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Kristin Carpenter: A shocking pro cycling win shows a way forward in our businesses

Published May 2, 2019

Like many of you, I was astonished by the race-winning performance turned in by Mathieu van der Poel in the Amstel Gold men's pro road race this year.

What we saw unfold that afternoon in Limburg made history in road cycling. The most experienced pros and director sportifs on the world tour were caught completely off guard, never expecting that the last 10 kilometers of the race could possibly unfold how it did.

But did it ever.

Van der Poel was trailing one minute behind the race leaders with three kilometers to go. He literally pulled a string of the world's strongest pro road racers back to the leaders, and with just 125 meters to the finish, caught them and sprinted past for the win.

I've read and watched a lot of analysis on van der Poel's effort in the Amstel Gold race. He's incredibly talented and strong, but that didn't fully explain his win, nor can it explain the level of surprise his ambush win caused.

There were early warning signs. Consider the strong spring performances from both van der Poel and his cyclocross peer Wout van Aert in the Classics. Despite media coverage highlighting the results — and the threat — of these riders, road racing's institution remained complacent and married to a time-tested tactical approach that has worked. Until it didn't anymore.

The van der Poel win was disruptive and some say that road cycling is forever changed. And many just didn't see it coming. Kind of sounds like our businesses today doesn't it?

Let's take three lessons from the van der Poel win and apply them to our specialty brands and shops. Doing so could help us not make the same mistakes that the institution of road cycling did at the Amstel Gold race.

1 — "A Disastrous Tactical Stalemate. ..."

The van der Poel win was less about freakish athletic ability and more about the failure of institutions that govern how World Tour road races are won today. You can watch the final 25 kilometers in the video below:

Neal Rogers of Cycling Tips said it very well in his Weekly Spin article, titled "Deconstructing Mathieu van der Poel's improbable Amstel Gold victory":

"What took place in the final 10km of the Amstel Gold Race is a tale of overreliance on race radios, the shuffling and reshuffling of chase groups, narrow roads, shifting wind directions, and a disastrous tactical stalemate," he wrote.

What's the tactical stalemate in your business? Are you mired in legacy planning, budgeting and other business practices? Are you stuck in habitual operational and go-to-market processes that tether you to the way things have always been done? Operating your business this way literally opens the door wide for disruption. You've got a target on your back if you're wed to continually doing things that got your business to the point where it is now, yet expecting a different result. I think Einstein called that the definition of insanity.

2 — Try new things and be OK failing

I like that van der Poel himself was incredulous at his win, which underscores that it was instinct-driven.

He's the 2018 Dutch National Road Race Champion, but Van der Poel's rise to the ranks of pro road cycling came via mountain biking and cyclocross racing. As we know, that's a different skill and strength set.

In the Amstel Gold race, van der Poel launched an early attack on Gulperberg with 43 km to go, which was deemed a mistake by his peers and the media. Even his famous father, Adri van der Poel, tried to correct his son's approach to road racing.

Many have said van der Poel should know better (as a third-generation pro bike racer in the van der Poel family). I personally think the way he's racing on instinct and leading with his strengths is his biggest asset. More importantly, he doesn't seem to care if he fails, so he keeps trying new things.

What we can take away from this is the fact that van der Poel is "zigging" where the men's peloton has largely "zagging," as Richard Moore pointed out in the analysis episode of the Cycling Podcast, along with is co-hosts Daniel Friebe and Lionel Birnie.

Friebe stated in the same post-Amstel race episode: "(van der Poel) doesn't seem to be paying much heed to what he 'should' be doing or what 'tradition' dictates he should be doing."

Can you find three areas in your business where you find yourself doing what you should do instead of what your instincts are telling you to do? Can you ensure that your team is encouraged to fail when the intention is to evolve your business?

3 — He's not restricted by a specific role or expectations of a major team.

Van der Poel is not tied to a role on a major team, or a role on a team. This gives him freedom to try new things. Some are failures and some are history-altering victories.

What takes away freedom in your business decisions? Some businesses are restricted by having more than 20-percent of sales coming from one major retailer, or from one flagship product. Others are chained to staying the same in their business (not launching e-commerce as a brand is just one example) due to a fear of losing traction with a major partner.

This is where discipline comes in as a specialty business leader. The only entity that should dictate what you do in your business is your consumer. And to serve that North Star, you must stay nimble. When you do this as a brand, all of your channels will benefit. When you do this as a retailer, you'll earn 'lifer' loyal customers.

It's not the easy road, which is why BRAIN and Verde Brand Communications are copresenting a series of Channel Mastery podcasts, titled "The Shifting Channels in the Bike Market." We've launched five of the eight episodes, all of which can be found at

Channel Mastery is a podcast produced by Verde Brand Communications. I created the show to help my clients in the active outdoor lifestyle markets compete for the attention, hearts and minds of today's omnichannel consumer. Let's face it, as specialty businesses, our competitive set has grown exponentially. We can now count Best Buy, Nordstroms, Amazon, Walmart and many other well-funded retail and brand behemoths as competitors.

Channel Mastery and BRAIN are committed to leveling the playing field for specialty.

This series offers interviews with, and resources from the following market leaders:

  • Ryan Atkinson, president of SmartEtailing
  • Erik Saltvold, founder and owner, Erik's Bike, Ski and Board
  • Pete Buhl, president and co-founder of Beeline Bikes
  • Sophie O'Kelley, and Jennifer Tetrick, COO and PR Director, respectively, of Decathlon USA
  • Kate Powlison, SRAM's Road Brand Manager
  • Ken Meidel and Ashley Korenblat, Outerbike
  • Blair Clark, Canyon USA
  • Zach Martin, Walmart/Moosejaw

Download the series, subscribe to Channel Mastery, and start implementing! And let me know if there's a topic you'd like me to research and put a show together on. I can be reached at

Kristin Carpenter

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