The Good Teammate – How to Be Positive Part of a Team in Cycling

Cyclists mostly know at some level that bike racing is a team sport and that we need good teammates to help us win. Sometimes listening to the stories and complaints of club racers, though, I wonder if most riders know what it means to be a good teammate. I hear of riders who crow about crushing newbies. I hear about teammates chasing down each other’s breaks or writing race stories that fail to mention the presence of a teammate much less his or her contribution. Sometimes they goad teammates into wasting energy for no good reason. Other stories restore my faith in the good of cycling humanity: Riders go out of their way to mention the help they got from teammates; they sacrifice their own chances to support a buddy or they force a stronger teammate to accept a replacement wheel. These good guys “win” by helping others win, sometimes even at a cost to their own chances. These stories make me wonder if everyone is potentially a good teammate. Then along comes another story of the two who proudly gets his thrills crushing the team’s fours…

Hearing about good and bad behavior begs a question: Are the bad teammates evil, or just misguided or uninformed? Maybe they don’t know what it means to be a good teammate and just need to be educated. The following is my pedantic effort to make sure that as many people as possible have the needed information, and thus no excuses.

What is a Good Teammate?

The good teammate behaves in ways that support the club in reaching its goals, and if the club has not stated any group goals, he or she helps the members reach their personal goals. Very few clubs have as their club goal making sure that their riders don’t win races, but you wouldn’t know it from their behavior. Too often, riders chase their teammates or otherwise undermine each other.

Every attack is a gamble. Most attacks are quickly neutralized. If a break forms, it is most often caught. The odds are hugely tilted by the behavior of teammates though. If one teammate jumps into the rotation of the chasing pack and fails to pull through, that disruption buys the break precious seconds. If the teammate chases, that steals precious seconds away from the break. The effect can be quickly compounded by other teams. Strong teams will send riders up the road with riders from teams who are known to block effectively, and will join in blocking for them, while they will ignore breaks by riders who have teams known to be disorganized. I’ve often seen riders chase a teammate in a solo break, bringing the field along. The spoken excuse is often some variant of, “I wanted to go work with him”, while the unspoken fact is the chaser couldn’t stand the idea of the other guy going away for the win. And of course, two riders from the same team off the front will usually wake up a complacent peloton and trigger a chase, so the chase by the teammate is both fratricide and suicide. Riders who chase down teammates outside of deliberately planned tactical scenarios should be kicked off the team.

There are many examples of poor-teammate behavior even off the race course. For instance, many experienced riders know that they shouldn’t hammer their guts out mid-week before a weekend race, but are not quite emotionally strong enough not to do it in the face of temptation. A good teammate does not create the temptation. If not racing, he or she might set up a hard mid-week ride, but won’t pressure the guys who are racing to come along. The bad-teammate says, “come on, what’s it going to hurt?” because he wants ride partners more than he cares about team results.

Many riders know that there is a time of year for base building rides, but have a hard time restraining themselves when the pace on the ride goes up. A good teammate helps everyone else by carefully maintaining an appropriate pace, even if others hammer off the front, tempting the rest to follow. If the hammer doesn’t know any better, a quick word from an elder statesman of the club should fix things up, but if the hammerhead continues the same way, consider him a bad teammate.

The good teammate usually has a positive word for a buddy during the race. A friendly and encouraging voice in the peloton can get a rider through a tough patch, and a rider who has a rough patch may have little else to hold onto. The moments of glory in bike racing are rare. The good teammate shares the glory when it is available. The good teammate’s victory report mentions all the people who helped the victor or the team, from the spouse who made dinner the night before or handed up a bottle, to the teammate who’s awesome attacks set up the winning break, and even the rider who suffered to hang on. For many riders, those moment’s off the front or mentions in a race report are as close as they will ever get to glory, and yet some riders would deny them even that by chasing or writing race reports that ignore teammates.

Situations often arise in which several riders on a team have at least a slim chance of getting a satisfying result from a race. That might mean a win for one rider, or finally finishing with the pack for another. The good teammate is willing to sacrifice to help either of those riders, at least in some less-important race. For the bad teammate, every race is too important to waste helping a friend succeed.

The riders who are challenged to be good teammates are not always the ones who are giving up their own chances to help others win. Sometimes it’s the star. When a rider sacrifices his or her own possible success to help a teammate, the teammate should recognize that two (or more) people’s race outcomes now rest on his or her one pair of shoulders. That’s a serious responsibility. The supported rider should not be fooling around. He or she should have done everything possible to prepare for the race, knowing that such a situation might arise. A good teammate doesn’t accept sacrifices unless he or she is up to the responsibility they bring. If there were a few beers the night before the race, or a sore throat or if training or nutrition has been off, the good teammate warns his buddies not to waste themselves for him.

