworth: most athletes generally fall into one of two personality types: Those with mental toughness, and those without. Those with it are able to doggedly, and persistently pursue a course of action over and over and over again towards an end goal. Duckworth calls this personality’s tendency towards persistent practice and action: “true grit” - "the role of deliberate practice in acquisition of expert performance.” People with true grit tend to be entrepreneurial, attracted to routine, high achievers, so called AAA's who will continue down a path despite fear of, and experience with multiple failures. You can point them out in a room, because they tend to lack empathy, they're not warmhearted, and they thrive on receiving (and giving) negative feedback. She puts them into a category of “fast learners”. Thick skinned people who enjoy self-critique and who willingly accept negative feedback learn significantly faster than those who require a more diplomatic approach to learning (i.e. the “empathetic types”). 

 According to Golich, empathetic types; i.e. people who are good-natured, thrive on positive reinforcement, are willing to listen, are typically patient, and seek to learn multiple and diverse points of view tend to perform worse on tests of mental toughness. However, they do play a major leadership role in high performing teams (all high performing teams require people who are intuitive to the emotional requirements of the group and who will often sacrifice themselves accordingly. The so-called “fast learners” tend to ignore their teammates’ signals of emotional overwhelm – often to the detriment of the team.  

Team Spirit in the New Era

Team Spirit in the New Era

This is the dichotomy of bike racing…you need to be selfish in addition to being mentally and physically tough - “True Grit”. Nothing can get in your way as you pursue your short and long term goals. At the same time, bike racing is a true team sport. Everything that a rider does is a calculated effort designed to benefit the team as a whole – “Pure Sacrifice”.

I believe that there are specific personality traits that are inherent in successful people, including cyclists, some of which can be enhanced with repetitive training and some, that are simply part of who we are. Think about where you fit into the Grit and Sacrifice spectrum and try and blend the two to be the best “Gritifice” team player you can be.


Hall of Fame Induction

October 2, 2016

It was a huge honour to be inducted into the Canadian Cycling Hall of Fame this year. Cycling Canada hosted the event at the Mattamy velodrome in Milton, Ontario, home of the Cycling Hall of Fame. Gord Fraser and Brian Walton, some of my esteemed racing peers were also inducted.

The event coincided with an international track race. My wife and son arrived on the Friday evening to watch some of the races with me and get a tour of the amazing facility that was built for the Toronto 2015 Pan-Am games.

On Saturday, my 22 year old son and I had an opportunity to ride the indoor, 250m wooden velodrome. What a treat it was to ride on this track and I was reminded of the Olympic venue in Montreal that was eventually removed in favour of a ‘biodrome’. Even more importantly, I was able to ride with my son and we staged a couple hard fought sprints to keep each other honest! He’s got a great jump on him and he beat me in the first round. I had to use all of my craftiness to make him lead out the next sprint and I came around him to take the second heat. We decided to leave it a draw and re-visit next season when we will both be racing “A-group’ at our home velodrome in Edmonton.

Sunday morning was a well organized group ride with 50 or 70km options available. We had 60 or so riders and we rolled along at an enjoyable conversational pace (just the way it should be) until it started raining. Then it was time to make a bee-line back to our lunch location for a hot shower and a change into our civvies for the ceremonies.

Here’s an excerpt from my acceptance speech.

I’ve been involved in competitive cycling in 1 way or another for the last 40 years.  Along the way, I raced amateur for 8 years, pro for 7 years and then after retiring have continued to stay involved in the sport in many ways. I think my proudest post-retirement moment came in 2013, at the start of the race that I founded, the Tour of Alberta. We just completed the 4th edition of the race this year.

I was a hockey player growing up in Vancouver and by a series of unique circumstances, I found cycling. Along the way, a family of dedicated cycling people volunteered their time to help me be the best I could be.

By the way, it’s very appropriate that the Hall of Fame is housed in the Mattamy Velodrome as my first real success in racing came on the track.

In the 70’s we had a velodrome in Vancouver called China Creek. It was an outdoor wood track originally built for the ’54 British Empire games. The magic came from my first coach, Baz Lycett. He just happened to be in Vancouver at the time and took a group of us juniors to a new level by applying everything he had learned about bike racing in Europe.

A seasoned pro also happened to be in Vancouver at the time, Ron Hayman. Ron took us juniors under his wing and illustrated to us what kind of work and dedication it would take to become a pro.

My Dad bought a van and equipped it with all of the equipment needed to run a race on city streets. Brooms, safety vests, signage. The road race at the Tour of White Rock still bears his name on the trophy.

Roger Sumner was a tireless volunteer who worked continuously to bridge the gap between the provincial cycling organization in BC and the National program based in Ottawa. Without Roger, many BC-based cyclists would not have represented Canada on the world’s stage.

My wife, Samantha was been a stalwart supporter of my career as a professional cyclist and then throughout my post athlete transition, often listening to my frustrations and tribulations with a sympathetic ear. Thank you Sam

I’m describing these stories because in my mind, people like Baz, Ron, my Dad, Roger and many others are the real heros. They understood the difficult circumstances that a budding racing cyclist faced and worked behind the scenes to create a support structure.

These say it takes a village and the cycling community is no different.

I’m very proud to be a volunteer coach of the Juventus Cycling club in Edmonton. I feel an obligation to give back to the sport that did so much to shape my character…who I am today.

At Juventus, we have an army of volunteers that have built our own cycling programs, completely self-funded. From our 8-10 year old Spockids, to our 11-14 year old Track/Road/MTB program, to our Junior racing team, Juventus has spawned an amazing group of racers who have gone on to represent Canada – all funded through the Juventus program.

Some of those riders are here today including Junior World Champion, Stefan Ritter, National Pursuit Champion, Kinley Gibson. Evan Burtnik, a member of Team RaceClean and Devaney Collier, Silver medalist at the Junior Worlds this year are also recent graduates of the Juventus program.

Our next mission is to build an indoor velodrome in Edmonton. Again, it’s another group of volunteers who have dedicated years of their time to coordinate this construction. In 2020, there will be another facility in Canada, similar to this one, ready to host an aspiring group of young people, who are trying to be the best athletes and build the best characters that they can be.

Of course, there are many other club-based programs and individuals across Canada doing great work. I believe that this is the core of how cycling will grow in our great country. I urge you all to continue, lias with your Provincial cycling organizations as well as the National program, many of whom are here today.

Again, thank you for the honour of this special moment, something my family and I will treasure for many years to come.