Five Steps to Becoming a Management Guru

Anderson MT500

I am sometimes asked about how I was able to make the transition from being a stressed out academic to an author and keynote speaker, which in turn gave me the time and energy to return to my passion for cycling. A big part of being able to make this shift was establishing my personal brand as a ‘management guru’ and in this blogpost I would like to explain how it all came about.

In mid 2009 I sat together in an apartment in downtown Berlin with my friends Jörg Reckhenrich and Martin Kupp. We were discussing our forthcoming book ‘The Fine Art of Success’ which was based around an exploration of lessons for business from the creative industries. I had recently left my job as a business School Professor to embark on my new life as an author, speaker and cyclist and had started to realise the importance of developing my personal brand.

One of the topics covered in our book, alongside case studies of artists such as Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Picasso, was what we called ‘leadership projection’ or the ability of an artist to project their work onto the global stage, and in doing so differentiate themselves from thousands of other creative hopefuls. At the heart of success was what we termed ‘validation’ or the process by which individual creative talents were heralded into the upper echelons of their field. Then we asked a question; might this same process of validation towards ‘super-stardom’ apply in the world of business academia, and could we become management gurus? For me this question was driven by a very personal need if I was going to have the time to train and compete at the top level in cycling: How could I work a little and earn…enough?

The question of how to build an internationally recognised and respected personal brand then led to what we called the “Guru Project” whereby we researched management guru careers and applied the findings to tour own professional approach. The following conversation explains what we learned along the way.

QUESTION: What was the first step of the Guru Project?

Jamie: We quickly realised that there is no universally accepted definition of a management guru, so we started to compile a database of information on people who the business press often refer to as ‘management gurus’. We also examined rankings from certain publications that publish lists of leading business thinkers. Data was collected and case studies developed on fourteen individuals who we observed to have been successful in positioning themselves as management gurus, and this allowed a cross-case comparison of success factors. We focused on contemporaries, with the one exception being Peter Drucker who passed away in 2005.

Jörg: I guess that one of the early discoveries was that many of the so called ‘gurus’ were not the most accomplished academics in a more traditional sense of publications in the refereed journals, one of the most important criteria for promotion in ‘traditional’ top-tier business schools. Indeed, some of the gurus that we studied, such as Malcolm Gladwell, did not even hold a graduate degree or, like Peter Drucker had rarely published in the highest-ranked refereed academic journals. But this phenomenon of finding an often untraditional way to success, something that you define, is well known in the art world.

QUESTION: So what other surprises did you discover?

Martin: Just as in the world of contemporary art, we understood that all management gurus had to have something new and different to stay. Hirst was the first artist to put animals in fomaldehyde, and Wim Delvoye the first to tattoo pigs. In a similar way, Gary Hamel achieved prominence with his work with C.K. Prahalad on the core competence of the corporation, while Kim and Mauborgne of INSEAD came to prominence with their Blue Ocean Strategy idea. But what was also quite interesting was that these gurus often joined the dots of different academic disciplines, rather than staying in their narrowly defined field of, say, leadership, strategy, marketing or innovation. So while Gary Hamel is known as a Professor of Strategic Management, his ‘big ideas’ cut across leadership, strategy, innovation and organizational behaviour. Gladwell’s books and articles often deal with the unexpected implications of research in the social sciences, and make frequent and extended use of academic work from different disciplines. He has even described himself as an “academic groupie”.

Jamie: So our first realisation was that a management guru must come with an idea which is perceived to be new and different. I say ‘perceived’ as very few of the gurus that we analysed had a truly new discovery, but were able to join the dots of existing research in new and compelling ways, or tapped into highly topical subjects – such as C.K. Prahalad’s work which examined business opportunities at the base of the economic pyramid at a time when many companies were turning to developing markets for growth opportunities. More recently, Belgium’s Peter Hinssen has rocketed to international prominence for his work on the ‘new normal’ which explores the implications of social media for different industries.

Jörg: And of course, this is when we got excited as we believed that our own book, The Fine Art of Success, was also joining dots in new ways by exploring business lessons from the creative industries. We created our concept of ‘Art Thinking’, a theme that encapsulates our ideas around the linking of creativity and entrepreneurship in the creative world to business.

Martin: But we wanted not only the content to be unique and different, but also the way we identified, collected and disseminated our findings to be special. That is why we have chosen to take what we call the “rock-band” approach. Our research very much gains through the different perspectives we bring to the table – Joerg’s knowledge and practice as an artist, Jamie’s Australian humour and entrepreneurial streak, and my deep roots in the German research tradition. We deliberately chose a picture of us for the book which resembles an early picture of the Rolling Stones, a strong collective with unique and different personalities. We have not positioned ourselves as individual management gurus, but guys with a connected vision.

QUESTION: So if the first element of becoming a management guru is saying something which is new, different and timely, what else is important?

