Winning relationships support Olympic success

By Justin Grace 

Justin Grace has coached track sprint cycling for national teams in the UK, France and New Zealand, helping win a string of Olympic medals in the process. Here, the sprint coach of the Great Britain Cycling Team tells how innovation from suppliers is vital to remaining competitive.

All suppliers are supposed to work to exacting standards and to tight deadlines, but in elite track cycling, the pressure is at a different level. I can tell you, more or less to the minute, what time we’ll be racing at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, just about a year from now: that’s an absolute deadline, no slippage, no-scheduling, if it’s missed it’s missed and four years of dreams and hard work are gone. While I can tell you when we’re racing, what I can’t tell you is the exact equipment we’ll be using: it will continue to be developed and refined up to the very last minute with the help and cooperation of our suppliers.

In planning training and competition schedules for the Great Britain Team, which won six sprint medals in the 2016 Rio Olympics, I have to ensure riders, bikes, clothing and technology are all the best they can possibly be and at the track at the right time. These preparations rely heavily on a complex network of suppliers.
 
When we’re asking a supplier for components to be ready on a Wednesday, and they do not arrive before Friday, then the whole reason we needed them might have passed, because they were supposed to go to a race in Poland on Thursday. The significance of these deadlines and what they mean to our ultimate goal is something we need to share with our supplier partners.
 

New technology, new suppliers

Cycling technology and training have advanced dramatically over the last 20 years. As such, our team now employs materials developed in Formula One motor racing and other highperformance sports.
 
To understand why getting supplies to events and training sessions on time is so important to the team, it helps to get to grips with the minutia of detailed planning that goes into developing athletes, bikes and surrounding technology to be at the absolute peak for the big events.
 
The team might enter an event to test the performances of the equipment, knowing that riders are not physically ready because they have been training for another event later in the season. If suppliers do not get equipment to the team on time, the effort might be wasted. Suppliers also need to understand the purpose of such events and not become focused on that specific outcome: they need to understand the big picture.
 
Suppliers can need reassurance that there are specific boxes to tick, and anything that sits outside of them is irrelevant. If they buy into that, it’s easier to debrief them afterwards. But sometimes there are the suppliers who haven’t really understood the big picture, and they can go to a debrief and are fairly vocal if they feel the work they’ve done has been compromised. 

 

Experts manage relationships

British Cycling has recruited from a number of industries, including automotive and aerospace, to help it develop the technologies it needs to win top events. These are the individuals under my management who form relationships with the most important and innovative suppliers.
We introduce these experts, who also manage relationships with suppliers, by educating them about the sport and tapping into their diverse experiences to think of ways that we could do things not just differently but also things that have never been done before.
 
For example, the team’s head of research and innovation used to be the team principal for Jaguar Formula One. That’s the person we use to make connections with new suppliers, to be able to do things ahead of other nations, like sourcing carbon fibre parts.
 
An example from my time in New Zealand is using equipment to measure the distances between bikes traveling in close convoy, which involved attaching lasers to the back of each bike. The relationships that those guys brought to the party were pretty amazing.
 
The team’s ‘supply managers’ must be in constant communication with suppliers to make sure materials and technology are ready for every staging post in the team’s development – and suppliers must be willing to go the extra mile. An example is our shoe supplier based in New York which has sent someone to look at the riders personally and gather relevant data, rather than subcontracting it out.
 

Suppliers in constant contact

With suppliers in such a highpressure sport, developing personal relationships is essential. There is an understanding that they are at the other end of the phone and we’re talking to humans, not robots, which ensures  suppliers – especially the ones relatively new to the industry – understand our deadlines and what our expectations are around the development, production and delivery of goods. As in any field it’s not perfect and occasionally things don’t always go to plan. When this happens, we are careful not to over-react and focus on learning and applying lessons to make things better next time.
 
There are plenty of occasions when suppliers have pulled out all the stops to meet deadlines with their technology, including a supplier which delivered carbon fibre components to the Olympic Village while they were still warm out of the moulds.
 
But suppliers do not only innovate to help with the performance of the bike and the rider. They can also boost efficiency across the whole team. When I was a coach with the New Zealand cycle team, it struggled to get its bikes shipped around the world because of the country’s remoteness. The team might require 50 or 60 items of luggage between six riders and staff. We found shipping suppliers who were prepared to form a partnership with the team. To ease logistical problems, the company developed new fibreglass cases that were specifically designed to pack equipment more effectively and fit into the small aircraft and shipping containers. It helped keep equipment safe and costs down.
 

Keeping egos out of it

I started as a competitive rider, representing New Zealand at the Commonwealth Games and World Championships. I was an okay bike rider: good enough to be there, but not good enough to win. I was very lucky to be able to get to travel the world and live out my dream as a semiprofessional cyclist.
 
At the same time, I also developed a career in the engineering industry and helped other riders with their training plans. Somehow, I caught the eye of the New Zealand Team, which invited me to be their sprint coach. A spell in French cycling followed before I joined Team GB.
 
In developing high-performance teams, which includes supplier’s, being open and honest about performance is critical. We’re in an industry where everybody’s passionate about what they are doing. So sometimes, when people receive constructive criticism, it can be easy, when under pressure, for big egos to kick in and turn it in to a personal criticism.
 
Managing relationships across the whole team is a challenge that is important to step up to. Generally, our relationships with suppliers are really good. We’ve tried hard to learn how to manage them well because they can help give us a competitive advantage. We’ll see if the effort pays off on the track in Tokyo 2020.
 

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