Life Lessons

Cycling builds character, trust, companionship…

Cycling builds character, trust, companionship…

Cycling is like many other sports. It teaches us life lessons such as teamwork, sacrifice, hard work, dedication and goal setting. Work hard, work smart and you can accomplish your goals. Noting worthwhile in life is easy.

However, there is a deeper and more consequential side of how I approach my coaching. Cycling can be a metaphor for life’s challenges and how you approach and meet those challenges can be instrumental in your development as a human being.

As a coach of the U15 development program at our local Juventus Cycling Club here in Edmonton, I am certainly interested in sharing these attributes of sport, and how cycling can be used to grow and mature our next generation of athletes. After all, I started my sporting life as a hockey and volleyball player, both sports extremely dependant on teammates. Graduating to cycling in my late teens, and now with over 40 odd years of riding and racing bikes, I’ve experienced the highs, the lows and everything in between that this sport has to offer.

In my mind, cycling is the perfect blend of individual and team sports. You’ve got to be technically proficient in your own right to be able to ride safely in a group. It’s up to you to eat and drink properly during rides in order to stay fuelled to finish strong. Changing your own flat tire is critical, sometimes even crucial to being able to arrive home safely. Equally important is to dress appropriately for the weather conditions but always guard yourself against fast changing weather. That is all on you.

The flip side is that cycling depends on others. You are dependant on the group to assist with wind resistance, whether in a race or a ride. A group can roll much faster and more efficiently than an individual. As my U15 riders graduate to U17, they’ve begun to understand these benefits and the need to collaborate with others, even if they’re not in the same jersey in our ‘fun’ races!

In racing, team tactics are crucial…can you imagine a lone rider winning the Tour de France? When a cycling team works in harmony, there is no more inspirational scene than when a team sacrifices completely to chase down a breakaway to set up their leader for the final attack or sprint. As our young Juventus riders start to experience this amazing feeling, they begin to understand how true teamwork can become a powerful advantage for the rest of their lives, in and out of sport.

Teaching our young riders to race in a positive way (i.e. attacking style vs sitting in) is also a key instrument to learning about life outside of two wheels. When you attack, you are taking a chance. To some, it seems like you are wasting energy, while others just follow and ‘suck wheel’, not willing to take a pull. An attacking style of racing, however, can create something out of nothing. Just think if no one attacked and the group just rolled to the finish waiting for a sprint. No fun and usually, the same riders would probably win. By taking turns attacking in coordinated manner, a team can have more control of the outcome and create situations in the race that otherwise might not have happened. What a great way to go through life, taking calculated risks and celebrating with your team when you win!

Cycling can be a lonely endeavour for sure. There are hours and hours spent training alone. Simply has to be done. The hard work pays off in many ways such as the feeling of camaraderie of completing a challenging ride or race with a group of your teammates, which for me is still one of the best feelings that I would describe in sport. You’ve helped each other with flat tires, headwinds, shared food, taken goofy photos and maybe even pushed a bonked rider up the last hill to home. Finishing together as a group, some who have been at their limit, exhausted but exhilarated that everyone got back home, is worth a whole Winter of training hours. Those precious moments of surviving their first 100km ride will remain indelibly imprinted into their memories.

When our young athletes get into the workplace (highly likely that they will NOT become pros) this group spirit is an intangible advantage that they will carry with them into every opportunity and adversity that life can and will throw at them.

Bobke Roll learned life lessons in the 1988 Giro: Check out my ebook Bobke II recapping my Ride on the Wild Side of Cycling Subscribe to BobkeTV Follow me 1988 Giro d'Italia with Bob Roll - Gavia Pass

3 Pathways to Excellence - Top Performers in Cycling and Business Share Common Traits

First Appearing in Pedal Magazine - Fall 2017

Bicycle racing is a team sport and as such, requires top performers who not not only strive for their own excellence but also take on the role of raising the execution level of their peers. The success or failure of the team depends on these key players to raise the bar higher than most had thought possible. 

The first trait that leaders often look for in top performers is Ability. Can the individual perform their given tasks at a high level and more crucially, are they able to ‘think on their feet’ and build out successful strategies based on situations ‘on the ground’. 

Racing in the 1988 Coors Classic, a 2 week stage race in the high mountains of Colorado, I was able to take the leader’s jersey with a calculated move on an early stage. The next day was a big mountain stage, not my specialty. The Columbian team forged an early lead in the stage, while I was hanging on for dear life in the main peloton. After cresting the climb together Davis Phinney, our road captain on Team 7-Eleven, brought our team together and had our 6 man team riding hard at the front to bring back the early aggressors. The boys rode harder than I thought possible to defend my leader’s jersey based on strategy that was orchestrated during the race. Pure sacrifice in the face of massive adversity.

                                                       That winning feeling with the team at Coors Classic

                                                       That winning feeling with the team at Coors Classic

A second key factor that can determine high performance is Social Skill, also called Emotional Intelligence. High performance players can manage their own complex tasks with integrity while at the same time building and maintaining cooperative working relationships with their teammates and other competing influences. 

