It was a fleeting moment.
Two hours waiting in 38C squeezed behind the Armco barrier on a narrow mountain pass. Then blue-flashing lights from a procession of Spain’s motorbike Guardia heralded 160 cyclists in the Vuelta a España.
They were 30km into the day’s 193km leg that in 45 minutes had climbed 2,200ft from its start near a Benidorm beach.
They formed three groups. The leaders and breakaway riders were gone in 20 seconds and a moment’s breath later the frenzy of the peloton passed in 18.
Within 45 seconds, the entire circus had conquered the pass and was descending the steep slope on the other side – with nearly five hours and 160km of heart testing mountain riding ahead.
That was the closest I got to the mighty Chris Froome, Britain’s double Olympic medallist and triple Tour de France winner.
Did I actually see him? Not with the naked eye. But slow-mo analysis of my iPhone video revealed he was surely there, midway in the pack. If you care to check, he’s in a white shirt about seven seconds into the clip.
So what’s this got to do with internal communication?
The fact is this: in a melee of 160 cyclists, beyond shirt colour there appears no discernable difference. It is a mayhem of mass competitivity, a fast-moving chess game in which a myriad of plans and counter plans are constantly changing. A chaotic yet intricately coordinated frenzy of human enterprise and endevour, like no other activity on the planet.
And when the dust settles and a race finishes, as if by a miracle, Froome is consistently in the top three. Whether in Madrid, Paris, London, Rio or his native Nairobi – he emerges from the mass with that margin of difference that makes him world class, while the bulk of his competitors are merely excellent.
In Spain he rode 3,519 km, crossing 51 mountain summits and cycling for 83 hours 32 minutes and 51 seconds. And as the long race finally drew to a close at stage 21, he emerged second – one minute and 23 seconds behind the winner and four minutes eight seconds ahead of his nearest rival.
It is unlikly that Froome has a consistent physical advantage, nor that his £12,000 bicycle is inherently faster. So what is the ingredient that keeps him always ahead in an extremely competitive crowd?
The answer is in two words: teamwork – and engagement.
“I couldn’t have achieved these results alone,” he said after the race. “It’s thanks to a lot of hard work behind the scenes from all the support staff of the team, as well as having a great team around me on the road in terms of my teammates.
“It makes a big difference.”
That team is much more than his fellow Sky riders, who work together during the race, often sacrificing their own chances to protect Froome’s position.
Because key to his success is that in his team, everyone counts. The riders are not so much the stars as the front end of a finely tuned machine, built of equally important parts.
Most visible is the race director who follows the peloton in a car, in constant contact with the riders and making snap decisions on tactics.
Behind the scenes are the carers, who look after each rider’s needs – picking them out from the pack to hand over 14 litres of liquid each day, and massaging their muscles before they go to bed.
The mechanics tune their bikes to perfection; the drivers clock 120,000 miles a year to get everything and everybody to the right place at the right time; the chef prepares a special diet to aid performance and avoid stomach upsets; the trainers, motivators, doctors and psychologists . . .
And the architect is team manger Sir Dave Brailsford, who has built a world-beating culture based on communication, coordination and motivation – and underpinned by a cunningly simple app.
The objective, Brailsford told the Leaders Performance Institute, is to get the team aligned behind a set of positive everyday actions. Actions – undertaken alone and as part of a group – that collectively form winning behaviours.
And every single team member is involved.
“In my experience,” he said, “you can have this person that has all these great, positive attributes, all these winning behaviours, but they exhibit one or two persistent losing behaviours, they moan all the time, they never take the problem to the person.
“That is a big losing behaviour.”
One losing behaviour, from just one person at any level in the team, can make a difference between success and failure. So Brailsford has made it a priority to tackle the challenge.
“If it is half past 11, it’s a cold night, you’re tired, the mechanics are tired, they’ve got a big day tomorrow, they’ve got to get the bikes right for tomorrow. We were late coming in, we were on a big stage and there is a bit of friction,” he explained.
“At that moment in time, how do you get that filter, if you like, to be your culture, behaviour or values? How do you make that person think or see those problems through those behaviours rather than just doing what they normally do?
“To try to bring this to life we developed an app and we have got our winning behaviours on this little app.”
Team members log their mood at certain points of the day, using emojis. The information is fed back to Brailsford – who balances people’s own self-assessment with the experiences of their colleagues.
He explained: “It is a reflective practice to go, ‘well, you think you are on a ‘super happy’ face for all these things, but you’ve been moaning a bit lately.’
“We monitor it and the challenge I set to everybody in the team is: if your impact on the team is a net negative impact – you are exhibiting more losing behaviours than winning behaviours – we’ll flag it up and give you a chance to modify it.
“You’re professionally bound to modify it; it is not personal, it’s a professional relationship. So let’s try to sort that out but, over time, if you can’t sort it out, there is no place for you in this team. That’s how we bring our culture to life.”
The formula is breathtakingly simple.
The result is a team that consistently wants to win. And it does.