Jamie: One of the things we understood from studying the most successful contemporary artists was that affiliation with ‘powerbrokers’ in the art world is extremely important. People such as Charles Saatchi, Larry Gagosian and Jay Jopling can make or break the careers of aspiring artists, and if any of these men comments positively on the artwork of an artist then prices can skyrocket. Similarly, we saw that there were also ‘powerbrokers’ in the word of management gurus – publications such as the Financial Times, Business Week, Wall Street Journal and The Economist that could bring the management guru label to individuals.

Martin: And of course, we also recognized the power of having your name affiliated with a top-tier business school. But we saw a kind of chicken-and-egg situation: did the brands of the top-tier schools validate management gurus, or were management gurus attracted to the top-tier schools? We observed both phenomenon.

QUESTION: So how did this cause you to reflect upon your own situation?

Jörg: Well again, we were fortunate. Jamie and Martin were both affiliated with top-tier business schools. While I had never had a full-time position at a top-tier school, I was a visiting teacher at several of the world’s most prestigious institutions, such as London Business School and IMD in Lausanne. But we also saw the importance of new ‘affiliation’ brands, such as the international TED Conference platform, and during 2010 and 2011 we were all successful in being accepted to give TED talks.

Jamie: We recognized that we already had the benefit of a certain brand-halo from our institutional affiliations, but we also recognized that there were many of our very smart colleagues at these institutions that never became management gurus. So the next thing was to sell our ‘big idea’ of business lessons from the creative industries and we started this by publishing a series of articles. These articles were very well received, and resulted in the three of us being included in a list of the world’s top management thinkers published in a business journal in 2009, alongside internationally renowned thought leaders such as Gary Hamel, Philip Kotler and Henry Mintzberg.

QUESTION: And what was the impact of your inclusion in the list of top management thinkers?

Jörg: Well, the first thing we started to do was mention on our websites and tell all of our friends that we had been named as up-and-coming management gurus. It also helped that we were working as a team as we took every chance we could get to promote each other – whether speaking to a client, messaging on Twitter or interacting with academic colleagues. This collaborative attitude has always been the basis of our approach, and we have tried to live what we teach.

Martin: Yes, this was extremely important for us, as we now had an external validation of our claim to be bringing something new and different to the world. We added this to our biographies that we sent to clients, and to the press releases that we were preparing to send upon the publication of our book. We were constantly talking together about how to align our message, and then sharing the hard work between us.

QUESTION: But a lot of people have something new to say and won’t be heard. What else do you have to accomplish?

Jamie: The launch of our book was of critical importance to the project, as it was our chance to say something new and different, and we had won a supportive and well respected publisher in Wiley. We put a lot of time into mapping the key business publications and even individual journalists who could help to validate us as thought leaders. We crafted press releases for each journalist, paying close attention to their individual areas of interest, but of course all the time projecting ourselves as established management gurus.

Jörg: This idea of projection is extremely important in art. Jeff Koons for instance, draws a direct line from the Renaissance artist Botticelli to his own artwork. He believes himself to be the next Michelangelo, and has not been shy to say so. Lady Gaga has said “Some people are just born stars. You either have it or you haven’t, and I was definitely born one.” These artists build their own stage. But it is a risky business – you have to be in the right position to do so.

QUESTION: And did the press pick-up on your book?

Martin: Within a week of the book’s publication, the story had been written about by several news agencies, including Reuters, and we had an article in the Financial Times and an interview on BBC World Business Report. But perhaps even more importantly we quickly followed-up with the same journalists about a new case study that we had written and were teaching about Lady Gaga. We timed the release of this news just a few days before the launch of her ‘Born This Way’ album in May 2011, at a time when the world was going Gaga crazy. We brought a new and different angle by talking about her as a business school case study, and we aligned perfectly with a need for the business press to write something relevant about her success for their own readers.

Jörg: Our publication of the Lady Gaga case and accompanying press release, coming closely after the book, generated a storm of interest. The worldwide ‘Born This Way’ album launch was set for Monday May 23, and we sent our press release the preceding Thursday to a few select journalists at leading publications who we promised exclusivity. Within a week we had a full-page feature article in the Schumpeter section of The Economist, and an article in the Financial Times. The FT article referred to ‘the management gurus.’ This resulted in a snow-ball effect, as many business journalists look to the FT and Economist for leads, and we were then met with a deluge of requests for press, TV and radio interviews from journalists around the world.

Martin: I had a funny interview at this time with a rather cynical German journalist who suggested that the release of our Lady Gaga case study was just a ploy to get publicity for ourselves – of course, I agreed with her wholeheartedly!

Jamie: The Economist article and our concept of ‘Gaganomics’ mentioned in the Financial Times was discussed on blogs across the Internet, and we saw a surge of hits on our individual websites. Suddenly, our email boxes started to fill-up with requests for keynote talks and lectures.

