The Tour de France nerd

Henrik Winther (50 years), Executive Vice President for Danish Operations
“The summit of La Marmotte is where I feel my heart”

The first time Henrik Winther heard legendary commentators Mader and Leth provide a commentary for the Tour de France, he was hooked. The bicycle race to end them all had him infatuated – to such extent that he has completed several races across French mountain peaks. Here, he explains what most people fail to realise about the Tour de France, what cycling and COWI actually have in common – and how a t-shirt saved his life during a dramatic descent.

In 1993, I was studying in my student flat, the Tour de France blaring from my TV in the background. Back then, Mader and Leth were the Danish commentators, and Bjarne Riis made his first mark on the race that year. The more the two commentators were yelling and hollering on screen, the more I found myself pulled from the textbooks. At the beginning, I was most fascinated by the mountain stages, but in time, I’ve learned to understand the mechanics of the race, so the flat stages are just as interesting as the mountains. And I think that’s what most people fail to realise about the race – if you study the race, all stages are exciting because the wind may split the peloton or because hilly routes are made for breakaways. It’s about seeing the beauty of all the small rivalries and competitions that make up the big race.

1993 was actually also the year I joined COWI as a student assistant, and when I had graduated, I was hired as an engineer. In the 00s, I left the company for a few years, before returning to a position as Head of Department. I also worked for COWI in Oman and Norway, before I was appointed Executive Vice President of COWI in Denmark.

Release the horses – in COWI too

The all-time most fascinating rider is Marco Pantani – despite his story. It’s hard for me because it was so blatantly obvious that he was doped – but at the same time, he was ‘Il Pirate’. To me, he was the last rider to let his heart guide him rather than his brain. Today, those aiming for the podium ride in a very controlled manner and rely on pulse meters strapped to their chests and power meters integrated in their pedals, but Pantani’s style was wild and crazy – it was all or nothing.

To draw a parallel to my job, I see that people succeed by using figures and measurements, but I also find it liberating to release the horses every once in a while – at the risk of running out of steam. At COWI, we have a lot of processes designed to eliminate errors and mistakes, but it’s difficult to make a recipe for how to make decisions based on gut feeling and experience. I believe that this combination – and a solid amount of courage – is what it takes to develop and to achieve the ambitious targets that we set ourselves.

Where I feel my heart

The Tour de France also got me cycling. At home, I ride the 18 kilometres to COWI's head office a couple of times a week. But I’m what you would call a fair weather opportunist – I only go by bike when the weather is fine…

Five times I’ve completed the La Marmotte race, which takes you across five renowned Tour de France summits – a huge experience! And that’s what’s so incredible about cycle races: I can ride the same mountains that Pantani did, but if I were a soccer enthusiast, I would never get to play soccer at Camp Nou like Messi. I have a t-shirt from the Tour de France that I brought home after riding La Marmotte in 2016. That was a freezing year, it snowed and rained, and halfway down Galibier, my limbs were so cold that I could no longer brake. I had to seek shelter in a tent where a gendarme wrapped me in a space blanket and handed me the t-shirt to wear instead of my soaking jersey. I think that t-shirt saved my life. No doubt, my stubbornness is what got me through La Marmotte; There’s nothing natural about climbing a mountain for someone my weight. So, when I get to the summit, I may not feel any muscles in my body, but I sure do feel my heart.

How do you define being a nerd?
“It’s definitely a positive word. A nerd is way more passionate about something than your average person – and they love to share their passion. For instance, I love talking about the Tour de France and my bike. And my favourite thing is meeting someone who feels the same, just like I did in the canteen just earlier today.”

Which nerd do you admire the most?
“Hans Rosling first comes to mind – the late Swedish physician and professor of international health. He had an impressive talent for communicating statistics and public health issues, and for illustrating global problems. And he always managed to add a pinch of hope. I recommend you google his TED talk about ‘the magic washing machine’.”

What do you want to get better at – and why?
“I’d like to improve my personal communication skills – you know, getting up on a crate and addressing 2,500 people.”

These weeks, we celebrate our ingenørds. The smart, the fun, the great colleagues. Do you want to join us? Then check out our vacant positions in Denmark.


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