Mental skills: We’re usually using them so we can go faster, suffer longer, and achieve more. How about using our mental fitness to let go of goals that no longer serve us? Former pro cyclists Laura Charameda, Frankie Andreu, and Dylan Casey help us understand what we can learn about letting go from their experiences leaving the pro peloton.
By Marv Zauderer
Last weekend I flatted in the first 10 minutes of an important road race – the first time I’ve ever punctured in a race. If that weren’t infuriating enough, then my spare tube blew. With the initial burst of expletives completed, I went back to the car, got my spare wheel, and set out on the course for a training ride. With temperatures reaching 114 degrees in places, riders were dropping like flies as I continued to steam (literally) about my flats. Just then, I came upon a rider stopped by the side of the road, completely immobilized by muscle cramps. I had plenty of electrolyte capsules left in my jersey pocket, and gave him some. Only then did my anger and frustration disappear.
As athletes, our mental skills – many of which we’ve covered in this Sport Psychology column over the years – are usually aimed at achieving our goals. And of course, we’re so focused on our goals, so driven, so…attached. But the mentally fit cyclist also knows when to let go: of riding so hard, of training so hard, of being so invested in a goal. To continue our exploration of this skill from last month’s column, let’s see what we can learn from our guests, who will take us through their experiences letting go of pro cycling:
• With over 250 victories in her career, Laura Charameda is one of the most accomplished cyclists in history. She won two U.S. Criterium Championships, multiple stages of the women’s Tour de France, medaled at the World Road Racing Championships, and was a member of the 1996 U.S. Olympic team. She coaches cyclists, such as Pez contributor Katheryn Curi Mattis of Webcor, and is the Executive Director for Team Swift, a nonprofit development program in Sonoma County, California for cyclists ages 10-18.
• In his 12-year professional career, Frankie Andreu competed in the Tour de France nine times, including playing a central role on the winning 1999 and 2000 U.S. Postal Service teams. He was a U.S. Olympian in 1988 and 1996. Frankie speaks to groups on “Success Through Teamwork” and his Tour de France experiences, and can be seen every July adding his expertise to Versus’ television coverage of the Tour de France.
• Dylan Casey was a member of the U.S. Postal Service team from 1999-2002. He is a former U.S. Collegiate Road Champion, U.S. National Time Trial Champion, and U.S. National Individual Pursuit Champion. He won a gold medal at the 1999 Pan Am Games, and was a member of the 2000 U.S. Olympic team. Dylan joined Google in 2003, immediately rallying Googlers around Bike-To-Work Day, and is currently a Product Manager for iGoogle. He’s a longtime supporter of the Livestrong Challenges around the country, and mentors junior cyclists through Team Specialized.
Pez: What led to your decision to leave pro cycling? What was it like to consider leaving and then to make the decision to leave?
Laura: It was based mostly on an injury. But also, after racing for 13 years, I could tell that there were little shadows in the back of my mind: “What’s next?” “I wish I could have a pet but I’m never home.” I had a back injury at the end of ’96 – I picked up a grocery bag and herniated a disc. It was right after Worlds, I was the best I’ve ever been, it was a very exciting time. My coach told me to take four days off the bike and I cried; little did I know that it would be a year. I had three back surgeries and a knee surgery and tried to come back fast. After my last surgery, my doctor told me I was out of options. But also, seeing how I went from standing on the podium at Worlds to not being able to pick up a coffee cup, I knew I wanted to move on with life. I wanted to be able to have a life and be active for many, many years. I worked really hard on physical therapy and so on – for years. It was really super-depressing. I’d just cry and I was in pain. Finally, the pain went down a level. I just needed that little bit of light.
I remember rolling down to a local NRC race. I looked awful. People said there’s no local junior program and asked me if I’d be interested in starting something. The kids [who were interested] in the program were so excited to be out riding their bikes. As grumpy as I probably was, I couldn’t help but take an interest in them, and I knew I could make them better. I could see the program needed someone to be in charge, so I offered, and asked for a longer-term commitment, since it was a career decision for me.
The kids helped me through a lot of things. For example, I wanted to race again. So, I organized a trip to Italy for all of us to race. I knew what it would take for me to go back to racing, but I didn’t want to give up what I had created with the kids. I wasn’t willing to take the risk of training through pain, or to compete in field sprints….This other avenue [in cycling] had come up and it was a much healthier choice. And I was fit enough to go back into the [pro] field and make the decision myself.
Frankie: I was not re-hired by the team I was riding for in 2001. I had raced 12 years as a pro, and I only wanted to race one more year, but they had other plans with younger riders and budget. I looked for another team in Europe but that didn’t work out and I had offers to resume racing here in the US. I decided that if I were to race in the US it would be just as hard, more pressure, and at some point I would have to stop so I decided to stop while I still had a good reputation, was riding well, and was well-known in the industry.
