the idea of commencing a career in sales was one that filled me with dread. i should make it plain that in reality, it was never really a serious consideration, but since that had been my late father's path to success, there was always a faint notion that i might be pre-disposed to follow suit. with no disrespect to those of you currently at the top of the sales tree, or even navigating your way through its branches, there seems the almost dreaded inevitability about its progress. though i put my hand up to a gross simplification: start as a salesman, prove adept and promotion to sales manager is all but assured.
after a few years as sales manager, play your cards right and suddenly a regional sale manager nameplate appears on your office door. and so on and so on. with each step on the ladder dependent on sales figures, either yours or those under your management, and no matter how much you sell, the powers that be will increase that for the following year. so there's never a chance to sit back, kick-off and bathe in the glory of what you've achieved. because whatever you've achieved, it will never be deemed enough.
cycling's not quite like that. yes, the value of each successive year's contract depends a great deal on the successes (or lack of) during the previous one, but there's no defined career path. possibly this is because cycling takes account of the physical abilities you were born with; if you ain't got it, there's no point in lamenting that fact. additionally, with one or two exceptions, a career in professional cycling is never going to last until you reach pension age. so what does an even moderately successful cyclist do when the time comes to hang up his/her wheels?
some have been fortunate and astute enough to earn and save sufficient of the folding stuff to never have to work again. a bike shop or drinking establishment purchase seems still to be a popular choice, especially on the continent, or perhaps a job with the sponsor of that final team, always assuming you've made enough of an impression during your time in the club. perhaps the occasional foray into tv punditry beckons or, if all else fails, you become a directeur sportif.
that latter remark is made firmly tongue in cheek, for a good d.s. can make the difference between a team that struggles to survive and one that hits the ground running each and every time. tom southam is perhaps still best known on these shores for having raced with rapha condor and appearing in more than one or two rapha catalogues and lookbooks. on deciding to find a seat more comfortable than a bike saddle, he split his duties between press officer for rapha condor jlt and occasionally taking charge of the team when principal directeur sportif john herety was occupied elsewhere. at the beginning of 2015, tom took on duties as directeur sportif with the australian drapac professional cycling.
aside from the previously mentioned events as d.s. with rapha, this is tom's first full career move into directeur sportifing (if i can label it as such). has it been everything he thought it would be?
"In many ways it is. I already knew by this time last year that I'd be coming to this job, so I started work trying to learn as much as I could about the job before I started. John (Herety) obviously taught me a lot, and I spoke to Charly (Wegelius) a great deal about it too.
"I read a lot of books on all sorts of things from sports psychology, team building, management styles, etc. Basically there are more parallels with managing a team of people than there is with the bike riding part. The experience that you've had as a bike racer is quite a minor part of the job. That's the finer details that you have to have, firstly to have any credibility, and secondly to understand what is going on in people's heads. The rest of it, if you are doing it well, should be quite separate to the experience that you have as a rider.
"Even now I spend a lot of time with other DSes at races, and very boringly we talk about the job and how it works. Guys like Charly and Mike Creed, who are similar ages to myself. We are all figuring it out, one way or another, much like life, really..."
at one point in recent history, buoyed by receipt of a never ending stream of management and information technology magazines, i figured my business card would be immeasurably enhanced by appending the words knowledge management consultant, a title that ought surely to allow the charging of an enormous daily rate while obscuring what it was i was supposed to be doing in the first place. after all, who amongst you could prove that i wasn't suitably qualified for a position that all but defied definition. to an extent, having directeur sportif on that business card leaves the individual open to similar lines of enquiry. so what exactly are tom's duties with drapac?
"I'm in charge of the sporting performance of the guys at races. I have to work out the best way to get the most out of what we have, and what I know the riders have, to keep improving results. Sometimes this means keeping someone happy (no brown M&Ms type stuff), and at other times it is implementing broader strategies to best use our resources in a particular race.
"Putting out fires is probably the best way to describe a lot of what I do."
i am not, nor will i ever be, a manager. i know many others for whom the same is true. i can just about get myself through the average week, making sure that everything that ought to be done has been done, or that i have a darn good reason as to why it hasn't. attempting to goad others into achieving what is necessary is/was simply a stage too far. others, however, revel in the challenge and opportunity to manage others successfully, adopting strategies even as they complete more mundane tasks with the other hand. the occasional downside for those being managed is the method of management being imposed. does tom lean towards the gentle cajoling of his riders, or has he adopted a more stentorian attitude?