A good teammate also doesn’t let his team waste itself blocking for him unless he has the best chance on the team for a placing. In the absence of race radios, if a good teammate goes up the road with a group and then gets dropped from the group, he does not chase in no-man’s land unless he still has the best possibility of placing for the team. If there’s a lot of race left and there are teammates in the field who are strong enough to chase, he or she has to get back to the field to let them know to stop blocking and start chasing.

The success of an amateur club programs requires an influx of new riders. Every year, racers get burned out or quit to do other stuff. The remaining riders only have a team if they steadily bring on new members. Good teammates are good ambassadors for cycling and for the team. They wave at fellow cyclists. They slow to ask if riders with flats have all the stuff they need. They drop back on the club ride to show newer riders how to hold on or to push them up hills. They don’t see newer riders as opportunities to prove their prowess. Good teammates are good people when it comes to new or visiting riders. They make new riders welcome, explain what’s going on, and help make sure the newbies have a good experience, or at least know their way home. They would never make fun of the ignorance of a new rider. They’d be too busy helping the new rider grow beyond it. Good teammates see the good of the team being as important as their own success, or even see the two as being the same.

Why be a Good Teammate?

Being a good teammate often means some sort of sacrifice, but the good teammate knows the sacrifice is worthwhile because it will be rewarded one way or another. Even though the prizes go to individuals, bike racing is clearly a team sport. At the higher levels it is impossible to win without the support of a strong team. At the local amateur level, racing is simply much more fun when you have people to do it with, and one’s chances of winning are far greater if there is teamwork going on. Feeling part of a win by anyone on the team greatly increases the chance of “winning” any given race.

Most of the examples I’ve given of “bad” teammates are really just examples of people being ignorantly selfish, putting their own interests ahead of the team, but more than that, not understanding how their own interests align with those of the team. I distinguish this sort of ignorant selfishness from the much more admirable enlightened selfishness. The enlightened selfish individual recognizes how individual success depends on that of others and of the team and does everything possible to foster the success of the team, ultimately for his or her own ends.

In short, the good teammate is willing to subsume him or herself in the team. The good teammate wins when the team wins, so he or she is willing to step back from opportunities for individual ego advancement if those opportunities would come at the expense of the team. It’s fun to outsprint a teammate or drop new rider, but the good teammate knows that at least in certain situations, doing so ultimately costs more than the thrill it brings.

A good teammate needs the support of the team for his her individual goals so he or she is willing to sacrifice for the team to earn that support, by protecting a new rider for instance so that rider can become a loyal teammate, or by giving up a top-10 placing so a teammate can win outright.

Where Do Good Teammates Come From?

Bike racing is more fun, and success comes more easily if one has good teammates, but where can one get some? Good teammates can be poached from other teams, but they also tend to be loyal, so most are made fresh starting from normal riders.

Some teams seem to reward rogue, ego-driven behavior. They have club rides built around opportunities to drop and humiliate. They have a pecking order based on humbling or being humbled by the other riders on the team. Such teams are like wolf packs, lead by a dominant rider who must constantly prove his dominance. While they occasionally generate a lower-category winner, they rarely produce the sort of team that can get a rider on the podium in a higher category race. Such clubs may survive for many years, but they rarely grow and prosper because they don’t create or provide a home for good teammates.

Other teams seem to be built to teach riders to recognize the connection between individual and team goals. They crank out good teammates left and right. There are often riders on such a team who behave selflessly, and are key to the team even if they are not in official leadership positions. These are the people who write the generous race reports, mess up chasing rotations at some cost to their own energy stores and help the new riders. They often do well in races themselves, and they usually have the generous support of teammates when they do so. These positive riders establish the attitude of the club by their presence and their enthusiasm for the success of those around them. They lead by example. They also tend to glory in teammates’ accomplishments. Teams that have a few of these riders will generate more of them and find success both as teams and for the individuals on the teams.

A rider who wants to be surrounded by good teammates should check to be sure that he or she is not stuck in one of the many wolf pack teams and change teams or start a new one if necessary. Assuming the team has a place for good teammates, the most important step to being surrounded by them is to be a good teammate oneself. The question becomes whether you are willing not to humiliate buddies if that means being part of a better team, because as soon as a few riders start being supportive, the team begins to improve and the riders start reaching more of their individual and team goals.