At first I was upset that I couldn’t continue with the previous team. I had sacrificed a lot for them but at the same time I had been on other teams and had seen many riders come and go. I know it’s a business and I’ve had friends let go and riders that did not perform let go. It’s part of cycling and I accepted that but I was still upset about being left off the team for the 2001 season.
Dylan: I always endeavored to listen to my surroundings and I just realized that it was time to move on to the next challenge, the next chapter. I wanted to start a family and I saw an opportunity to start a new career. Living in Silicon Valley and always having an affinity for technology, I could sense that it was a good time to move. Plus, I never wanted to be one of those guys who held on too long. I knew that I didn’t want to go from bike racing to the bike industry, and I had an “in” at Google.
I didn’t waffle….I have a very decisive personality and I hate ambivalence…. Once I decided it was time to move on, I did it 100%. I sat down and wrote a thank-you letter to each member of Tailwind Sports [owners of the USPS team], all the riders, staff, Johan [Bruyneel, the Director] and especially [Tailwind Founder] Thom Weisel. I got a note back from Alejandro, who was Roberto Heras’s personal soigneur. He told me that of all the riders he had worked with over the years, not one had ever written a thank-you note.
I put all my cycling clothes in a box, returned my training bike to the team (thanks to Johan, I got that training bike back as memento), and that was it. I was retired.
I was dating a girl for most of my pro career and we put off starting a family while I was racing and living in Europe. She lived in Palo Alto instead of moving to Spain with me…which, looking back on it, I think was a mistake. Once I decided to retire, I was relieved, excited and nervous to begin what I considered the next phase of my life that had been on hold while I pursued my dream of pro cycling. But at the time I knew that I was making the right decision and that confidence made it easy to move forward.
Pez: What was it like, in the first years after ending your pro career, to not have it?
Laura: I missed what it was like to be singularly focused, and I missed winning. [Competing] is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. But I like a lot of balance in my life. Part of it [for me] was, “Big things happen to strong people, otherwise you’ll never slow down.”
Frankie: I was lucky that I was able to remain in the sport. This for sure made the transition easier. I was a sport director so I still went to some races, I was around the riders, and almost continued like normal without the hard work of training. That’s one thing I didn’t miss: the hours needed every winter, every year, to get ready to race. The racing was hard but that was fun. Once I stopped I actually felt a big burden lift off my shoulders. I never realized how much pressure and guilt there was to always have to go train and watch what I ate and do everything that was needed to be a successful pro. It was a nice feeling to just wake up and do whatever and not have to worry about the weather and riding the bike all the time.
Dylan: I missed all the fun parts of racing. I missed the simplicity of the lifestyle and I missed the feeling I got from winning or working for my teammates. However, what I missed most of all was the guys. Sure, I have close friends outside of cycling, but within the team and other riders it’s a small, exclusive fraternity…it’s like we went to war together.
At the same time though, I fully immersed myself at Google. I wasn’t concerned about going to bed early so I could train or anything like that. I worked a lot. At first it was really scary. Not because of the job, but because I was concerned that I wouldn’t get the same high that I got from cycling. A desk job? Oh man, how long can I last at this? On US Postal, I was on one of the best teams in the world and was one of 15 or so Americans racing at the Pro-Tour level. I was really living a dream. When I started at Google it was different…I was competing at a different level with my peers and I was on the bottom. I didn’t come to work on Monday and have everyone say, “Dylan, you really killed those guys on the last lap.” I think elite athletes get addicted to that affirmation.
However, about two months into the job, I was in a small meeting where one of the executives let his guard down and really went off about Bill Gates or someone like that. I mean he really dug into this guy talking about how Google was going to bury that company. I got a big smile on my face because it reminded me of hearing Lance or Johan when they would rally the team on the bus before a stage. I realized, “Oh, I know how to play this game and I know how to win at this game.” I was in my element all of a sudden. I’m really at my best when there’s a lot of pressure and the expectations are high. Naturally I’ve gravitated towards the part of the company where there’s a lot of game-day pressure. So, in short, while Google is not cycling, I still know where the finish line is and being successful requires the same methodology. I set goals and I have a strategy that I employ to achieve those goals and when I hit them, I win. I joke to my team about how I hate losing more than I like winning, though. I have no doubt that my mentality would not be looked upon well by the Dalai Lama, but it works for me.
Pez: What role is cycling playing in your life now?
Laura: Now I race once a year. This year I raced at Merco and finished third behind Ina Teutenberg and Brooke Miller [two of the top sprinters in the world]. That’s pretty good for a 45-year-old woman. I can’t “make the race” any more, but it’s fun.
