Study reveals what motivates WorldTour riders to work for their team leader

The study showed that riders will 'go the extra mile' if they identify strongly with their team leader

New research into the psychology of pro cyclists supports Dave Brailsford’s decision to announce this week that Team Sky has “clear leaders” for each race.

The study by sports scientists is the first to back the common sense theory that a cycling squad member will work hardest when they identify with a leader and see him put in extra effort.

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If a pro rider doesn’t have that affinity with their leader, they’re more likely to hide in the bunch and take it easy, something insiders call ‘social loafing’.

The pioneering study is based on a confidential survey of 55 members of four WorldTour squads. They answered questions aimed to find out what motivates them to do their utmost for their team and to sacrifice their own personal chances of scoring UCI World Ranking points.

The answers from the pro cyclists revealed they’re inspired by a leader who shows an interest in them and leads by example. Bonding with the whole team is also crucial. When all this comes together, riders will do everything to help their leader, a behaviour pattern called ‘social labouring’.

“When the team captain adopts a high-quality transformational leadership style, team members were more likely to go the extra mile for the team,” say the scientists.

So their team mates will bury themselves if they believe that Thomas and Kwiatowski are willing to sacrifice their own interests to help Team Sky in the Tour of Flanders on Sunday.

It wasn’t always so complicated, say the scientists. They blame the UCI points system for making it more difficult for riders to give everything they’ve got for their team. It “presses domestiques to consider their own performance rather than the performance of their leaders,” they say.

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“It used to be easier in the past because there was just a leader who paid the riders and so they would work for the team,” says researcher Bert de Cuyper of Leuven University, who has mentored Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick Step) from cyclo-cross world champion to successful road race team member.

In Belgium there are doubts over the attitude of other Etixx-Quick Step squad members, despite the team currently ranking fifth by the UCI. “There’s a lot of talk about social loafing,” says de Cuyper.

The researchers suggest team bosses can learn from the pioneering study. “If they accept the scientific evidence that leaders are very much made and not born, coaches should spend more time developing the leadership skills of their captain.”

They say John Degenkolb‘s actions after winning both the Milan-San Remo and the Paris-Roubaix last year with Giant-Alpecin were a great demonstration of how to foster team spirit. He invited the whole team to climb onto the winner’s podium to celebrate.

“By being a role model for their followers, leaders are able to foster members’ identification with the team. This will inspire the team members to go that extra mile for their team,” they say.

Whether such feelings are strong enough to propel Team Sky to win in Flanders will be revealed on Sunday.

When do elite cyclists go the extra mile? Team identification mediates the relationship between perceived leadership qualities of the captain and social laboring by Bert De Cuyper, Filip Boen, Charlotte Van Beirendonck, Norbert Vanbeselaere and Katrien Fransen will be published in the International Journal of Sport Psychology

Max Glaskin is an award-winning freelance journalist who tweets about cycling and science as @CyclingScience1 and is the author of Cycling Science (published by Frances Lincoln UK, Chicago University Press USA, and seven other languages)