What Can You Learn from a 750-Mile Bike Race? Plenty!
By Greg Conderacci
JUST OUTSIDE OF PARIS, FRANCE – It’s four o’clock in the morning and I am rocketing along a dimly-lit, twisting lane in a nameless French town, clinging desperately to the weaving wheels of a faceless pack of German cyclists.
Like a band of escaping highwaymen, we fly through the turns, clattering over cobbles, jumping speed bumps, and dodging the occasional police car.
I am feeling good. And this is a little surprising, since I have had nine hours sleep in the last three days (and none for 24 hours) while riding my bicycle some 750 miles.
I have come here to join more than 5,000 other bicyclists from all over the world in the Olympics of long-distance cycling, Paris-Brest-Paris. This ride, begun as a race at the dawn of cycling in 1891, challenges riders every four years to travel the snaky, hilly 1200 kilometers from Paris to the Atlantic Ocean and back – in 90 hours or less.
As a business consultant, my motivation is to discover if this massive study in energy management will yield lessons that will help my clients use their energy more effectively. I learned several.
Today, every business faces an energy crisis that goes beyond the short supply of fossil fuels. The time management techniques of the 20th Century don’t yield the payoff they once did. In this age of flexible schedules, parallel processing and break-through technology, tasks that used to take hours or days can now be done in seconds. Children can do feats that used to be reserved for Ph.D’s.
If you think you can get ahead by keeping a tidy desk, making lists and carefully scheduling your time – think again. What makes the real difference isn’t time management, it’s energy management. Ten minutes of high energy effort (say, in an important meeting) can be worth weeks of answering e-mail.
The nice feature of Paris-Brest-Paris is that it is a pure model of energy management. A bike rolling down the road is like a little business: 170 pounds of human resources on 20 pounds of plant and equipment. PBP’s daunting distance and relatively tight timeframe force the rider to deal with some of the same constraints that a CEO might face.
Do I carry more inventory (food, water, spare parts, tools) or do I travel lean and fast – and risk running short? How do I prepare? Do I spend a lot of time and money on training hard in hopes that I will realize a return on investment? Or does that represent too much of a risk of burn-out and attrition? How much should I spend on equipment – and which kind should I buy?
The biggest issues in long distance riding are very much like the key decisions business people face. It’s not about doing things right (everybody can ride a bike); it’s about doing the right things. Is this the right time to spend my energy? Is it time to retreat and regroup? Are we throwing good energy after bad to chase the competition? With whom should we ride – who should be on our team? Should we merge with competitors or try to drop them?
Importantly, PBP demands all three kinds of energy that businesses need: physical, mental and emotional. And the lessons it can teach business span all three areas. After completing the ride and interviewing many other riders, here are the “secrets” of Paris-Brest-Paris:
- Have a clear vision. Every rider on the course has the same vision: The finish line at the Gymnasium of the Rights of Man in Saint Quentin en Yvelines, just outside of Paris. Although different riders set different goals of when they will get there, there is no question about where everybody is going. Every shred of energy is aimed there. Anything else is a distraction.
- Openly trust the right people. Stephen M.R. Covey’s concept of the “Speed of Trust” is as absolutely applicable to cycling as to business. Because cyclists can shelter in the draft of others like birds on the wing, there is a huge advantage in riding very close to the rear wheel of the rider ahead (as I do above), but there also is the risk of crashing if that rider veers or stops suddenly. To succeed, you have to know whom to trust.
- Friendliness increases energy. Many cyclists reported riding faster after they slowed to encourage other weaker riders. At PBP, the French line the streets at all hours of the day and night, applauding and yelling encouragement to the riders. Every “bravo!” or “courage!” adds a boost. By contrast, I avoided sullen or complaining riders like the plague.
- Vary your pace. Businesses or bikers can only maintain a certain rate of speed for so long. Interestingly, going faster for a while can be as refreshing as going slower.
- Humility is power. At PBP, the wise tortoise often bests the foolish hare. The roads of France were littered with the broken husks of riders who squandered precious energy in ego-matches with other riders. Some failed to respect the impact of the long miles, rough roads, driving rains and brutal crosswinds. Bravado in business often yields similar results in tough markets.
- Know thyself. This old admonition becomes ever more applicable in the face of stiff challenges. Although you’re almost always stronger than you think you are, that’s not always the case. The best riders and businesses know when to listen to the little voice inside begging you to slow down and when to ignore it.
As I roll toward the finish line, that little voice inside is screaming, but I know that if slow down now and the adrenalin subsides, I literally will be too tired to focus my eyes. The pack of crazy Germans are off their saddles and sprinting now, as if they are finishing a Sunday afternoon club ride and not one of the most challenging events in cycling.
I have ridden many miles through the dark with them and yet have never seen their faces. They haven’t spoken a single word I could understand. Behind us, for more than 100 miles, stretches a proud line of thousands of other cyclists, many suffering horribly, some sleeping by the side of the road in space blankets, others nursing cramps and saddle sores. Ahead of us, hundreds of riders have already finished, some as much as a day earlier.
Up ahead, a little knot of well-wishers is waving and applauding. As I cross the finish line with my unrecognizable new friends, I remember the words of Shakespeare’s Henry V before his victory in France: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers...”
Reprinted from The Daily Record, August 30, 2007
Greg Conderacci, an avid cyclist for more than 35 years, finished Paris-Brest- Paris August 24. He is a consultant who helps professional and financial services organizations market themselves. He teaches marketing at the Johns Hopkins Carey School of Business and is a Senior Fellow in leadership and ethics with the Business Learning Institute of the Maryland Association of CPAs.