Bike racing often requires ‘co-opetition’ between teams as they work towards similar goals. The peloton is full of type A personalities all competing for the same thing - winning at all costs.    During the 1989 Tour de Trump, a 10 day stage race, it became apparent that the Russian team was going to be hard to beat. Our leader, Dag-Otto Lauritzen quietly went to a few other teams who were also threatened by the ‘communists’. We formed a temporary alliance with those teams and all attacked together during the feed zone, leaving the Russians far behind. Dag-Otto went on to win the inaugural Tour de Trump with our full support as our leader. 

 With Davis Phinney helping Dag-Otto win '89 Tour de Trump

 With Davis Phinney helping Dag-Otto win '89 Tour de Trump

The third pathway to excellence is Drive. These individuals are willing to sacrifice to get the job done, often to higher levels than previously attained. They are never satisfied with past achievements and continually strive for improvement - both within themselves and for their team. Motivation is key here and Drive works as a force multiplier of Ability and Social Skill.

At the 1988 Tour of Italy (Giro), our 7-Eleven teammate, Andy Hampsten took over the pink leader’s jersey during a fearsome snow storm that defied logic. Riders finished the stage in full hypothermic condition. There was still 1 week to go in the 3 week stage race and everyone had to continue racing the next day. Our 7-Eleven team knew that the Europeans were out to beat them. No American team had ever won a major stage race and they were not going to go down without a fight. With our team leader Andy Hampsten in pink as our motivation, the 7-Eleven boys sacrificed themselves fully to lead Andy to an historic win that had never been done before.  

Andy Hampsten digs deep to win the '88 Giro

Assembling a team of players who have a complete grasp of Ability, Social Skill and Drive can be difficult. However, it often takes only one key person to change the dynamic of a team and the bar will be raised to new levels, beyond what was previously thought possible. They say that those that suffer together, stay together. To this day, the bond among the 7-Eleven team stays as strong as it was 30 years ago. Something that I will always treasure. 

                                                                              7-Eleven Team Reunion

                                                                              7-Eleven Team Reunion

Cycle of Adversity

This article originally appeared in Pedal Magazine, 2017

Many of us have faced adversity in our lives…if you’ve ridden your bike for any length of time you are sure to have gone through some tough times, be it an injury from overtraining, a crash or simply burn out. Of course, there are many other sources of adversity in our lives from personal health, family, career and friends. 

The dictionary defines “adversity” as “difficulties; misfortune: resilience in the face of adversity”. Interestingly, the Latin origin of adversity is defined as “to turn toward”, in other words to face your problems head on.  Adversity also causes high stress levels which stimulate the nervous system and adrenal glands. Many times, we may react to adversity in ways that we had never considered. However, I believe that the key from suffering an adversity in your life is tolearn from these difficult times to help you become a better athlete and person - what I call the ‘cycle of adversity’. 

Over my cycling career as well as my personal life, I have been faced with many challenges and difficult times. I believe that racing my bike has taught me a lot about how to deal with these life stressors and I hope that I can share some of those lessons with you here.

As a full time bike racer, we raced on average 100 race days a year. I often say that if I read a race correctly, I could put myself in a winning position about 20% of the time. Of those races, I was able to win 5 of those races…that’s 95% loss rate…which can be stressful in itself when your job is to win races. In this case, it was important to step back and look at the big picture and realize that if each of my 15 teammates won 5 races, we would be winning over 50% of the races we entered. Those feelings of loss were replaced with a inner pride of having contributed to the team as a whole. 

The more races you enter, the more chance there is of crashing, it’s just a fact. As a junior cyclist, I was sticking my nose into places that I probably shouldn’t have, such as trying to ‘slam’ and pass on the inside of a corner during a criterium or trying to pass through an impossible gap during a sprint - consequently, I did crash a lot in my younger years.

Tour de France crash at the top of the Galibier - rookie move! 

Tour de France crash at the top of the Galibier - rookie move! 

The easy way out was to put the blame on the other riders but I was able to be retrospective and realize that I needed to change how I approached these situations to try and avoid future conflicts. Some race situations are truly beyond control but for the most part, changing the way I raced started to help me be a better and safer bike rider. For example, I began to ‘read’ the other riders and understand who was safe to ride behind. I rode closer to the front of the group where the better riders were always positioned. The back of the pack was where the dangerous riding was and making the extra effort to ride up front gave me the added bonus of putting me in a winning position. 

I’ve also had my share of adversity personally. Making the transition from a full time professional athlete to a business person was probably one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. No one really prepares for this radical change in lifestyle and it was certainly a shock to stop riding every day and start selling bicycles the next. Again, I was able to look inwardly and rely on the lessons I’d learned from racing and training. I broke the necessary skills down into manageable chunks, so that I didn’t feel overwhelmed. I learned solution sales skills, CRM and spreadsheets became second nature! In retrospect, being forced into the necessary changes broadened my world view and I’ve been able to apply my athletic experience to the business world. 

Everyone has experiences that they can draw on as they move forward through life’s ever changing and evolving challenges. The key for me has always been to reflect and bring forward lessons that I’ve learned in the past that I can apply to today’s situation. It’s a full life cycle of facing adversity head on, breaking down the challenges and sometimes making mistakes as you work towards overcoming the situation and hopefully, learning and improving yourself over time - turning the cycle of adversity into your secret advantage!

This article originally appeared in Pedal Magazine, 2017