"Every DS is different, and I think that you need to have all types of motivator in a good team. I'm not a real ball-breaker to be honest; it's not in my character. I like to encourage the best out of guys by making them the most confident individual they can be, and making sure there is an harmonious environment in the team, so these guys will sacrifice all their hard work for the greater good, so to speak. It's all about the Fuego! Getting everyone on the same page and working towards something."
as mentioned above, drapac professional cycling are an australian based cycling team. but the days of a team consisting of riders who all hail from the home country have long since gone. with the internationalisation of professional cycling, most teams are in the habit of signing riders from every corner of the globe. though many impose english as the language du jour, it would be so much harder to standardise temperaments and national customs amongst an international staff. does the existence of several nationalities amongst the drapac team make tom's job harder, or does everyone get along with each other just fine?
"Once you get to this level, everyone is a professional, and most riders have had enough world experience to enjoy getting on with different nationalities. That being said, we try to sign guys who we think will fit culturally in the team; without that it is hard work."
drapac rider wouter wippert won both stages one and six in this year's tour of korea, a race that featured as one of southam's first forays as a directeur sportif with rapha. was this palmares a direct result of tom's previous experience? had he coached wippert to those two victories?
"I didn't go to Korea this year, otherwise we would have won the whole fuckin' thing!
"Joking aside, it was actually a very different race this year, on a much flatter parcours, so it would have been a totally different challenge."
drapac professional cycling are constituted as a uci pro-continental team. such designations rarely depend on the talent evident within the team, but rely more upon the level of financial sponsorship and wherewithal available. moving up to the next rung and competing at world tour level opens the doors to not only the finest of one-day classics but those all-important grand tours. this may be the stuff of most cyclists' dreams but dreams that don't always equate to the depth of the sponsor's pockets. have this year's successes brought with them thoughts of moving up to world tour in the foreseeable future?
"Micheal Drapac (our team owner) wants to go to the Tour, and we are working our asses off to make that happen. He's invested a great deal of money in cycling over the years and to get there would be an incredible achievement."
as i and others have made mention on more than one occasion, the world of professional cycle racing is a very small, if high profile part of the world of cycling. there are folks all over the world whose need of a bicycle does not revolve around being first across an all but imaginary line, nor stringing out the sprint train as the bunch pass under the flamme rouge. there are several parts of the world where the lack of road infrastructure negates any use of motorised transport were there ever the money to fuel one in the first place.
while professional race team jerseys are often peppered with the logos of commercial products or sponsors, the publicity and pr that can be generated could surely be used to promote the plight of many who rely on the bicycle for their livelihood? according to the drapac website, the team have partnered with world bicycle relief; how has that manifested itself over the course of this year's competition?
"World Bicycle Relief is a great organisation, one that we've supported this year at a number of events (such as the Tour of California), by trying to help raise awareness for the project. Having spent time in Rwanda and studied the efforts that Tom Ritchey made there by creating the coffee bike, it's something that I'm really glad we can be a part of. Even when our guys - who ride bikes for a living - go to events, they come back blown away by the power of the bicycle. That is cool to see and I hope that we can continue to spread the word about the organisation in the future."
humanity has a great habit of needing to pigeon-hole people, items and happenstances, presumably because it allows us to better comprehend the world that surrounds us. languages naturally tend to compound and confuse this process; a tree, is a tree, is a tree unless it is an àrbol. drapac's website describes its individual members as 'athletes' rather than 'riders'. is this indicative of a more contemporary approach?
"The team's philosophy has always aimed to reflect Micheal's desire to help riders be more than just another moving billboard. We have recently employed a full-time Well-Being Officer, one who works outside the sporting environment to help the riders start thinking about their life post sporting career. All of the riders go through a 'Transition Program', where they can discuss their ideas for their future, post-cycling, or get any help and advice they need with what they have going on outside of races.
"Having been through the experience of retiring (twice) from cycling I actually see it as a hugely different and refreshing change from many other teams. Ultimately it could be the best preventative method for anti-doping in the sport, as we aim to give guys a bit more confidence that there is life after retirement from racing, and help develop them to the point that they don't think that life will end at 35."
that's almost the point at which we came in. drapac are experiencing what i believe can be regarded as a positively successful season, one that has no doubt been encouraged by tom southam's experience and management style, even if he figures he's still learning on the job. on this basis and the fact that he appears to be enjoying himself, will he be continuing with drapac in 2016?
"Certainly. I'd like to DS for five years, as I strongly believe it is a young man's game and done well, it has a limited shelf life. After that I, am going to write a book about long distance truck drivers."
many thanks to a very busy tom southam for his assistance with this feature.
tuesday 1 september 2015..........................................................................................................................................................................................................