QUESTION: Now that you had been named ‘management gurus’ in the Financial Times, and had built visibility through international press coverage, were there other elements to consider?

Jamie: When we looked at the similarities between management gurus and high-end contemporary artists we saw something else in common – price and scarcity. In studying our management gurus, we came to understand that these two elements are extremely important, and that a thought leader’s availability and fee structure sends a powerful message to the world.

Jörg: And here it is where it gets really tricky. In 2010 we started to increase our rates for keynote presentations. In 2009 we would ask maybe $3,000 for one of us to give a keynote talk, but from mid 2010 we experimented with asking for as much as four or five times that amount. Of course, there was a big risk with this approach, but art is about pushing boundaries and we saw through Damien Hirst’s 2008 auction at Sothebys that even pricing is a tool of brand projection. The increase in fees brought us in alignment with many of the other management gurus that we had studied, and projected us into their peer group.

Martin: The experience of increasing our fees was quite astounding, as I was sure that this would result in less demand. But rather than see a decrease in demand after communicating our fee increases, we saw a growth in demand. I guess we became reassuringly expensive!

Jamie: Of course, it was not just about increasing fees. We also helped each other to improve the choreography of our presentations – we became performers – because this was also a key attribute of the management guru. Not just to say something new and different, but to be an expert performer and storyteller. Ultimately, if a client is paying a five figure sum for a one-hour keynote, they expect something very special!

QUESTION: And where does scarcity come into it?

Jamie: That’s an interesting element. We discovered that Management Gurus almost never respond to client contacts themselves – it is almost always a rather aloof personal assistant or agent who acts as a gatekeeper. The assistant never responds immediately, and almost always says something along the lines that “Mr or Ms Guru is extremely heavily booked, but we will see what is possible.” You then hear nothing for two or three days, or maybe a week, to signal the scarcity of the speaker. So just for fun, I created an imaginary personal assistant who acted just like this. But we don’t do it now – as we found that this kind of prima donna behaviour on the part of many management gurus was something we did not want to imitate. We like to be authentic with the people we are working with, and often turn encounters into enduring professional relationships.

QUESTION: Do you think that your guru project could be imitated by other aspiring thought leaders?

Jörg: Of course, why not? Just remember the five principles of becoming a management guru: first, don’t be afraid to say that you are the next Michelangelo – just make sure that you have something new and different to say – a book certainly helps here. Secondly, timing is an important factor, so try to link your big ideas to issues of the moment. Third, affiliate yourself with a top-tier Business School or highly regarded thought-leadership brand, and get your big ideas talked about in the most influential business publications and blogs. Fourth, be sure to adjust your prices to project yourself into the management guru peer group, and become a scarce resource. Finally, don’t take it all too seriously and be sure to have fun along the way!


Post-Race Interview

CTCFinishI recently returned from South Africa where I competed in the four day Cape Rouleur Pro-Am Road Race, and the one-day Cape Town Cycle Tour (CTCT). I finished 1st Master and 3rd Amateur Overall at the Cape Rouleur, and 1st Master and 6th Overall in the Top Seeded Amateurs Group at the CTCT.

While in Cape Town I also gave a talk about work, life and cycling at the University of Stellenbosch Business School. After the event I was interviewed about my experience in training for and racing the CTCT by Brian Taylor. Below is the transcript of the interview.

Q. Were all the riders in your Top Seeded Group at the Cape Town Cycle Tour amateurs, or mixed with the pros?

The Professionals and Elite Amateurs (typically young guys who hold a UCI Elite racing license) headed off first, about five minutes before us. The guys in my 1A Race Group were the Top Seeded Amateurs and Masters (40+ years old). To make it into this group, riders must qualify by riding specific events throughout the year, in South Africa and abroad. There were around 200 guys in the 1A Group that I raced with.

Q. Were you racing in a team or individually? I am sure that makes a difference if you racing against competitors in a team and you are on your own?

I raced as an individual, which is why the final few kilometres were so difficult as I did not have teammates to lead me out, and I hit the front too early in the final 300 meters or so. But for my main event in Europe in April, the Giro Sardinia, I have a team of four guys riding for me. This means that I am sheltered from the wind, helped to close down gaps, and have a ‘train’ to lead me out in sprint finishes.

Q. What were your tactics for the Cape Town race?

In such a large group you need to make sure you stay amongst the front 20 or so guys throughout the race or you risk missing a split, especially on the tougher climbing sections like Chapman’s Peak and Suikerbossie. For these two climbing sections, I moved right to the front of the group at the base of the climbs, meaning that I could save energy by dropping back somewhat as the pace increased, but still keep contact. The riders tend to string out on these climbs. So if you are still in contact with the string of riders and do not lose contact, then it is kind of like an accordion as the long line of riders comes back together on the descents and flatter segments. This tactic worked perfectly for me, and after Sukerbossie I was with the front forty or so riders remaining – the rest of the starters had been left behind. I then worked my way towards the front ten riders by the 5km to go mark.

