The Mind of a Mentally Fit Pro Cyclist

What does it take – mentally – for professional cyclists to be successful in a stage race like the Tour of California? What can the rest of us mere mortals learn from their experiences? Pez talks candidly with Katheryn Curi Mattis, Steven Cozza, and Ben Jacques-Maynes, and hears some surprising and inspiring stories.

By Marv Zauderer

Today, in a special Tour of California edition of our sport psychology column, we take a temporary detour from our series of articles on Integral Elements, the building blocks of the mentally fit cyclist’s five core skills. We discussed mental fitness with three of the finer people in the pro pelotons:

Katheryn Curi Mattis was the Elite National Road Champion in 2005. In 2006 she was slowed by a life-threatening injury, but came back stronger than ever in 2007, when she had a breakthrough season. She finished third at Redlands and at the Tour Cycliste Féminin International Ardeche – her first GC podium in a Euro stage race – and helped the Webcor Builders Women’s Professional Cycling Team to the #1 NRC ranking. Although she had to miss yesterday’s inaugural Tour of California Women’s Criterium because of race commitments in Australia, she is in the running for a spot on the 2008 USA Olympic team. She has two degrees in psychology and has a particular interest in the mental side of sport.

Steven Cozza of Team Slipstream also had a breakthrough season in 2007. Having won the U-23 National Time Trial Championships in 2005, Steven had begun to steadily develop his skills in the pro peloton, but then crashed heavily in the rainy stage 3 – 72 of 139 starters DNFed – of the 2007 Tour of Picardie. After rising to the challenge of an arduous recovery process, 22-year-old Steven was named the Best Young Rider at the Tour of Missouri, and then scored his first victory as a professional in Stage 6 of the Vuelta a Chihuahua. He’s racing this week in the Tour of California.

Ben Jacques-Maynes, Team Leader of the Bissell Pro Cycling Team, is also racing in the Tour of California, and he, too, had a terrific 2007. He scored numerous wins and top-5 results, and ultimately finished second in the overall NRC standings. He credits his mental fitness – built in part on his relationships with his wife, Goldi, and his kids, Chase and Chloe – as a significant contributor to his recent success.

Pez: Which mental skills have been most important for you in stage races?

Katheryn: A lot of it is confidence: knowing that I’m coming into the race having done everything I need to do to do my best. I know I can’t control everything, and there are so many variables: the weather, crashes, etc. I make sure I’ve done what I can do. I study the course, evaluate my competition, eat well, and talk with my teammates and director about the game plan, particularly the goals for the race and for individual stages.

If I’m spending mental energy thinking, “my legs feel so bad,” or “I really shouldn’t have eaten that box of doughnuts,” that takes away from being relaxed. If I get tense, or I’m paying attention to things I don’t need to attend to, or I’m worrying about stuff, it pulls energy from me. The rides when I feel the best – it’s effortless. On those rides, I wasn’t distracted by anything, I wasn’t thinking about anything else.

When I’m having a bad day on the bike, I try not to beat myself up about it. I’m mindful of it instead – “OK, you’re hurting” – and can be OK with it. I use a mental checklist: I ask myself, “What’s going on here, and what can I do about it?” I have phrases that I say to myself, like “C’mon, Kat, get your head in the game,” or “Breathe!”

Steven: What’s most tough about a stage race like the Tour of California is that it’s long. It’s challenging to stay focused and stay alert. You’re getting tired, and it can be really frustrating: some guys are stronger at the beginning, and some guys are stronger at the end. You have to be careful not to say to yourself, “Ugh, we have another five-hour ride today.” I try to live in the moment, and take every stage like it’s a one-day race.

The Tour of California is nerve-wracking for me because it’s so close to home, and it’s my first race of the year. Through the season, I’m doing 60-100 races, and it eventually becomes second nature, just like going to work. But for me, the important thing to work on in this first race is self-doubt and negative thoughts. For me, positive affirmations overpower the negative thoughts – I use a trigger word or phrase. For example, before a tough climb, I’ll say to myself, “it’s going to be an aggressive climb.” I’m so psyched that I don’t care how hard it is. I’ve found this really helped before the cobble climbs in Belgium – it’s a battle, guys are bumping arms, and there’s an insane amount of pain. My director would say to me, “there’s an aggressive section coming up.” Now I do that for myself.

Ben: The biggest thing that has helped me is confidence in my preparation. I know I’ve done what I needed to do, regardless of how I’m going at that time.

