There are just two clues in our home that cycling has any place in my life. Two pink jerseys hang in my office, one for each Giro d’Italia that I “won” without ever getting anywhere near the podium: one as a rider, one as a directeur sportif. Sometimes guests peak in through the door and their attention is invariably drawn to these symbols. "Wow", they say. "What an inspiration!"
Well, actually, no. I have only ever found success to be a rather poor fuel for further endeavour. That’s quite a peculiar state of affairs when you think that it is the need for success that keeps me awake at night, and leads to me having a paper and pencil by the bed at all times, so that I can write down ideas in the night, for fear of them vanishing come morning.
In my experience it has always been failure and, even better, unexpected or humiliating failure, that has pushed me to do better and work harder. It is as though I save all my money to go and buy expensive food that I know will never fill my stomach.
What an odd situation. As a rider I always thought that a bigger contract would motivate me, but I trained with the least commitment when I was on the highest salary. When I look back, the most intense training rides usually came on the back of a truly embarrassing performance. On paper, the Vuelta al Pais Vasco suited me well, but for some reason I always rode like a bag of bones. And, like clockwork, I almost always rode better in Romandy, more or less two weeks later…
If you look a little closer, the benefits of a good hiding are even more far reaching. What do you learn by passing a test with flying colours? It’s just a box ticked, a confirmation that you have all your papers in order. But it is failure that shows you where you can improve, and it is the grinding in your stomach that reminds you how much you really care.
Take the 2013 Giro d’Italia, for example. As defending champions we made the race a big priority, chose our riders with care, each one with a specific role to transport Ryder Hesjedal around Italy with minimal effort.
This was in stark contrast to the team we sent in 2012, which was a mishmash of sprinters and climbers, sent in the hope of being able to contest most stages. On paper it was not a team made to take the pink jersey to Milan. History shows that these riders rose to the occasion, riding out of their skins day after day on terrain that should have seen most of them keeping warm in the gruppetto. Whoever inspired that group to such a superlative performance must have been a genius! [Steady on, Charly – Ed]
Imagine if that same DS could hand-pick a dedicated team, have more resources, and bring the same rider back to repeat his feats. The possibilities are limitless, right? History again shows that the 2013 edition was a struggle from start to finish, with Ryder pulling out sick. Despite brave attempts, the only highlight was Ramunas Navardauskas’s sublime stage win [stage 11 to Vajont]. It was scant reward when you look back at our expectations. If you climb into our number 8 team car and inspect the steering wheel, you will find teeth marks left there by me during last year’s Giro. Suffice to say, it was an intense experience.
But I grew more as directeur sportif during that painful Giro than any other race since I started this job. One of the key challenges as a DS is walking the fine line between empathy and sympathy. My ample experience of spending time at the wrong end of the peloton as a rider gives me a natural sympathy towards the riders: I can still feel my legs burning when I see them suffer. However, the last thing a struggling rider needs is sympathy. A rider in such a situation needs to feel understood, yes, but what he is crying out for, even though he may not realise it at the time, is someone to show him realistic alternatives to the negative scenario circulating in his head.
When you realise that credibility is your most precious resource as a DS, then it becomes apparent that in such situations you really are walking a tightrope. It is managerial suicide to look out of the hotel window and try to sell a blizzard to a rider as “just a passing storm”. A couple of such episodes and your words to the riders will be worthless. But how to find the positive, motivating angle for nine individual personalities, all under massive strain, with a long list of reasons to believe they should be elsewhere?
The 2013 Giro was an accelerated course in managing such situations, and I cringe when I think back on how I stumbled through many key moments, but it was the most precious experience I could have hoped for.
Nobody sets out to fail, especially people in our line of work, but the satisfaction of getting through tough moments, and understanding with time that it helped you improve, is extremely rewarding. But I really should stop biting the steering wheel: that’s one habit that needs to be broken.