Q. You finished as 1st Master and 6th overall, but you said you found yourself at the front too early in the final 300 meters. When should you have launched your sprint?

It is difficult to go into the final kilometres racing guys you don’t know. In the final five kilometres I gradually worked my way towards the leading riders, and you will see from my on-bike video that in the final one kilometre or so I am in a great position, sitting in 4th or 5th position. But then in the final 350 meters the three guys to my left do not open-up their sprint and accelerate! And suddenly I am at the front, but with no wheel to follow. I am in the wind and I know it is too soon to go full gas. That’s not good. Then the three guys jump past me on the right. Of course, it would have been better if I was behind those guys – ideally I would have followed their lead, and then came past in the final 100 meters or so. As it was, I had to do a full 250 meters on my own, and you can see I fade towards the end as one guy comes past me on the line.

Click here to see my on-bike video of the final few kilometers: Video of Sprint at CTCT

So a bunch sprint is kind of like a very fast moving game of chess, as you need to keep a clear mind and predict the moves of your competitors. That is not easy when you are doing around 60kmh – sometimes you get it right, and sometimes you don’t. But I was still very happy with the result, crossing the line as 1st Master for the Top Seeded Group.

Q. Considering you are 45 and riding at the Masters level, the other chaps in front of you looked several years younger. So you did remarkably well?

I am not doing too badly for an old guy, especially since I train and race clean – I do not dope. My belief is that it is all about how far you can push your body as you age. Cycling performance is basically a function of power output, body weight and aerodynamics. Then comes self-belief, tactical wisdom and an ability to suffer.

I focused on weight loss over the winter, and my current race weight is at around 63.5 kilograms, which is the lightest I have been since returning to racing six years ago.  Body weight is especially important for climbing, as the heavier you are the more power you need to produce to overcome gravity.

As I am only 168cm tall I can ride an aerodynamically efficient position, and I race with quite narrow handlebars to reduce frontal drag. For the race I used an aero one-piece body suit and aero helmet, which combined can save 3 to 5 watts of power at race speed. That basically means that because you are cutting through the air more efficiently, you need to produce less power to hold a given speed. Over three hours of racing, those energy savings can help to give you that little bit extra when things get tough.

When in top condition, my power output (the amount of power my body can produce by pushing on the pedals and measured by a Power Meter in my crank set) is around 5.3 watts per kilogram of body weight for a 20 minute threshold effort, and I can produce a peak power output of about 1200 watts in a sprint. While those numbers would not win me a Professional World Championship against Peter Sagan, they are certainly within the range of domestic-level professionals and in the upper end of performance for elite Masters road cyclists.

For a discussion of typical power outputs by different levels of cyclists see: Watts/kg on the Power Curve


Q. Is your bike purpose made for you or off the shelf?

My race bike is off the shelf – a 6.5-kilogram carbon fibre LOOK 695 with Shimano Components and Zipp carbon wheels. It is a special edition painted in the style of the artist Piet Mondrian, which I think is pretty cool. I talk about the intersection between art and business in my keynote speaking, so it’s nice to ride what I preach.

Q. How often do you train for this sort of race? 

I train between ten and fifteen hours per week, but I only aim to be in top condition for around eight to ten weeks each year – March–April and late August-first half September.  So when I am building up to a big event, it is more like fifteen hours, including a few hours a week in the gym for power training and core strength. I do more than eighty percent of my training alone, as each of my sessions is planned to develop specific areas such as strength, power or endurance.

In the ‘off’ months when I am working more, I train about six hours a week. In the ‘old’ days trainers talked about the need to do lots of slow and steady ‘base’ miles in the off season, but modern training approaches challenge this, especially for Masters athletes who need to work harder to maintain muscle mass, strength and power. So my emphasis during the months when I ride fewer hours is on maintaining power and strength, mostly on my indoor trainer and in the gym, not riding hours and hours of endurance.

Q. What kind of other special training do you do?

The important thing is to train for the hardest part of the race that you are targeting. It is pointless to do lots of six hour rides at a steady pace, if the race you are targeting is just three hours long, will be raced very fast and has half a dozen short and steep climbs. If the race has short, steep climbs then you need to train your body to do repeated explosive efforts over short, steep climbs. If you are racing events in the mountains or time trialling, then you need to train your body to hold high-power output for longer durations, say between twenty and forty minutes. In this case, explosiveness is less important.

My training program is based around a four-week cycle, with three weeks of increasing intensity followed by a one-week rest period in which I hardly touch my bike. I have found that as I age, recovery is increasingly important so I monitor my resting heart rate every morning. If my heart rate is ten to twenty percent above normal when I wake, then this is usually a good sign of fatigue.

