Tag Archives: cycling

Belief, Short Cuts and Remembering…Jens

Jens. To those that know, it is self-explanatory. To those that don’t, it means nothing.  One of the classic characters of professional cycling rode his last race Sunday, and the world of sport lost a huge personality.  He was the old man of the sport, the wily veteran, a Hardman as they say in cycling.  Jens was never the fastest, the strongest, the most gifted rider, but he was one of the toughest men to ever ride in the pro peloton.  The guy has spent all his adult life on a bike, and the last 10+ years entertaining fans across the globe both on the bike and in quotes.  “Shut Up Legs” is a go to phrase in the cycling world.

For all his one liners (there is even an app for that), all those days hauling teammates to victories, to the countless breakaways that failed, and even the handful that stuck, the crashes and chases, Jens has been a source of inspiration.  The physical achievements on the bike started it, but it has been the “wisdom of Jens” that has struck a lasting chord.  The 90 second clip he did in the spring of 2014 for Bicycling Magazine has stayed with me and it summarizes some of the timeless lessons of life, in that quirky way that is classic Jens, he said so much.

– Believe in yourself, have confidence beyond reason.  To really achieve you have to take the chance, and it is that risk, that fear of failure, that all too often is the insurmountable barrier.

– There are no short cuts.  Hard work, Dedication, Discipline and Self-Sacrifice.  There is no other way but to grind, to do what is painful and to keep doing it.  We are surrounded by the ideal of “work smarter not harder”, but in the end even smart work is work.  If you are going to do the work, do it and give it your all.

– Remember who got you to the top, you will see them all again on the way back down.  Life is so very much easier when you are nice.  Be nice to others and surround yourself with positive people.

Throughout his career Jens was renowned for going in the break.  Rarely in professional cycling does the breakaway ever survive.  However, sometimes it does.  Not often, but sometimes.  And therein rested one of the great Jens quotes: “If you go (with a break), you can either win or not win. If you don’t go for it, you definitely won’t win.”  Jordan and Gretzky spoke of how they could only score by taking the shots…they missed many more than they made.  You have to believe you will succeed.

Jens has literally made a career out of working hard.  It brought him wins on the road and countless contracts and sponsorship opportunities, the respect of his peers and teammates, and the adoration of fans around the world.  He is savvy enough that he will parley his reputation as a hard worker and source of great quotes into what is sure to be a very lucrative broadcasting and speaking career.

Above all else, Jens has always been nice.  It is that affable, self-deprecating humor and honesty that really sets him apart.  He made time for others, was positive and upbeat, and clearly enjoyed the time with fans.  Having seen it first hand more than once, the guy is absolutely mobbed before a race. He takes the time for pictures like the one below back in 2008 (I was manning the camera that day), for a quick chat, for an autograph and a smile.  And after a stage, you could always count on a Jens interview.  He might be smoked from the road, but he would give some sort of quote, a quick interview and usually some quirky comment about suffering and being too old.

As a fan, it will not be the same with Jens not in the peloton.  However, I am pretty confident we will see and hear a lot from him in the coming years.  The guy is tailor-made for color commentary.  Old Jensie has been one clever dude, taking a folksy, German, blue-collar, hard worker, affable character into an international brand.  That takes some smarts.  Well done, or as they say in cycling, chapeau!

Phil and Jens 08

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Just Keep Pushing, or Spinning, or…

Two reminders in two days.  One unfolded in almost complete isolation and anonymity over the course of hours, and the other…well about as public it gets and it took all of 17 seconds.  A lonely road in the Mt. Hood Classic stage race, and the Stanley Cup Finals.  Two extremes yet the same lesson – never quit.  You stop working at it and your fate is sealed.  You press on and maybe, just maybe you will reach your goal.

First there was this line from a buddy as he described the last stage of a bike race on Sunday:

“Just spin and finish and all will be well!”

He was 50+ miles into a 70+ mile final stage when his body started shutting down and he lost contact with the leaders.  As he described it, he could pull over and quit, which every logical thought told him to do, or he could pedal.  Needless to say he rode through the pain.  He kept spinning, eventually caught back onto the leaders and ultimately found himself standing on the podium.  At that dark and lonely moment he had the choice:  Quit or Continue.  He carried on; slow at first, but gradually gaining speed, and ultimately gaining strength and finally success.

