Matt White: Mastering the art of two-wheeled war

'The Art of War', written by revered Chinese general Sun-Tzu, has become a popular manual for modern times, particularly in the areas of war, business and sport. Cycling is often touted as a form of warfare and as such the characteristics often required mirror those espoused by the man who wrote in the sixth century BC.

Garmin-Slipstream rider Tom Peterson cites this traditional book as one of his favourites, so Cyclingnews asked his directeur sportif, Matt White, how he has used Sun-Tzu's ancient advice in a modern setting.

Sun-Tzu said there are Five Fundamentals in making plans for war: The Way, Heaven, Earth, Command and Discipline. Within the fundamental of Command lay five elements: Wisdom, Integrity, Compassion, Courage and Severity. An effective pro cycling team manager needs to call on all these throughout his career.

White is one of the new young generals on the battlegrounds of professional cycling and has enjoyed a successful start to his career, earning the respect of his riders and bosses plus those he competes against within the two years he has occupied the role.

In that time the Australian has displayed the attributes listed within the tomes of the ancient Chinese war-guide to the benefit of the ProTour outfit he serves.

White on Wisdom

"You're always learning, as it is in any job, and if you're not then you're in the wrong job. I guess it's just about confidence, too. As a first-year directeur I went to the Giro and the Tour – you name it – whereas this year, after that one season of settling in, I've gained a lot more confidence by being in the role for more than 12 months.

"You're always learning from people around you – from other teams, or from people who do other things and know what works and what doesn't.

"Honestly, I did learn a lot from Johan [Bruyneel] after working [at US Postal/Discovery Channel teams] for four years. He ran a very tight ship and I definitely learned a lot from him about running a team. I've also been on very badly organised teams and the way the atmosphere has been created on those teams, so I definitely know what not to do.

"It's a gradual process of filtering through all the people you meet in my job or in other jobs and taking the best out of what they do."

White on Integrity

"I maintain integrity by just being honest with the guys, straight up with them. A lot of people hide behind emails or telephone calls; if I can, I'll always talk to the boys face-to-face. That's just my style of doing it. It's definitely not everyone's… I think the boys have respect if you tell them that's how it is.

"At the end of the day if they don't like it, that's their problem. They've got to cop the decision, but there's a lot more respect if you're straight up with them, give them a reason why. Although not everything has to be justified to riders and staff, if you can give them a good pointer why you've made a decision it's a lot easier for them to swallow.

"Picking teams is always hard and sometimes you have to go with your gut instinct. The instance that comes to mind most recently is a stage of the Herald Sun Tour, with Tom Peterson. We had one rider in the break and the fastest sprinter with Chris Sutton in the bunch – you've got to make a decision and it's tough but you have to make it and stick by it.

"In the end he [Sutton] pulled it off, but having been a rider you can see why Tom wasn't happy that I made that decision. At the end of the day we won the stage and although we're individuals we're a team as well.

"I knew that if I relied on Chris he'd wrap up the stage and I had to make the decision very late when it looked like the day was going to end in a sprint, so we committed to the leadout, CJ won the stage and ended up taking the jersey thanks to it.

"It's always hard because you know how hard guys have worked all season and Tom hadn't won a race since February at the Tour of California… but in a two-up sprint against Leigh Howard it's pretty hard to win.

"I didn't want to finish second, and I knew that the tour would come down to seconds. On the final day, both Brad and CJ really wanted to win the race. There were time bonuses up for grabs and I said, 'If we get Wiggo to 11 seconds then he'll be safe'. I wasn't going to have Sutto roll Wiggo – his own teammate – on the last day, especially the guy who helped him win three stages.

"There's no doubting they both wanted to win – there was a story behind CJ and a story behind Wiggo – at the end of the day, the only reason CJ was on the podium three times was because of Wiggo. But because they're friends, neither of them wanted to make that decision… they needed me to make a decision so I said [to Sutton] 'You're not sprinting'."

White on Compassion

"One reason why I've had such a good relationship with the team over the last two years is because I've only just left the scene (as a professional rider) and I can relate to the guys very well. With some directors everything is very black and white and there's no discussion about what's happening or the riders are told that the decision is final and they have to take it or leave it.

"I don't work like that. As hard as it is at times, you have to be realistic with the guys as well. Sometimes people's ambitions get ahead of where they actually are and you have to cater to personalities. The whole thing with running a team smoothly is that there are a lot of egos in sports and it's a case of managing them.

"If there are two guys who are very similar physically and have a similar ability, I'm always going to take someone who fits in with the team. When you're on the road for four weeks in a row, if you're a better teammate or you get along better with the guys and offering the same work load, then of course you're going to take someone who makes the team click better."

White on Courage

"One instance where it was very high pressure was the team time trial at the Tour, actually. We'd eliminated four riders on the first climb, so we had 25km to go with five riders. It was probably a little bit of a mistake from our guys going out too hard on the first climb; the fastest teams were behind us and we were the fastest at the first time check – I had to keep very calm on the radio because the guys don't want to hear me being nervous on the radio.

"I could see Ryder [Hesjedal] was in big trouble and if he got dropped that was Wiggo and Christian's Tour gone. The four other guys rode incredibly; they went head-to-head with every team and to beat them all except Astana was incredible. Ryder went super-super deep that day. It was definitely one thing that stood out as far as courage goes.

"The whole ride Christian did at the Tour de France after the preparation he had was also courageous – although for one day that stuck out, Ryder in the team time trial was it. He probably did about four or five turns in that last 20km but it was basically the other four guys rotating and him hanging on."

White on Severity

"I haven't had to be severe this year – I'm pretty relaxed but the boys know if I get angry, then I'm p***ed off. They know there's a time and a place and when you've got to be there then you've got to be there.

"Last year at the Tour I remember when Christian was riding in third on GC and it was probably about day five or six, windy up somewhere in the north of France. I was talking to Christian after the stage and I asked how the boys had been during the stage and he said, 'They weren't that super – I had Julian around me and Dave here and there, but it was pretty average'.

"I thought, 'This is bullshit. The guy's third in the Tour de France…'

"I could see a few of the boys down near the back and so I said, 'Alright boys, into the bus before dinner'. I just said, 'Listen, if you haven't got enough motivation with Christian running third on GC at the Tour and can't respect him by being around him all day then you're in the wrong bloody business'.

"That was the only time I had to raise my voice at the boys last year. All seven of them were around him for the rest of the Tour.

"I think it was more of the fact that none of the guys had been in that position before – last year we took six guys to the Tour who had never been there before. It was only Christian and Dave Millar who had been to the Tour de France. I think they were a bit overawed by the whole situation – whereas this year they just clicked. We took pretty much the same team and it worked really well."

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