Using a power meter during training is also very important to monitor fitness and fatigue. For example, if I do a warm-up, followed by five minute effort, and see that my power output is more than five percent below what is expected at a given heart rate, then this is a pretty sure sign that my body has not recovered from a previous training session. So I simply get off my bike, and shift that training session from the morning until the evening, or even the next day. It is amazing that sometimes an extra five or six hour of rest is all the body needs to be prepared for the next training effort at full intensity.

Q. How do you balance your work and sport?

I am constantly juggling three balls – my family, my cycling and my work. I fully believe that it is impossible to balance things equally all of the time – at certain times of the year I am a very good cyclist and (I think) a good Dad as I am home a lot. But at those times I am not working too much. At other times of the year I am very focused on work, a bit less of a good Dad in that I away from home quite a lot, and not at a top level as a cyclist.

The main conference periods In Europe are May-June and September-November, which is when I earn more than seventy percent of my annual income. During the other months when I am focused on training and racing, I work a bit but not as intensively. I might give one talk a week, or a day of teaching here and there.

During my peak training months, especially from December until March and in July and August, I do not do long-haul travel, and I don’t do multi-day workshops as this disrupts my training too much. I am able to do this as I am self-employed, but the speakers’ agencies and Business Schools with which I work also understand and respect this.

So I plan my year around juggling my cycling and work. And of course, I try to be a good husband and dad most of the time. Although, a few weeks ago I was shouting at my kids at the end of a long day on the bike, and my eight year old son Charlie said: “Pappa, you’re tired and hungry. Maybe we should not be having this conversation right now.”

Q. What are your next goals?

I will now take a week of rest, and then do a heavy ten day training block to prepare for the Tour of Cyprus, a three day Pro-Am stage race at the start of April. Then at the end of April I will race the six-day Giro Sardinia. Both races are quite mountainous, so I am hoping for some good results given that I am climbing well at the moment.

You can find my talk at USB here:  What is Success, Really?




On Being a Cycling Dad

Photo 1.jpg

A few days ago I sat on the sofa together with my wife Anne-Mie and my children, Ries, Hannah and Charlie. In my hands were four hand-written messages of love and support, wishing me success for my first races of the season in South Africa.

Eight-year-old Charlie had drawn me his dream aeroplane, with a cycling training track, gym and Jacuzzi. Hannah, who is eleven, had drawn a colourful mountain with bikes on top, and a winners trophy boldly standing forth. My big boy Ries had simply written ‘Our NR 1, Always.’ And from my wife, cut-out pictures of my face stuck on winning Orica GreenEdge riders, with funny remarks about podium girls.

How many opportunities do we have in our adult lives to receive such expressions of unwavering support? Of course, as kids many of us experienced encouragement for our youthful endeavours. But it seems that the older we get the fewer chances we have for people to cheer us on in living out our dreams. Sure, we might get complemented and rewarded by our colleagues for our  work achievements. But for me that is nothing like receiving sincere encouragement from those we love, for pursuing the passions that bring life meaning.

For me, this heartfelt expression of support from my family gives me such motivation. Because my wife and my children are telling me that this dream to realise the potential that I have as a sportsman is something for all of us to celebrate. They know more than anyone how hard I work, how much I suffer when I crash, and the discipline and sacrifices that are required to get on to the podium at the international level.

I understand that this sporting journey is far from a solo undertaking. A few years ago I remember crashing in one of those crazy and fast Belgian Kermise races in East Flanders. I shattered my left collarbone, cracked my pelvis and was sent by ambulance to the nearest hospital in a town called Dendermonde. My wife and then five-year-old son Charlie came to visit me in the hospital after the surgery on my shoulder, and I could see the worry in their faces. It was mid 2012 and about twelve months before the target event of my biking comeback – the World Masters Games in Italy.

As I lay in the hospital bed, my little boy took my hand and stared into my eyes. He asked, with worry in his voice, “Pappa, when will you be able to ride your bike again. Will you still be able to do the World Championships.” I smiled back at him, and said “Yes Charlie, it will take a little time for my body to get better, but I will be ready.” A few minutes later he managed to accidentally press the button on the bed remote control, almost catapulting me across the room.

And in August 2013 Charlie and his Mum, brother and sister cheered me on to a bronze medal in the road race at the World Masters Games in Torino. As I crossed the finish line, they were all waiting with outstretched arms.

But perhaps what made me proudest about standing on the podium in Torino was the fact that we had already started to see in our children this courage to dream big, to believe that anything is possible if you have energy and focus and self-belief. It’s part of why I ride my bike, to show my children that life is for living.

I am sure that the future will give us many more reasons for celebration. Not just through my own sporting adventures, but also in celebrating whatever dreams my wife and my three children aspire to achieve.