Then there was the Blackhawks.  The biggest stage in hockey.  An international audience.  Time was running out in the game, the Blackhawks had a choice – play on or  let the last 90 seconds wind down and head back to Chicago for game seven on their home ice.  Not only did they press on, they pulled their goalie and went all in to try to tie the game.  The video is just too good not to post…sorry Bruins fans, but the action is just too good:

Nothing too complex really…just keep grinding.  Keep moving.  Keep pushing.  Keep working it.  Keep playing.  Never give up and never quit.  Yet again the clichés of sports: “race through the finish line”, “play to the whistle”, and of course “it ain’t over ’til it’s over”. There is a reason clichés become, well clichés.  They are based in fact and have withstood the test of time.  Yet again, thanks to sports for reminding us all to stick with it, even when it seems all is lost.

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Lance…On Leadership…On Oprah?

“Do as I say, not as I do” or “do as I do, not as I say”.  Two of the classic, cynical expressions of leadership philosophy.  Neither are flattering of course, yet both are rooted in one of the fundamental truths of leadership…there is saying and there is doing.  And thanks to a quick 30 second exchange between Lance and Oprah (that whole “one name only” theory), we are reminded of that reality that confronts all leaders…you are always setting an example.  You are always leading.

There was a brief period during last nights interview where the topic of leadership came up, and regardless of what one thinks of the entire Lance/doping/cycling/deceit issue, his statements were a huge reminder and caution to everyone in a leadership role.

“…I was the leader of the team and the leader leads by example. There was never a direct order. That never happened. We were all grown men and made our choices. There were team-mates who didn’t dope.”

“…There was a level of expectation. We expected guys to be fit to be able to compete. I’m not the most believable guy in the world right now. If I do it I’m leading by example so that’s a problem.

“I view one as a verbal directive and that didn’t exist. I take that. The leader of the team, the guy that my team-mates looked up to, I accept that 100%.

What is not important is how believable Lance might be.  What is incredibly important is what he said about leadership.  His example set the tone.  He was very clear in what was expected – the team was 100% committed to ensuing Lance won the Tour de France.  He was also very clear in how that would be done – the team would be the most fit.  How each individual rider achieved that level of fitness – well…who knows the full truth.  And that is the leadership lesson, the message does not have to be spoken to be received.

Leadership is obviously about what you say…the vision you communicate, the positive reinforcement and encouragement, the directing and correcting, and all the other spoken, written and even tweeted parts of the verbal message.  “Just get it done”, “We have to reach our goal”, “I can always count on you to make it happen”, “I don’t want to know”, “We have never failed”.   Maybe some version has been said to you, maybe you have used some version of the phrases in a harmless attempt to motivate, inspire or convey a sense of urgency.  Regardless, there is a message there.

Leadership is also about what you do, the example you set and the environment you create.  There is the praise and reward issue…who is being singled out…for good or bad?  Are you turning a blind eye to what had to be done for the result to be achieved?  Is cutting corners okay when it is busy?  Do the ends justify the means?  Who are you adding to the team (hiring)?  Who is leaving the team, and why?  What is the vibe, the environment, the culture?

Leadership is hard.  Even when done poorly, it is not easy.  The phrase “the burden of leadership” is real.  It is real on a host of levels, but one of the very real burdens is that it is a 24/7/365 role.  What you say, what you do, how you do it, with whom you surround yourself, those you praise, the behaviours you reward; it all matters and it is all evaluated by others.  There is no perfect, all-encompassing, easy answer to how one leads.  However, there is no escaping that every aspect of a leaders behaviour and actions, and their message, spoken or implied, are all constantly being evaluated.

So, for the second night in a row, and the second time in my life, I will be purposely tuning in to watch Oprah.  Well, going to the website and streaming it.  Who would have ever imagined, leadership lessons from Lance and logging onto Oprah.com on a Friday evening.  Strange world sometimes…

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Lance, George and Being Nice

Confession – I have always carried a quiet fear of the “day”.  I knew the moment would come, but had hoped it would not be until I was well into my 50’s.  A point when the physical similarities would be long past, that memories would have faded and rancor would be forgotten.  No such luck.  Those that know me know the issue…I am a Lance Armstrong doppelganger.  It has been funny over the years, photo and autograph requests, tons of glances or stares, pointed out in crowds, approached in awkward conversation, yet from time-to-time cluelessly embracing what I thought was just a random act of kindness until my wife would point out “it is the Lance thing dummy”.  Now I carry the mantel of “hey, you look like that dude that cheated”.

Due to the combination of my doppleganger issue and my own love affair with cycling, I get asked about the whole Lance/doping/cycling thing quite often.  I have even written about it occasionally.  However, what I find most important is the reinforcement of that age-old adage of “just be nice“.