There’s a bit of a gamble to racing – whether it’s on an actual win, or losing a minute on GC. As long as I feel I’ve given it everything I had, I’m satisfied.

In a stage race, you have to stay tippy-top mentally, because there’s almost always a next day. Even if you give it everything and perform above expectations on one day, you still have the next stage(s) to go. I try to limit my mental “amplitude” during any one stage – I try to remain as calm as possible to preserve the mental energy that I’ll need for the next stage or a specific moment in a stage.

During last season there was a stage race where I knew I wasn’t on good form. I tried to ride anonymously for the first couple of stages. Then it came to the time trial, and I got into the race. Something new came over me. I ended up getting 2nd in the time trial and 3rd overall. It’s not a “decision” in that case to turn on the internal fortitude. It comes on unconsciously; something inside of me wants the race. I just ride the wave. It’s like the first drop on a roller coaster.

In the stages I’ve won, the opportunities just present themselves rather than me planning for them. My confidence in my preparation, and this “mental Zen” I’m describing, maximizes what I have to throw down when those opportunities arise.

It helps me to have faith in a great team and to have faith that things are going to work out. Three-quarters of the time, the stars don’t align. When they do, I’m thinking about the times that they do. I remember those times and draw on them.

Pez: Which mental skills have been challenging for you? How have you been trying to improve?

Katheryn: Concentration. I get distracted by “shiny objects” and other people. To improve, I’ve been paying more attention to my body – what’s going on in my body. Yoga breathing has been phenomenal – it’s helped me to center myself.

Steven: Confidence. It’s a huge thing in cycling. I was even told by some people, “consider a career change.” You can improve so much by believing in yourself. You can say, “I should be at the front of the race, I should be top 5.” You don’t have to be cocky, but if you’re not confident, you don’t stand a chance. You’ve got to believe in yourself.

Ben: The ability to distract myself is very important. When I come home from a hard training ride, my son wants to sit on my lap and have me read him a book. At that point, after a recovery shake and a quick bite to eat, cycling goes out the window. It’s a big mental change, and I’ve been getting used to it over the past 2-1/2 years since my son was born. I don’t have time to think, “it was a bad ride,” or “have I done enough hard work?” For some guys, their mind is still racing after a ride, literally and figuratively. I’ve seen a huge advantage in not being a bike racer 24/7. When you’re constantly stable, you can reach the place you need to reach in every race. I’ve been able to replicate my “mental Zen” in nearly every race, regardless of how I was going physically.

I’ve also become less wrapped up in arbitrary goals – winning this, placing in that. I’m not going to be totally broken up if I don’t win. I’m focused more on giving it my best.

Pez: What’s an experience you’ve had that has contributed significantly to your mental fitness?

Katheryn: In 2006 I had an accident – I was hit by another cyclist. I broke 9 ribs, my collarbone, and spent five days in the hospital. It took me a long time to be able to learn from it. I had come off a year in ’05 when I had won Nationals, and then I had this major setback. I couldn’t do anything for six weeks. As a lifelong athlete, I felt stripped of my identity. It forced me to take a deep breath, say “it’s not the end of the world,” and reset my goals. I had tended to set my goals too high. I spent a lot of time at the end of the year talking with my coach, Laura Charameda, about how to get my head back in the game. Also, my dad was diagnosed with cancer, and one of my best friends died on a training ride. I was close to quitting. I said, “OK, Katheryn, you’re not ready to give up on this because you haven’t accomplished everything you want to accomplish.” I learned so many skills from that experience that now help me get through stage races. February 14th was the 2-year anniversary of my accident, and I’m so grateful to have learned so much since then.

Steven: Last year was the biggest for me. I had a crash where I landed on my head, and it took me three months to come back. I had crashed many times before, but this time I had post-traumatic stress, and I had never had that. I had to overcome my fears. After I recovered from that, I had the best couple of months of racing in my life.

Ben: I grew up as a MTBer, and it was always about going as hard as you could for the whole race. You needed mental toughness, bike-handling skills, and putting forth a consistent and hard effort from start to finish.

Another factor is my view on doping in sport. I’ve had money taken from me and results taken from me by people who have later tested positive. So that, too, has reduced my “win at all costs” mentality that I might have had. It has lessened my drive to “win, win, win” and made it more about “what can I do.” My overall satisfaction is tied more to what comes from me, and the satisfaction has increased because I know it’s coming from me. When all the mental struggle and striving comes through, it helps the confidence that I have in the next race and the next. It’s going to help me be there for my kids after I retire.