Photo 2.jpg






A day with Alexander Kristoff


In my last blogpost I talked about how life sometimes knocks you down. Isn’t it funny how life can also give you wings – I just met my cycling idol Alexander Kristoff!

I had just left the small apartment where I was staying with my family in Puerto de Mogan on Gran Canaria, and was heading up a narrow rural road towards the centre of the Island. I had planned a long and steady day on the bike, and was enjoying the sun on my back when a small group of cyclists caught up to me. As I glimpsed over my shoulder, I recognised several guys in the Norwegian colours of blue, red and white and then I saw the two in red. They looked different – lean, and tanned and relaxed on the bike. And then it hit me – they were wearing the new colours of Team Katusha, with names down the side of their jerseys – Kristoff and Bystrøm. I could not believe it – what were the odds of meeting these guys on my training ride!?

Alexander Kristoff is one of the world’s top classics riders, and has won Milan San Remo, the Tour of Flanders and a bronze medal at the 2012 Olympic Games. Sven Erik Bystrøm was under 23 World Champion in 2014, and joined Katusha as a professional in 2015. And here they were, riding beside me on the road to Mogan and the mountains beyond. As is etiquette in cycling, I asked if I could join the small training group and was welcomed into the fold. I introduced myself, and met each of my six Norwegian companions. As it turned out they had not started the day together, but had formed the group along the beach road on the way from Puerto Rico.

We held a steady tempo as we headed up into the mountains, and chatted away as the gradient was not too steep. Kristoff told me about his trips to Australia and the Tour Down Under, and how he had decided not to go this year given his focus on the Spring Classics and defending the Tour of Flanders. I learned that the other Norwegian guys were out for a short ride of just a few hours, but Kristoff and Bystrøm were planning a big day of six or seven hours. So I asked if I could tag along, and the two professionals said “sure, no problem.” A grin spread from ear to ear as we reached the top of the climb and three of us turned left and the other guys turned to the right. It was just me and team Katusha!

To say that riding with Alexander and Sven was exciting for me would be a big understatement. I was ecstatic! When I first got back on to my bike more than five years ago, I sought out and trained with young elite level guys in the area where we lived near to Brussels. Some of those rides almost killed me, but I told myself that if I wanted to race at the elite level again, I would also need to train at the elite level. I found it so motivating to be training with the elite guys, many of whom were at least twenty years my junior. But I never imagined that one day I would be out on the road with Alexander Kristoff and Sven Bystrøm.

When you ride with guys for six or seven hours there is no need to rush the conversation. So we chatted in a relaxed way as we headed further into the centre of the island, talking about how we came to cycling, about goals for 2016 and our families. I felt a bit self-conscious talking about my plans for competing in South Africa and Italy in the Spring, especially considering the races that they will be doing at that time, but the guys listened and wished me luck.


Sven told me that they were working to a four-day training cycle – three days on the bike, and one day of rest before the next cycle. Today was the day for long steady distance after a day of interval work, which suited me just fine. We stopped for a short lunch of cheese sandwiches and coffee, topped-up our water bottles, and enjoyed the view to the peaks surrounding Tejeda. On the way back down the valley, I saw first hand how fast professional cyclists can descend, even on a training ride.

All in all I spent almost seven hours with Alexander and Sven, and we covered around 170kms and more than 3500m of climbing. It is a day that I will remember for a very long time, although not because there were any flashes of insight or golden nuggets of training advice. In fact, I was struck more by the ordinariness of a long day in the saddle with two guys who have chosen cycling not only as a passion but also a job. I had the pleasure to meet two very open and sincere human beings, who despite their fame and achievements were happy to share their ride with me.

I am a lucky guy, and I am sure 2016 is going to be a very good year – for me, for Sven Bystrøm and for Alexander Kristoff.


HAVE YOU SEEN MY TED TALK: What is Success, Really?

Self-Belief, Beyond Reason

Eight months ago I lay beside the road on a mountain descent in Mallorca. It was early April and I had just hit a brick wall doing about 50km per hour, breaking ten ribs, puncturing a lung, dislocating my right shoulder and cracking several teeth. And I was pissed off – furious at myself for losing concentration on the corner, and angry that all of the hard work that I had done on my bicycle over the winter was now lost. But I did not despair – not even for a moment. Because throughout my life I have sometimes experienced setbacks and heartache, but I have always been able to get back on my feet. And I knew that this time would be no different.

After the ambulance arrived at the roadside I was taken to a small hospital in the nearest town, but the doctors took one look at me and shook their heads – my condition was too serious. They put a drip in my arm to ease the pain, and I was transferred to the intensive care unit of the University Hospital in Palma. The rest of the journey was a blur.