What we have seen over the last few weeks is the complete undoing of the “Lance Armstrong” brand.  It is a reasonably safe assumption to say no brand has collapsed as quickly or completely. The last 10 days: epic.  What is interesting is that he is not alone in what he did.  He is however, the literal face of the issue.  His record of denial, counter accusations, law suits, personal attacks, and just general reputation as, well to put it mildly, a real jerk, has only feed into the collapse.  Lance not only cheated, he was self-righteous about it.

And then there is George Hincapie.  Faithful Lieutenant.  Trusted teammate.  Quiet, resolute, reserved.  A strong, tireless, hard worker, and just all around nice guy.  Respected by peers and fans, teammates and managers; the man who is resoundingly held up as a guy who did it right.  Well, come to find out he, along with almost every other American cyclist who rode with Lance on the US Postal/Discovery Teams, were neck-deep in the doping culture.  Yet, as vilified, hated and pilloried as Lance is, barely a word about George.  Yes, Lance was the leader, but George was right there with him the whole way.  Yet barely a word.

One thing all of this has been is a lesson in relationships, in how one treats others.  How one conducts themselves is part of your personal and professional brand.  Lance had an incredible professional brand, but also a very well known personal brand.  George also had an incredible professional brand as well as a very well liked and respected personal brand.  Each have seen their professional brand clobbered, but the impact on their personal brand has been completely different.

In the end, George is seen as just a flat-out great guy…nice, respectful, genuine and sincere.  That fact has and will enable him to weather the storm.  He will be thought of fondly.  His clothing company will survive and more than likely thrive.  Lance…well his reputation has all but sealed his fate.  He will reside alongside that other poster child of sport shame, Pete Rose.

Just be nice.  It never hurts.

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Lance and Big Mac

What an interesting and telling day.   Nike severs ties with (read that as stops paying) Lance Armstrong; Lance steps down from LiveStrong; National League Championship Series comes to St. Louis for a three game stretch. There in lies the irony: sitting on the Cardinals bench as their hitting coach – Mark McQwire.

I so love irony. It just flat-out makes my day.  With the game on in the background, I could not help but smile again about Big Mac being with the Cardinals, not to mention back in baseball. I remember well a few years ago when he joined the team as the hitting coach (clearly he is good at hitting – look at his career and the teams production since 2010 – impressive numbers both). It was a painful press conference as he admitted to using steroids during his career.  Yet, after a few weeks the story of his return to baseball faded and is now not even noticed.

There are things I will remember well, as in “I was there when” or “you should have seen it” national or world event sort of things.  Moments that live in our collective memory.  And two of them are certainly the 1998 home run race and the 1999-2005 Tours.  Yep, what Mark McQwire and Sammy Sosa did for baseball, Lance did for cycling.  It was an absolute blast to watch it happen.  I was entertained and enjoyed every moment of those events.  It was fun and I would not trade any of it; they were moments in time that were just amazing to experience.

Both guys, by the every definition of the word, cheated.  They lied, were evasive, took advantage of banned substances, and generally did things that were against the rules.  They were also insanely gifted, focused, talented and above all students of their craft.  They practiced and trained.  They literally dedicated themselves to being the best at what they did, and it showed.  Lastly, but above all else, they were athletes and entertainers.

If one expects iron-clad perfection and ethical purity from entertainers, politicians, athletes or pitchmen, then they are living in a fantasy world.  There is no such thing as a perfect person, and certainly not when it comes to public figures.  Those guys were fun to watch do what they do.  I am grateful to them. I paid to watch, and they delivered.

There was a saying we had back in my Navy days:  “choose your rate, choose your fate”.  I often think of that as it applies to life in general, and to careers specifically: “choose your profession, choose your concession”.  Mark McQwire said “I wish I had never played in the steroid era“.  I do not know Lance, but I can see him sharing a similar thought when reflecting on his career…someday.  Maybe.

You see, they both made for themselves, their families, their sponsors, their teams, their peers, their industries and even their foundations, a ton of money.  They were literally responsible for the economic well-being of hundreds, if not thousands of others.  The culture of steroids in baseball and dope in cycling was real, known and ignored.  No one said a word, yet we expect something special from an athlete?

Speeding, office supplies, “helping” with your kids homework, chatting at the water cooler; white lies, victimless crimes, corner-cutting.  It literally happens everywhere, all the time.  There is no perfection.  Humans are naturally imperfect.  Embrace what is real, realize the faults in all, and accept that nothing is as it appears in public.  Family and friends are one thing, but realize no one every really sees behind the curtain, and frankly most never really want to anyway.  Athletes are entertainers, not role models.