Next Steps on Building Mental Fitness
How can you use what these pros have learned? Notice that:

• The core mental skills of Goal-Setting, Self-Talk, Managing Emotions (especially fear/stress/anxiety), Concentration and Communication have been important for all three pros.

• Something as elemental as Breathing Techniques has been of great importance to Katheryn.

• How Increasing Tolerance for Suffering has been a difference-maker for Steven.

• How important Recovering from Injury has been for Katheryn and Steven.

• How Ben has come to appreciate the value of giving cycling the right role in life.

If you haven’t already, consider reading the Pez articles on these topics (just click on the words written in blue above), evaluate whether you could benefit from some work on any of those skills, and use the tips and links in the articles to add mental skills training to your physical training program. Your mind – and body – will thank you.


More Minds of Mentally Fit Pros

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?
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.”

Scott: Yes.

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.

Next Steps
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

• The communication skills you need to be a leader, and to balance self-interest and cooperation

Handling pressure

Comparing yourself with others

Sustaining motivation in facing an injury, a bad day, disappointment or failure

• 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.

The Mind of a Mentally Fit EuroPro

North American pro cyclists have to build mental fitness quickly when they make the leap to living, training, and racing in Europe. Pez talks candidly about mental skills with Andy Hampsten, Meredith Miller, and Amber Rais, who share wisdom that we mere mortals can use on and off the bike.

By Marv Zauderer

In the previous installment of this Sport Psychology column, we explored the potential connections between your cycling and spiritual life, and opportunities to use those connections to build your mental fitness on the bike. This month, as a follow-on to our 2008 and 2009 “Minds of Mentally Fit Pros” columns, we hear from three North American cyclists about facing – and learning from – the mental and emotional challenges of living, training, and racing in Europe. Our guests:

Andy Hampsten is the only American to win the men’s Giro D’Italia. His epic ride through the snow over the Gavia Pass in 1988 won him the race and the hearts of many Italians, who call him “il nostro Andy” – “our Andy.” For many years, he has lived for part of each year in southwest Tuscany, where he leads cycling/culinary tours and sources delicious olive oil with his partner, Elaine. He also co-owns Hampsten Cycles in Seattle with his brother, Steve.

Meredith Miller of Team TIBCO is the current Elite Women’s U.S. National Road Champion. She nearly pulled off the double, finishing 2nd at the 2009 U.S. National Cyclocross Championships. Meredith came to cycling in 1998 after success as an all-Big Ten soccer player at UW-Madison, and raced for the Denmark-based Team SATS from 2003-2005. She has competed in the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Tour de l’Aude, Tour of Flanders, Fleche Wallonne, and Milan-San Remo among many other European races. She has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Exercise Science, and gives back to the sport as a cycling coach.

Amber Rais has proven herself as one of the top female cyclists in North America, finishing the 2009 season with the overall victory at the Tour de Nez, a second place in the Cascade Cycling Classic GC, and a fourth place finish in the U.S. National Championship Time Trial. With 47 career victories to her name, including two major stage race victories, and 20 National Racing Calendar podium finishes, Rais also has an excellent reputation for her abilities as a domestique and teammate. For 2010, Amber is racing full-time in Europe with the Austrian-based UCI team KUOTA Speed Kueens. She mentors cyclists of all ages and ability levels, and is fundraising in order to race U.S. Nationals this year.

PEZ: Andy, what have you found to be mentally and emotionally challenging about living, training and racing overseas?

Andy Hampsten: I turned pro just to do the [1985] Giro. For me, it was a dream come true, I was delighted to do it, but it was also on a one-way ticket as a career [move]. I looked as it as straight into the deep end – having the Giro as my first pro race – but I was pretty prepared…I was pretty fit, I was super-excited to do it, but I was definitely intimidated. But I had already been through it as an amateur: When I was 18, I went with the National Team to top international races – I didn’t sleep the night before, I was really scared. Pro racing was clearly [going to be] harder than amateur racing, but, you know, they don’t go ten miles an hour faster. [After a few stages] we had the first King of the Mountains [stage]…I was trying to get some KOM points; it probably went four-deep and I was 5th or 6th [at the KOM]. So I didn’t get points, and I was a little disappointed.