That evening, after the catheter had been inserted to drain the fluid from my punctured lung, I managed to call my wife Anne-Mie. With laboured breathing, I told her that I had crashed, but I was okay. No broken neck, no head injury and I could remember the kids birth dates. I told her that I was going to be okay – that it would just take time.

I spent a week in the hospital before I was allowed to travel home to Belgium by ferry and train – I was unable to fly because the tear in my lung was too serious. In that time I had a lot of time to think, and of course I started to write this blog. But not for one moment did I consider that my life as a cyclist was over – I just accepted that my goals for the 2015 season were gone, and that I would have to focus on repairing my body.

Lying in that hospital bed in Mallorca I reminded myself that life is long, and that this accident was just a setback. At only 44 years old, I have many years ahead of me – in 2016 I will turn 45, and that means progressing to the Masters 4 Category for guys from 45 to 50 years old. So I said to myself, “next year will be your year.”

A few days ago I had a quiet celebration – I got back on my bike at the start of July, and for the past five months I have been steadily rebuilding my fitness. I still have some pain in my ribs, and the shoulder aches a bit, but the rest of me feels fine. I record all of my training sessions with a Power Metre and Heart Rate Monitor, and it is exhilarating to see that my condition is now back to where it was before I had the crash. My body’s ability to sustain power is about the same as when I got on the top step of the podium at the Cape Town Cycle Classic back in March – and that feels amazing.

But more importantly I still have a passion to compete. For me, love for my sport is not about a small spark in the dark. It’s about a burning fire, and self-belief beyond reason. The fire still burns, and 2016 is going to be a very good year.

WATCH MY TED TALK: What is Success, Really?



Big Hairy Ambitious Goals

I remember when I was working at London Business School back in the early 2000s, and I taught on a program for a big international telecom company based in the UK. The company used the acronym ‘BHAG’ or ‘Big Hairy Ambitious Goal’ to describe what they were trying to achieve in the business world. I adopted the term as part of my journey towards a medal in the mens road race at the World Masters Games in Torino.

My body is almost fully recovered after my accident back in April. Ten broken ribs, a dislocated shoulder and a punctured lung don’t heal overnight, and my first few months back on the bike back in July and August were just awful. I had lost so much strength, that I was regularly passed by the lone retirees that you come across pedalling the roads of Flanders. And they were not riding electric bikes!

I can admit that the accident had not just hit me physically – I felt depressed, as the pain was pretty much constant for about three months. It was impossible to lie flat, so I slept in a ‘Grandpa’ chair for more than ten weeks. When I first got back on my indoor trainer at end of June, I was exhausted after just 30 or 40 minutes of pedalling. My body was using so much energy to fix itself, that any added exertion left me drained.

But bit by bit I have increased my training intensity over the past four months, and now I am starting to hit the performance numbers that I was doing back in April. One of the good things about the accident is that it has really taught me to sense my body – I don’t know if its real or imagined, but it is kind of like I can feel my muscles, joints and even respiration with a heightened sensitivity. So every day when I start my training session, I first spend some time just sensing my body. And then I compare the way I feel to the screen in front of me – power output, heart rate and cadence.

The other good thing about the accident is how motivated I am feeling about getting back to competition. The start of this year was quite stressful – our contractor had gone bankrupt in the middle of building our new house, throwing our moving plans into disarray and meaning that we had been stressed with getting the project back on track over the winter. The whole episode had really disrupted my training, so I came into the Spring behind where I would have liked to be. I had some good results in South Africa in March, but I felt distracted. Then the accident.

But now I feel incredibly motivated to make the 2016 season one of my best. For the past six weeks or so I have been waking at around 6am almost every morning, doing 60 to 90 minutes on the indoor trainer before Anne-Mie and the kids are out of bed. I am in my obsessive groove, where training gives me the kind of kick that I guess musicians and artists feel when they are in their flow. There is no boredom or loneliness, no mental distraction. I’ve even started to talk to Anne-Mie and the kids about my power curve and watts per kilo, and they are kind enough to feign interest.

Now its time to set some BHAGs !






Mid-Life Dopers


I compete against mid-life dopers. I ride with a power meter, a crank-mounted device that measures the number of watts you are producing at any given moment on the bike. So I don’t just feel the pain that I go through trying to stay with some of the middle-aged amateur cyclists I race against – I can actually see the numbers they are putting out. And sometimes those numbers are simply unbelievable.

I participated in a multi-day race in Sardinia last year against Masters riders from all over Europe. About half way into the 140km first stage I found myself putting out around 360 watts at the base of a long climb just to stay with two Italian guys in my age group category. These were not little skinny guys like me (I am 168cm tall and my race weight is around 64 kilograms) but tall, well-built men of at least 75 kilos.