Doing what everybody else is doing does not make something right, but when it is all around, especially in your professional world; in the place that generates your income, well it has to be hard to take the absolutely pure high road.  All I do know is that I am enjoying the Cardinals playing in another post season series, that I rode my bike earlier today, and that I will watch cycling again in the spring.  It is all just entertainment.

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Incentivizing Behavior and Changing Outcomes

Incentivize the desired behavior. It is a classic piece of compensation modeling – pay your people to do what it is you want them to do. You want sales numbers to go up, pay your sales people for new business. You want higher quality controls, more widgets produced, incentivize your people accordingly. So simple really, yet the corollary to that is rarely, if ever discussed – do not reward people for doing what you do not want done.  And the part which is never discussed openly, is risk versus reward – what are the temptations to cutting corners to meet the incentives?

Sunday’s New York Times Opinion Page included a piece by Johnathan Vaughters, a former professional cyclist and now the executive director of Slipstream Sports.  The column was much more than an opinion piece, rather it was a confessional under the title How to Get Doping Out of Sports . In the course of the column, he shares a great deal of insight into why one would decide to dope.  But one point above all others stayed with me, and he is dead on correct, no one should ever be put in a position to have to decide to cheat. In sport, business, or just life in general – it is not a dilemma anyone should face. However, there also seems to be more there that he is not mentioning; specifically that the reward for doping far outweighed the risk of being caught.  And that issue, which seems to go far beyond cycling and sports, is the real issue that is not being addressed.

Yes, I am a total outsider.  The extra 2% advantage that he mentions doping might provide, well that still would leave me a solid 40% short of the ability needed to compete at a professional level.  Yet, I find myself understanding the choices he faced and choices he made.  While I might be as honest and ethical as most, I am also no naive fool.  Look at the choice – cheat, in an environment where it is for all intents and purposes accepted, and make literally millions – provide a life for you, your family, your extended family, generate revenues to support others on the teams, and their family, or simply walk away from your dream, your career and frankly the only real opportunity you might ever have for a profession. Yea, I get it.

And to me there in lies the real issue.  The risk-reward paradigm was completely out of whack in cycling, and to a degree it still is.  It was massive upside for limited downside.  And why that lingered with me is that so much of our society seems to now be tilted in that very same way.  Let’s face it, all of the issues with “Wall Street Bankers” – how many have went to jail or lost real money?  There is Bernie Madoff, and then…?  That is the point, there is no real risk to balance out the rewards.  We have incentivized winning at all costs in sports and business.  Well, sports is business, so it is all the same.  It was the reality of the “housing crisis” and is still a reality in our society – there is no real risk to getting yourself over levered.  We allow folks the ability to walk away from debt by filing some form of bankruptcy.    It might sting a little, but it is not that big of a deal, nothing tangible is really lost.  Just look around – people are literally doing it all the time.

Balancing risk and reward lies far beyond testing, regulations and controls. The real answer lies both in how you incentivize and the level of risk associated with “doing whatever it takes” to reach the goal.  It is something every leader and manager, coach, business owner and frankly political leader really needs to consider – is the incentive to achieve outweighing everything else?

The real answer to cleaning up sports, business, and yes even behavior in general, is not to punish forward.  The answer lies in punishing backwards.  The risk has to outweigh the reward, and that is only possible when the very reward itself that spawned the behavior in question is put at risk.  And let’s be very clear, we are not talking titles and jerseys, promotions or corner offices, we are talking dollars.  If we want to keep rewards high, which is fine with me, I am a big supporter of everyone making a ton of dough, then make the risks to breaking the rules just as high if not higher.  Make the risk the very thing that they earned by cheating.  Congressman trades on insider information and makes money – they lose the office AND the money they made.  Cyclist cheats to win – they lose the salary, the winnings, the sponsorship and endorsement money, all of it that was earned by cheating.  Clawback.  That is a risk that will trump a reward.

It is not about banning someone from sport for a game, the post season, or even a year or two – clearly that has helped, but it has not solved the problem.  Peer pressure and cultural changes in sport, that has also helped.  However, the pain threshold is not high enough yet.  Even when an athlete is caught doping, they have already reaped the benefits of cheating!  You want to stop doping in professional sports – hit the incentive – take back what was earned through cheating.  Going forward, make salary, prize money, and above all, sponsorship and endorsement money all subject to a “clawback” clause.  It is outlined in the contract and then enforced.  That will stop doping.  The risk then truly outweighs the reward.

