Cyclists in a stage race like the Tour of California are heralded, justifiably, for their physical fitness, skills, and ability. Yet it’s so often the mental side of their game that sets them apart from their competitors. Pez talks candidly with Amber Neben, Scott Nydam, Christine Thorburn, and Tom Zirbel about what it takes – mentally – to succeed in a stage race, and how we mere mortals can apply that wisdom on and off the bike.
By Marv Zauderer
In our last Sport Psychology column, we completed our two-part series on Recovering From Crashes. Following up on last year’s Tour of California column on The Mind of a Mentally Fit Pro, this month we look further into the mental skills needed to succeed in a stage race, and how the rest of us can use those skills in our cycling. Our expert commentators:
• Amber Neben of Equipe Nurnberger is the reigning World Time Trial Champion, was U.S. Road Champion in 2003, and has twice won the Tour de l’Aude Feminin, generally regarded as the most prestigious women’s stage race. She has overcome meningitis, many injuries, and, in 2007, cancer. Amber mentors young women through the U.S. Women’s Cycling Development Program, which works to support talented women in cycling and to assist in their business and charity goals.
• Scott Nydam of BMC Racing Team won the King of the Mountain Classification at the 2008 Tour of California. But perhaps most memorably, he rode for his gravely ill father in Stage 2 of the race, staying away solo for 100 miles. He’s defending his title at the Tour this week, racing on some of the same roads he trains on in Sonoma County. And his father has recovered.
• Christine Thorburn is a former US Time Trial Champion, won the Tour du Grand Montreal stage race in 2006 as a member of the Webcor Builders team, and was a member of the U.S. Olympic Team in 2004 and 2008. She is now a full-time M.D., with a specialty in rheumatology, in Palo Alto, California.
• Tom Zirbel of Bissell Pro Cycling also shone brightly at the 2008 Tour of California, scoring a Top 10 in the Stage 5 time trial and bravely staying away solo for many miles until the final lap of a soggy Stage 7. He’s racing in the Tour this week.
Pez: Which mental skills have been most important for you in stage races?
Amber: Everything that I’ve developed [within myself] in my life in facing adversity. Whenever you come out of [adversity], you come out with a piece that you can add to your toolbox.
Keeping the big picture focus has been very important – you can have distractions, like injuries, that keep coming at you. If you can persevere, you’re going to have a chance. [For example,] in high school, I had to deal with injuries over and over again. You get to the point where you think, “Are you going to quit, or keep going?” In the past year, I was trying to make the Olympic team, and I found out I had a melanoma.
So now I have this arsenal [of mental skills]. When you’re in a stage race, it’s not predictable: you know you’re going to have good days and bad days, and you have to be aware of issues that can creep in. At the Giro D’Italia this year, on the first hard day I had an off day physically, and didn’t perform up to my capability. I was way back on GC at that point. I asked myself, am I going to quit, or take it stage by stage and chip a bit off each day? By the last stage, I was second on GC. In basketball, you have guys that play every day. Kobe takes the last shot of a game and he misses it – he has to get that out of his mind as soon as possible. [At the Giro] I had to get that first day out of my mind as fast as I could. I had to go back to what I knew: My training had been good, I had been feeling strong.
Scott: I have little “mantras” that I use in the heat of the moment…in response to the default negative self-talk. When you think “I love my bike,” it wards off the negative thoughts. Another thing I say to myself is, “How do you want to feel when you’re off the bike, when you’re on the plane going home?” At the Tour of Georgia last year, we were heading onto the rollers just before Brasstown Bald, and I asked myself that question. My answer: I want to feel proud that I gave my best. What does that mean? It means I’m not going to sabotage myself by not eating right, by being out of position….Levi [Leipheimer] has said to me on a number of occasions, “The body will follow the mind.”
Pez: That sounds like the way I was taught to navigate tricky terrain on my mountain bike – “look where you want to go, and the bike will follow.”
Christine: Medical school prepares you well for stage races: They talk to you about “delayed gratification.” It’s about patience and focus – for example, knowing when to pass up a stage win. It’s also about being organized: conserving your energy, and knowing when to spend it. As in medicine, it’s important to have small goals along the way, and enjoying the moment.
Tom: Having a short memory. When it doesn’t go well, the race day ends, and you have to wipe that away and start fresh the next day. Also, keeping it light. You have to enjoy yourself to be sustainable…. I ended up on a great team – I’m on the road and working with my friends.
Pez: Which mental skills have been challenging for you, and how have you improved them?
Amber: Leadership. I’m an introvert, and I need alone time. But when you’re a team leader, that might not be perceived in the right way. Now I go out of my way at times to make time with my teammates. But I have to help them understand who I am, too. When each team member can take the time to step out of their comfort zone a bit, that’s what it takes. I don’t win races; we win races.