The two Italians were smoothly riding away from me on the climb, and taking into account their body weight and the incline, this meant that they were putting out as much as 10 percent more power than I was – maybe 390 watts – and they were holding it! When in peak condition I can hold 360 watts for about ten minutes of pedaling, before I completely blow-up. So I shook my head and watched them ride away.

To put 390 watts in perspective, Chris Froome’s estimated power output on the mountain stage he won in the Tour de France this year was around 410 watts. So what I witnessed in Italy just didn’t make sense for middle-aged amateur cyclists. I Googled the names of the two Italians that evening to discover that one of them had recently returned to competition after a two-year doping suspension.

Over the course of the week-long race, these two guys raced aggressively every single day – there seemed to be no fatigue, and they attacked constantly. I eventually finished third for my age group classification, but was more than twelve minutes behind by the end of the week. The other guys in my age group joked that we were engaged in two-speed racing – the winning Italians in one class, and the rest of us in the other.

The fact is that doping, and especially the use of the blood booster EPO, is all too common in amateur Masters cycling. Unlike professional cycling, there is no biological passport system involving the systematic and regular testing of competitors. In many countries, such as Belgium, there are random checks at race events but typically just a handful of riders are tested. In many events, like the one that I raced in Italy, there is no testing at all. So the odds of getting caught are quite small.

Doping products such as EPO are affordable, and readily available for purchase on the Internet. The real challenge is how to deal with the mid-life dopers, and I think that out of season testing must become a reality for those Masters riders who are performing ‘exceptionally’ in race events. For example, I know of a 50 something cyclist who won 8 out of 10 Masters events in a Belgian Kermesse series a few years ago. Given the level of competition in Belgium, that kind of performance verges on the unbelievable. Out of season testing of amateurs is already done to an extent in the US, and scores of riders have been suspended as a consequence. The same should be done in continental Europe.

Although there is very little research about doping by Masters athletes, I have read a lot on the psychology of doping at the elite level of sport. Much of the literature talks about game theory. The simplest game in game theory is “prisoner’s dilemma”. In the athletes’ version, both cyclists will be better off if neither takes drugs, but because neither can trust the other, both have to take them to make sure they have a chance of winning.*

If it is highly likely that the majority of your competitors are doping, then you have two options. You can choose not to dope, and be almost certainly beaten as a consequence, or you can dope, and be given a fighting chance. I have read scores of interviews with cyclists who doped during the Armstrong era, and almost all of them talked of this athlete’s dilemma.

The financial stakes in professional sports can be high, and this is also a factor that undoubtedly drives some to dope. But it is not just about fame and fortune – many young cyclists who encountered the doping culture of the 1990s and early 2000s had dreamed of professional cycling since they were kids, sacrificing education and career opportunities for a sporting path. They had travelled far from family and friends to make it as a rider in Europe, and were then sucked into an environment in which doping was the norm – where it was expected by peers and mentors. For them, cycling was a job and doping became a tool of the trade.

But the reality for middle-aged cyclists is very different. There is certainly no fortune, as even the best amateur Masters racers spend far more on equipment, travel and race costs than they ever get from prize money. Cycling is a passion, not an income generator. Fame is also elusive, as Masters cycling is rarely reported on by the mainstream media.

We are not surrounded by people who encourage us to dope. In fact, those who cheat disgust most of my cycling peers. A Belgian rider who is almost fifty years old won his age-group category of a week-long Masters race in Italy this year, and also rode unbelievably well on the general classification. Not only did he finish in the top ten, but he consistently outclassed riders twenty years his junior – every day of the event. He has served a previous doping suspension, and was openly ridiculed by other cyclists at the race. I wondered if this was fair, but his performance on the road left few doubts in many peoples’ minds.

To me it seems that the prisoner’s dilemma still plays a role in elite Masters cycling – the fear that others are doping, so to win I must dope too. But what this also says is that the individual puts ‘winning’ above all else. And in the absence of financial rewards and fame ‘winning’ is essentially about two things: firstly a sense of self-achievement, and secondly recognition from family, friends and the Masters cycling community.

But in both cases the outcome is a lie for dopers – you have not achieved your true potential, and the recognition that you are receiving is undeserved. It is one thing to mislead the Masters cycling community about the reasons for your performance, but to do so to spouse, children and wider family and friends strikes me as very sad indeed.

And this is why I pity the mid-life dopers. Because what they have failed to acquire is the wisdom that at this stage of life, winning is not just about receiving a medal after a bike race. It’s about how you got there, and who you have become along the way.

Earlier this year I won my age-group classification and was also 1st International Amateur Rider overall at the Cape Town Cycle Classic. It was the first time in my life to stand on the top step of the podium at a major international race.

Standing on that podium in South Africa, I held the trophy high.


*For a good discussion of game theory and the athlete’s dilemma see: The Economist, Doping in Sport: The Athlete’s Dilemma, 20 July 2013. ARTICLE