Tour de France

Innovation in Cycling Series – Part One

This weekend saw the start of Tour de France 2016. As a keen cyclist (albeit over-weight and under-talented), it’s a good time to look at how innovation has helped teams evolve in the race, and how we can use the philosophies of Team Sky in our own world at Mitra, as innovators and entrepreneurs.


Team Sky Pro Cycling – setting the standards

I cannot ignore the obvious, the most innovative team in Pro Cycling – Team Sky – is also the winner of three of the last four tours. Famously, their founding chief, Sir David Brailsford led the British Cycling team to unprecedented Olympic success in Beijing and London. And then he turned his philosophy and approach to road cycle racing – with stunning success. For 98 years, no British rider or team had ever won the Tour de France. And now they’ve won three of the last four. So how do they do it? Simple – they sweat the detail, on everything that matters.

Aggregation of Marginal Gains

As Sir Dave says “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together”.

This is a great philosophy and the examples are many-fold. Here’s a couple which were derided at the time of introduction – but are now copied by most other teams:

  • “Warming-down” after each Tour de France stage
  • Riders wearing skin-suits in time trials
  • Wind-tunnel testing equipment – and riders
  • Taking food and nutrition to another level
  • Altitude training in winter and springtime
  • Asymmetric cranks to optimise power output.

Currently, Team Sky are the only team with air-conditioned, climate controlled mobile garages for the mechanics to work in. Day or night, summer or winter, Sky’s mechanics work in dry, well-lit surroundings at an oh-so-comfortable 23C.

And until recently Sky were the only team with the “two pairs of eyes” rule, where no bike was ready to race until two different mechanics had OK’d it. Most times, the second eyes won’t spot anything. But once in a while they will – and that can make a difference. Remember, sweat the detail, get it right.

Aggregating our Marginal Gains as Innovators and Entrepreneurs

So what can we learn from this as innovators and entrepreneurs, and how can we adopt this approach in our everyday working lives? In my opinion, the key message is all about mindset. A relentless refusal to accept that things cannot be improved, and believing that the status quo is never as good as it can be.

As one of the co-founders of Mitra Innovation, my development team spend a great deal of time coding software, and we follow Sir David Brailsford’s approach for excellence, through a process of ‘code quality optimisation’.

Utterly invisible to end users, this improvement “under the covers” has reduced the whole life costs of the products we develop for clients. It has also generated an improvement in product reliability. By relentlessly focusing on getting details like this right in our world, we also help to aggregate our marginal gains for the greater good of our clients.

Hire Top Talent – Throughout the Team

What else can we learn from Sir David Brailsford for use in the working world?

There’s a reason why Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali earn more than the other guys in the peleton – they are simply the best at what they do. But the team leaders all stand or fall by the calibre of their team-mates. In pro-cycling teams, these are called the domestiques.

When Sir Bradley Wiggins won the tour in 2012, his team included Chris Froome, Richie Porte, Michael Rogers, Edvald Boassen-Hagen and Mark Cavendish – arguably the strongest (clean) A-list team lineup in history.

When the Tour de France reached the lumpy parts – it was these guys (well not Cav obviously, but all the others) who destroyed the competition with their relentless high tempo. Unexciting to watch in the eyes of the purists, but utterly effective in winning bike races.

Taking this philosophy into our startup world – of course we need the right CEO. However, we also need our team to comprise strengths in sales, marketing, technology and product engineering. And the right CEO with the wrong team gets us nowhere. Simple, but true.

Stay tuned…

As the Tour de France loops its way through Brittany and the Pyrenees, look out for more of my ‘Innovation in Cycling’ insights.

And for those entrepreneurs and innovators who do not enjoy cycling or cycling metaphors for your business – don’t worry there’s plenty of cricket, tennis and golf on TV over the next few weeks as well. But they don’t have the stunning French scenery as a backdrop for their TV coverage!

Derek Bell

Derek Bell | COO & Co-Founder
Mitra Innovation

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