The excitement of the crowd – the very large and animated crowd – was infectious. There were bands, people in costume, casual fans and zealots. There was even the classic “devil” running along the course, complete with cape and pitch fork. The riders were quite literally caked in mud, riding over hills, running up stairs, leaping over barricades, jumping over curbs, slipping, sliding and wrecking along a wet, icy and technical course. They were generally putting themselves and their machines through every sort of physical stress possible with reckless abandon and unbridled passion. It was a sight to behold, and one full of lessons in leadership, business, life and relationships. It was the Cyclocross National Championships in Bend Oregon.
It became clear as we watched multiple races throughout the weekend – chains would break and components would fail. Make no mistake, these bikes and components are built to withstand an incredible amount of pressure and force. They literally can go for tens of thousands of miles under the most demanding situations and never fail. However, when the chain and components are placed under excessive AND abrupt strain, there were failures. Dramatic, entertaining, and glorious failures with riders and bikes strewn about the course.
It is easy to spot the person with a broken chain – they are running along the course with their bike hanging over their shoulder. Riders zipping past and one person running along looking less than happy. It seemed to always happen at points where the course became very technical and physically demanding, but was preceded by a section where the rider had been able to relax, for the chain to go slack. A point where maximum force was harshly applied to the drive train. If things were not aligned properly and slack not taken out of the chain evenly, the system would quite often fail.
Abrupt, harsh, excessive strain will quite often overload the best system. Teams, people, software, processes, relationships or the drive train on a cyclocross bike – too much demand applied too quickly is never good. Sometimes the system can take it, but called on too often to perform in extremis, failure often results. Steady strain on the chain is clearly a key to success in bike racing. Those who won the races never had mechanical failures. They raced the course in an aggressive and focused manner, always mindful of their equipment. Always aware that a well-maintained and prepared machine can withstand a steady strain, but too harsh of a demand can result in catastrophic failures.
And so it is with teams and processes, leadership and relationships. Ask for too much too quickly without thinking about the consequences, and even the best system can and will fail. Allowing the system or team, relationship or process to build up too much slack is never wise. Maintenance and nurturing, focusing and thinking ahead – it avoids putting yourself and others in extremis. Cyclocross racing and broken chains – a lesson in the value of an even, steady strain. Besides, who wants to run several miles with their bike, though the fans clearly appreciate the effort. Especially the guy in the devil costume.