Then I was on the descent, there’s 20K to go, I’m the eighth guy in line, and four of the guys ahead of me are World Champions: Saronni, Moser, Hinault, and LeMond. So I thought, “there’s no way the announcer is going to be saying, ‘Saronni, Moser, Hinault, LeMond, and Hampsten.’” But then I thought, “on the other hand, well, Andy, here you are, on a one-way ticket, descending, with 20K to go, the whole pack is strung out, and half the guys ahead of you are your heroes, are you really going to sit here and do nothing?” So I attacked. I got away, I probably had 20 or 30 seconds for 8 or 10 minutes. I got caught with 8 kilometers to go, it’s not like I almost won. I felt a little stupid about the whole thing – I’m glad I attacked, but I felt like a fly that got swatted.

But our Italian co-sponsor came straight up to me, chomping on his cigar, and started spewing all this Italian, and I had no idea what he was saying – he was delighted. Essentially he was saying, “You’re a real pro. You were on TV for 8 minutes!” I was asking, “Is that a cliché? Is he just trying to make me feel good?” But my director said to me, “being a pro is making your sponsors happy; he likes the fact that even though it’s your third day as a professional, you saw a tiny opportunity and took it.” So I felt pretty good about it. Looking back, it was pretty important for me that I recognized that when my legs said go, to go ahead and let it happen. Even though I got clobbered, and tactically it wasn’t brilliant, I went for it.

PEZ: So rather than being intimidated and overwhelmed that you were around all these world champions, you just figured, “what the heck!”

Andy: Exactly. It was exactly what you need to do in pro bike racing, which is be there when things happen. If you’re not super-fast, or a great climber, or a crazy-strong escape artist, you have to make your chances. It’s really easy to just be one of 200 guys in the whole day instead of one of 200 guys in the result.

PEZ: Were those 8 minutes an important 8 minutes in your development as a cyclist?

Andy: It was definitely a threshold, a trigger that I was able to switch – getting over being intimidated. That helped me later on – I could see that in the most challenging setting, I could respond.

PEZ: So one of things you faced was feeling intimidated, but you chose to face it rather than getting frozen by it.

Andy: Yeah. But the pressure was on me – the goals for the team were to win a stage and if things go really well, we’ll get a guy in the top 20, with all eyes on me to try to get in the top 20. I had never done a race over two weeks, and not at that intensity. When we did finally hit the mountains, it was pouring rain, and on the final climb I cracked, and lost about 12 or 15 minutes to the winner of the stage. So all the fears I had were certainly true; it’s not that I was having an easy time in stages I was supposed to do well in.

PEZ: How did you deal with that?

Andy: I put a lot of pressure on myself as a racer. I was hard on myself. But Mike Neel was our director, and I was really fortunate to have him as our director. He just said, “that’s great, you were in the first group going into it, and this is racing – you’ve got to get it behind you.” It took me more than a night’s rest to get it behind me. I was learning to ride [more] conservatively, and by the second week I started doing well in the mountain stages, and proved to myself and the team that things were looking really good for the final week, which of course had most of the mountains in it.

PEZ: Interesting what you said about being hard on yourself – it’s pretty common, athletes being hard on themselves.

Andy: I did learn a lot from Mike Neel, our coach. If I had the leader’s jersey, and I was nervous about what was going to happen, a lot of how I would calm myself down was to tell myself, “there’s a million combinations that can happen, Mike has his ear to the ground, he’ll know if teams are conspiring to gang up on me.” Which is pretty weird, because it’s everyone’s job to gang up on me. But I just told myself, “when it happens, you’ll see it. You’ll either react, or you have good teammates [to help].” I learned to trust my instincts. Getting nervous before a race, I learned, “hey, this a 5-hour race, there’s a lot of time to figure things out. You’ll see it unfold.” Later on, I had people like Sean Yates, Steve Bauer, Phil Anderson – really experienced riders. I could say to them, “I’m worried, what should I do,” or “I feel like I’m choking, what should I do?” Teammates really help each other. So I learned to just go to sleep and think, “when the moment comes, I’ll know what to do.” I know I’m going to push myself. As long as I finish the day 100% drained physically, without doing anything really stupid tactically, I’m going to have to be happy with myself.

PEZ: What came into play for you, mentally, on the Gavia?
(Read Andy’s own account of the day here.)

