What we can learn from cycling - the ultimate team sport

In my annual address, I mentioned that one of the ways Jacqueline and I have become acquainted with Michigan is by participating in cycling events. I'm a pretty serious cyclist, and when I have the opportunity, I like to participate in long rides, often organized centuries (100-mile rides). Although many people know that cycling is a competitive sport, few know that it is very much a team sport too.

When we think of team sports in the United States, especially in Detroit, we usually think of the big four: football, basketball, baseball and hockey. We love our college and professional teams, and support them through good times and bad. Cycling, though less understood, also is a true team sport. In many ways, a good cycling team is analogous to a well-run organization, and lessons from cycling can be instructive for our Wayne State "team."

First, each member of the team has a distinct role to play, and each sacrifices and supports the ultimate goal, which is setting up the leader to win for the team. The success of the team depends on the success of the individual members. In The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling wrote, "For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack." It's like that in cycling, in organizations, and often in life.

I gave up competitive racing many years ago when I realized that most of the cyclists I was competing against didn't have full-time jobs and trained many hours every day. Now I enjoy club rides with other serious cyclists, but the principles are the same as in racing. Although cycling may look to some like many riders pedaling like mad, there is a good deal of strategy, coordination and technique involved. In group or club riding, teams form a pace line in order to minimize wind resistance throughout the race. Everyone takes their turn at the front, which is the hardest position, according to their ability. The strongest riders stay in the lead position longer, sometimes as long as 10 minutes. Other riders may not have the strength or endurance to go that long, but every rider takes a turn up front and contributes.

In club cycling, we don't leave members of the team behind. If someone begins to struggle or drops off, someone (usually the leader or strongest cyclist) will go back to support the rider and help them catch up. Sometimes a cyclist just can't hold the pace. When that happens, cycling etiquette dictates that person should voluntarily drop off and let the group move on. The group typically moves on only after making every attempt to keep the struggling cyclist within the group.

Cycling groups organize naturally based on ability, and members of a group get to know each other so well that they begin to operate like a finely tuned machine. Each member plays a role, and each trusts and depends on the others to do their part. The more they work together, each contributing as much as they can, the better the group performs. Whether racing or club riding, it is inevitable that the peloton - the pack riding together as an integrated unit - will always overtake a lone cyclist.

All these characteristics of team cycling are instructive for high-functioning organizations. Everyone is valued and every effort is made to assist a team member who is struggling. In turn, every member of the organization must contribute to the best of their ability for the greater good. The leader may have to pull at the front for a longer time, but they cannot do it alone and everyone must take their turn. When the team is successful, everyone wins.

I think the lessons we draw from cycling, or any collaborative activity, can apply right here at Wayne State. We've got a bold vision and ambitious goals that will require our best efforts and a real team approach. Let's get pedaling - together.

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