I’ve been a believer in “do what you like, it always seems to work out.” Everything came full circle for me – I run a nonprofit, run events, coach kids, work with Karen Brems and [women’s pro cycling team] Webcor a bit, I’m the Race Director for the Women’s Tour of California, and my partner, Gavin, is the Director for the BMC men’s team. It’s fun to work with everyone from an 8-year-old on his first bike, to people like Katheryn Curi Mattis and Steven Cozza [of Garmin-Slipstream]. For those of us who ride bikes, we’re year-rounders; it’s a way of life. It shapes the hours of my day…. It’s my group of friends.
Frankie: I’m still involved in cycling in different ways. In the past, I’ve been sport director for teams. I do commentary for the Tour de France, race announcing, bike reviews, write articles. Many different things to connect the dots in order to make a living. It’s been getting harder lately partly because of the economy and because cycling is changing. I’m seriously considering trying to find another line of work but that’s difficult because my skillset is cycling. From managing a team and staff, logistics, handling media, writing, etc. it’s hard to translate those over to someplace else.
Dylan: I’ll always be a cyclist…definitely not as fast as I used to be, but it plays an important role in my life. I don’t want to be one of those overweight, retired pro’s but I didn’t touch my bike very much during my first few years after retiring. I realized that I missed all the alone time on the bike in the mountains around Palo Alto. I accomplished a lot of mental processing during those 6-hour rides I used to do. Also, physically I like being in shape. I just run better that way. I still like the thrill of competition and while I don’t take it as seriously as I did when I was a pro, I still like to get out and mix it up every once in awhile. My old teammates think I’m crazy. I remember saying, “when I retire, I’ll never pin on a number ever again.”
When I got back into cycling, I joined the Discovery/AMD Masters Team. It had a bunch of guys that I used to race with like Mike McCarthy, Scott McKinley, and Ken Carpenter so it was like the good ol’ days. Then Thom Weisel’s son, Wyatt, got involved and encouraged us all to take on juniors and build a team founded on mentorship. I really enjoy working with the kids and giving them my perspective on what I did to be successful. Specialized took over the entire program after Discovery pulled out and the program has really grown. I’m really proud of the kids and what they’ve accomplished. We have Charlie Avis competing over in Europe right now with USAC and have a couple of promising juniors winning races here in the Bay Area right now. I fully expect to see at least one World Champion come from our program and hope I’m there to see them cross the finish line.
In 1999 and 2000 I had some big time-trial wins and was 2nd overall in the Tour of Holland (now the Eneco Tour). I beat Boardman in a TT and I remember Christian [VandeVelde] and [Jonathan] Vaughters (who I lived with at the time) were pumping me up as a TT specialist. Until those results, I had no idea what my role would be on the team or what I would be good at. Initially I was just trying to survive, but by the end of my first year I was getting results and got to do my first Grand Tour. Johan told me that I could win the prologue in the Vuelta. That put me on a different planet. If Johan thought I could win…that meant I could win. While I was in the start house, it started to rain, and I crashed in the last corner. Johan always reminds me of how I could have had the Gold Jersey. Even though it pisses me off when he says that and I know he’s half-joking, it does remind me that for a short time I was one of the best in the world and despite not having the Golden Jersey on my wall, I’ll always know that.
Pez: We can do amazing things if someone important believes in us, especially if we don’t fully believe in ourselves.
Dylan: Yes….very powerful. Lance could get you to a level you never imagined possible. That’s what he does for cancer patients, too. I try to have the same impact on the juniors. Jim Ochowicz [a “founding father” of U.S. cycling] lives nearby and is a very close friend and mentor of mine. He has an autographed World Championshp jersey on the wall that Lance autographed and says how Och was responsible for that victory. I admire how Jim has mentored Lance and think it’s a great accomplishment to help someone reach success like that. I want to have a jersey on my wall like that someday.
What did you see in what our guests have said? Dealing honestly with crashes and injury. Attending to the “shadows” in the back of your mind. Supporting yourself rather than beating yourself up. Resetting your life goals. Knowing the kind of life you want, and giving cycling the right place in it. Being decisive. Making the decision to let go rather than having it made for you. Dealing with feelings of failure. Having confidence that you’re doing the right thing. Surrounding yourself with people who believe in you. Giving to others rather than being so caught up in yourself. All of these can help you let go when you need to.
And one more thing. Scott Eblin, in his book “The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success,” tells a story he heard from basketball legend Bill Russell. Russell and fellow Celtic legend John Havlicek were waiting in an airport lounge. A person approached Russell and asked if he was a basketball player. Russell said he was not. Another person asked him the same question. Russell gave the same answer. Finally, Havlicek asked him why he was saying that. Russell replied, “Because I’m not. I am Bill Russell. I play basketball, but I am Bill Russell.”
All of us are more than our roles, our achievements, our goals. Remembering that can help you let go when it’s time.