Rider’s Ed

Life lessons from the world of professional cycling


Words by Sarah Bennett
Illustrations by Robert Whalley
Photography by Melica Wren

Alex Howes
Cyclist on Team EF Education First Drapac p/b Cannondale
Read our full interview with Howes here.

Jonathan Vaughters (a.k.a. JV)
Co-founder and CEO of Team EF Education First Drapac p/b Cannondale
Listen to our EF Outbound podcast episode with JV here.

There’s no “I” in team, but there’s certainly one in cycling. And from the outside, that seems to make sense. There’s only one winner. But the truth is, cycling is the epitome of a team sport—and, here at EF, the members of our professional cycling team (yes, we have one) want the world to know it. So, here are five lessons about teamwork we picked up from their sport. Pro tip: You don’t have to be a pro athlete to put these to use.

Lesson 01:
Egos won’t get you anywhere

In most major races, teams have seven or eight riders on the road. One of them is deemed the “protected rider,” and it’s every other rider’s job to help him win. They’ll race to bring him food and water, and ride in front of him to break the wind. That way he can conserve all of his energy for the final spurt, where he’ll try to take the lead.

These are strategic moves, but they’re also selfless. No matter how talented these riders are, they’re sacrificing their own chances of winning. Still, the riders know they’re doing what’s best for the team. “It’s related to baseball or football,” explains cyclist Alex Howes. “Not everybody is going to score the winning touchdown or throw the final strike, but in the end, it takes everybody on the team to make that win happen.”

Lesson 02: 
Recognizing your teammates’ strengths is a strength 

Like any good group, Team EF consists of members who have their own unique strengths and weaknesses. Some excel at climbing up mountains, others are expert sprinters. Some thrive in the spotlight, others would rather give their all in a supporting role. And with riders hailing from 13 countries, they each bring their own distinctive training and experiences to the race.

 A good race director recognizes every rider’s strengths and puts them in a position where they can shine. This is how they choose the protected rider. “You have to consider which rider is going to be best suited for the conditions of the course,” explains Jonathan Vaughters, the team’s co-founder and CEO. “Once you have that, you come up with the guy you think will be your best bet.”

Lesson 03: 
If you can’t adapt, you lose 

Races take place all around the world, and cyclists spend about 150 days out of the year traveling. They have to adjust to riding in different climates and terrains—and being in different cultures. If they face culture shock, they need to get over it fast, whether that means eating foods they’ve never heard of or communicating with locals who speak another language.

Even within Team EF there can be cultural challenges. They operate in English, which can cause confusion among riders who come from non-English-speaking countries. Still, the team finds a way to make it work. They use a cycling vernacular that reaches beyond languages. “It’s a sport and a lifestyle where you’re constantly being forced to adapt,” Howes explains. “If you can’t adapt, you lose. Quite literally.”

Lesson 04: 
Trust makes everything go round 

There’s nothing worse than being on a group project for school or work and worrying your teammates won’t pull their weight. Well, in the world of cycling, a teammate slacking off could literally mean life or death. As Howes explains, “When you’re following your teammates [in a race], you have to have 100% absolute trust and faith in them because if they mess up—even just a little bit—you’ll be on the ground.”

Of course, trust doesn’t cultivate overnight. That’s part of the reason the team spends so much time riding and traveling together, where they can form genuine bonds and a sense of camaraderie that lasts on and off the road. “You need to have a good team atmosphere and a good group,” Howes says. “If you don’t have that, you have no chance of success.”

Lesson 05:
There’s always common ground

Vaughters admits it can “take a little while to get so many different cultures to meld,” but he believes the riders’ shared passion brings the team together. Plus, cycling itself seems to break down barriers. “There’s something about two people riding next to each other—things come up that wouldn’t if you were sitting face to face,” Howes reveals. “I guess it’s just an easier way for people to chat.”

But you don’t need bikes to move towards common understanding and respect. Howes’ travels with his team have shown him that no matter how different people might be, we all share the same basic goals and desires. “It doesn’t matter where you’re from. More or less, everybody just wants to be happy.” When it comes to finding common ground, that’s a pretty good starting point for any team.


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