There it is, the real answer – clawback.  It is a form of risk that is real to everyone for it attacks the very incentive that spawned the behavior you are trying to correct.  Maybe a bit harsh, but the decision Johnathan Vaughters was faced with, and made, at that time in place seems to surround a good many of us in every walk of life.  No one should be placed in a situation where the wrong path is the more rewarding and easier path.  Putting that temptation out there to begin with is wrong.  Look around you, the fallout is literally everywhere.

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Lance Armstrong and the American Way

Tis the season, time for summer fun, family vacations, the Tour de France, and the Olympics – and of course the always topical talk of doping in sports. Gotta love international sport. Where else can one combine lessons in geography, culture and biochemistry! It is interesting, or maybe ironic, but the only athletes to really suffer any professional sanction, criminal convictions or just plain condemnation are those who compete in international sport. Yes, there have been a few NFL and MLB players suspended, but nothing of any significance, and certainly not at the height of their careers. Marion Jones has went to jail, Ben Johnson surrendered his gold, countless cyclist and track athletes have been banned for years, if not life, and keeping with the spirit of the season, Lance is back in the news…again.

What I find ironic in the whole Lance story is that well, to use a phrase, he was just being the classic American.  No, not that every American cheats, far from it.  However, if there is something to the American Spirit, or American Way, it is to win…always.  If there is anything American’s do, it is to take things “to the next level”.  American’s push the boundaries, they strive to gain more, to overcome obstacles.  They leverage their optimism to go above and beyond the accepted norm.  They plan, they analyze, they grind, they take risks and they find a better way.

The country was founded on the idea of more is better.  The British had an interesting system of somewhat representative government and a capitalist economy.  The colonies took those ideas and ran with them.  If a little democracy and freedom was good – more is better – the Revolution was on!  The Japanese implement the Kaizen theories in business and manufacturing, America takes the ideas to the next level with Six Sigma, Lean, Just-In-Time and a host of other quality and efficiency programs.  America goes absolutely hog-wild when it comes to pushing limits; the old “taking it to the next level” thing.  It is just the American way – better, faster, more – win!

And so we comeback to sports and international competition.  Lance, for all that he might or might not have done, is a product of his environment – he is and was a reflection of the American Way – good or bad, he is what he is.  Cycling was a European sport.  Americans came to the game only recently, and when the first group of Americans broke into the sport, they did it as American Pioneers are want to do – they came in loud, rough and hard.  Those guys of Team 7-11 were a wild and tough bunch.  They won a little, and they intimidated a lot.  They were classic Yanks in a Euro show, and it did not go over well with the old guard.  Greg LeMond played by the Euro rules and won, but as a quasi Euro on a European team.  Now who knows exactly how it all went down, but doping in cycling, and sports in general, exploded in the late 80’s and early 90’s. In cycling specifically, was it because of the American threat to the “old guard” – no one will ever know, but the timing fits.  (Note:  There is an entire Cold War component to doping in sports, but why bother going down that path)

So there it is, Lance and the new American team see the field on which they are going to compete – drugs are there.  If they are going to win, which is the only way an American team knows how to complete, then they have to be smarter.  Did this mean they were also doping?  Who knows, but they certainly trained smarter, competed smarter, leveraged technology better and just flat-out raced smarter.  If they did dope, they certainly doped smarter.  Look at the test results – Lance nor any of his teammates were caught when everyone else on other teams were.  If nothing else, it is telling.

The American Way is an interesting thing…it is a winning attitude, it is a risk taking attitude.  It is a willingness to push boundaries, and a willingness to sacrifice to improve one’s situation.  It is certainly not a bad thing – look at the society it has created and the innovations it has spawned.  Yes, everyone can point to problems or short comings, but the overall track record of “The Grand Experiment” is amazing.  And Lance Armstrong is a product of that environment.  He attained amazing results and has done incredible things for himself and others.  Did he push the boundaries – absolutely.  Did he do some things that are at a minimum “on the edge” – almost certainly.  But then again, is not being on the edge just another piece of the American Way?

Not my place, nor frankly my concern, of who is “right or wrong” in this never-ending drama.  All I know is that I was entertained watching a guy race a bike. I still do find it entertaining to watch anyone race a bike frankly.  Lance made for great fun and conversation, plus lead to a story that has inspired a few folks, not to mention a foundation that has left the world a bit better than it was.  Plus yellow bracelets became a fashion trend – that is staggering when you think about it.  But above all, Lance has reminded me that there is something to the American Way – it can and does do so much good, but like all things, balance is key.

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