Scott: Having an overall sense of confidence, a belief in myself and the system/industry of cycling. I’ve been hoping that the sky’s the limit, that I could get to the biggest races….I’ve had to reckon with the fact that it doesn’t happen overnight. I train as efficiently as possible, and try to control whatever I can control. I can’t control how strong other riders are and what happens in a race. I do my best to control things while keeping my life in balance: my relationship with my fiancée, my relationships with my family, and so forth.
The negative thoughts can come so quickly…those thoughts have no room when you know you’ve done everything you can. It’s about actually being happy, even with small gains.
Christine: A big one was not getting anxious about a breakaway and relying on teammates. I’m definitely a Type A personality, but you can’t do everything yourself. Stage racing really is a team effort. You need to believe that your teammates will support you in that. And you have to have the personality to encourage that as well.
With leadership comes a lot of pressure. But I’m also really good at being focused in the moment, so it’s less stressful. I’m also very task-oriented and goal-oriented.
I did also use visualization throughout my career – visualizing something bad happening, like getting a flat at a critical point in the race and how to handle it, not just visualizing success.
I’m not a good sleeper, and that’s a big problem for many riders I know. It makes a big difference if you like your teammates and you can talk about something other than the race. It’s helpful if you can get some perspective: it’s not life and death, it’s just bike racing.
Tom: I’ve been a runner since age 12, so the [general] pressure of racing is old hat to me. But I’m still dealing with the pressure of racing at the highest level, with the stars of the sport. If you don’t feel you belong next to this person, you’re done before you start. It’s helps me to tell myself, “This is where I belong,” and to refer back to results I’ve had. I constantly need reminders that I’m just as strong as most of these people. Black and while proof is helpful.
Also, at the Tour of Missouri, it was a classic example of lack of focus. It was the end of the year, I was tired, and I had come up short the week before. I found myself in the race-winning break. But I crashed in the last 4K, lost 30 seconds, and I just gave up. I didn’t eat right….even though I was our only GC guy, I barely finished the stage the next day. I basically let my team down because I didn’t prepare myself. The skill is never giving up focus. Guys like Leipheimer and Vande Velde are so meticulous in what they need to do to recover. Because I love the sport so much, I need to not forget that it’s also my job.
The worst rejection is when you try your hardest and fail. Mentally, it’s easier to give in and fail. After feeling failure, it can be easy to say, “I don’t want to feel that again, I’m going to beat it to the punch.”
Pez: What’s an experience you’ve had that’s contributed significantly to your mental fitness on the bike?
Amber:The last two years of high school and on through my years at the University of Nebraska, when I had to fight so many injuries [stress fractures]. I had switched from soccer to distance running, and I knew I had this God-given ability within me. To be up and down, the what-ifs, the disappointments, knowing I had untapped potential…just to persevere [was huge]. In rehabbing you’re doing things that you don’t want to be doing, but you stay focused on what you can do.
There’s a big picture in life for me. I love cycling, but it’s not who I am. There’s more to life for me.
Scott: I used to do a lot of rock-climbing. You’re on the edge of your seat – testing your limits. We’d hike through the darkness for three or four hours to get to the rock walls at sunrise. You’re trying to do a certain route. You might not eat or drink enough. You have to think about the weather, your clothing, your climbing partner. Often times you have to bail, rappel down, and not finish the climb. You always learn more from a defeat than from a success….and there’s something meritable about not knowing the outcome, and still giving it a try.
Christine: In 2005, I had a reputation for being involved in extremely close stage race finishes. In 2006, we won Montreal by one second. Having gone through that before, it wasn’t as stressful.
A lot of times we don’t think we’re capable of doing things that we actually can do. [In Montreal] I needed to be more of a sprinter, to get bonus points and hold onto our lead. It helped to talk about it with teammates and the director – having a plan made me feel more confident.
Tom: I put a year and a half into becoming an All-American in cross-country during my senior year of college. I overtrained, and completely failed in the last three weeks of the season – I got beat by people I had been beating all year. More is not always better. I was at rock bottom. For me, I need balance to get the most out of myself. That’s helped shape my training on the bike.
Take some time to evaluate which of the mental skills mentioned above are skills you need to work on:
• Staying focused
• Effective self-talk: Being a good coach for yourself
• Building your self-confidence
See our in-story links for more on the skills you need to develop further. Use the recommendations and resources in the articles to integrate mental training into your physical training program.
In his autobiography, Michael Jordan offers this advice to all athletes:
“Mental toughness and heart are a lot stronger than some of the physical advantages you may have.”
For all the work you do on your body, apply what the pros have learned and develop the mental side of your game as well. Remember the words of last year’s Tour of California winner: The body will follow the mind.