Andy: It was as cold as you can ride your bike in. Just bucketing sleet and rain. After a second category climb, I was shaking uncontrollably, and the storm was coming from the north, which is the direction we’re riding into, so we know the descents are more dangerous than the uphills. In the team meetings, it was “Andy has to drill it, and the rest of you have to survive.” So my tactic was to ride uphill at 95% to save a little bit for the descent – when your glycogen gets really low from drilling it all the way uphill, your coordination goes down [on the descent].

Physically, I knew I was in crazy shape. I was also very excited about the stage, partially because Gianni Motta [who won the Giro in ’67] told me, “you’ve got to win this race, and you’ve got to win it on the Gavia.” But I had woken up that morning really scared about the snow. I was bummed out that here was my big day, and something might happen – this was not the scenario I had in mind for sunny Italy.

So after that cold, shaky descent, I finally just started looking at my competitors’ faces. It was a field of ghosts. People were freaked out. I wasn’t happy about the cold, but I could see people were scared, so I started changing my perspective, getting a little bit psyched for it [the Gavia]. We could see that it was going to be absolutely horrible – it was near-freezing where we were, and we had a near-1000-meter climb. All my competitors were on my wheel and expected me to attack. As soon as we came to the dirt section, I just drilled it. If you’re carrying a big stick, and everyone knows it, just swing it.

Psychologically, I can’t explain to you where I went. I went so deep into my mind pushing myself to keep going, both on the uphill and certainly on the downhill.

There was a miscommunication earlier in the year between our tubing manufacturer and our bike manufacturer where a bike fell apart on me. So I lost all my confidence in my bike, and insisted that I buy my own frame from someone I trusted. So I went to John Slawta. When I was out of my mind [on the Gavia], that bike found its way down the hill. Any bad feedback from the bike, I would have freaked out. Having a bike that I could trust with my instincts had a lot to do with it.

PEZ: How about the challenges in Europe for you, Meredith?

Meredith Miller: Food…getting around….and emotionally, because you’re far away, you can’t always just pick up a cell phone and call those people you would normally talk to that would comfort you. You don’t have that day-to-day or even hour-to-hour contact with people you’d normally be in touch with to help you through certain situations. Fortunately, I’ve been there enough now, so I can get myself in a pretty comfortable place right away. For some of the newer, younger riders who are going over, it’s having the support structure within the team, and people like myself and other riders who’ve been there and can show the riders the ropes. We all have to count on each other…to pick each other up when we might be having a bad day, or to talk about what’s going to be coming up, those sorts of things. We have to be our family away from home.

The racing in Europe is more difficult than in the U.S. It’s more aggressive. People aren’t just going to politely say, “oh, you want that wheel, okay, you can have it.” If you let them take a wheel once, they’re going to come back to you again and again and again. So it was really challenging to figure out how to fend for yourself out there, because they’ll take advantage of any weakness you have. And also, fitness – they’re just on a different level there. Whereas here, races might not start until midway through a race in a road race, there they start from the gun. So you have to be prepared and on your toes from Kilometer Zero. The courses are more challenging – it’s all about being in the right position.

PEZ: Ever find yourself intimidated, overwhelmed, confused?

Meredith: Absolutely. I had had several years of racing under my belt before I got there, so I knew more than my teammates about how to take care of myself in the peloton and how to move around in the peloton. But you come home each day and you’re frustrated, and you say, “Tomorrow, I just have to keep myself at the front,” and you try as hard as you can, and you feel that’s all you can focus on in the race; not what’s going on in the race, but “where am I in the race?” It was tough; there were a lot of hard days, we’d come home and say, “wow, what happened?”

PEZ: How you coached yourself through those times sounds like it was very important.

Meredith: For sure. You had to make sure you were confident in your abilities and your talent, and you told yourself, “I deserve to be here, just as much as everybody else does. So if they try to push me off a wheel, sorry, you can’t have it.” You just have to have that confidence and fight back. If they see a weakness, they’ll take advantage of it – they’re so good at that. You couldn’t give up a wheel, you couldn’t give up your space in the peloton. You had to make sure you were confident – you just stuck your elbows out and fought back just as much.

Sometimes I felt like I was in over my head, and I wondered, “should I be here?” But then, you find your spot, you find what you can do, where you’re strongest, you know the riders around you more, and you realize you belong. You’re just as strong and capable as most of the other riders in the peloton.

PEZ: So if you have those intimidating experiences and you decide they mean, “I don’t deserve to be here,” you’re in trouble.

Meredith: You can’t let those things consume you and get into your head too much. You have to say, “It happened today, but I’m not going to let it happen again, and this is what I’m going to do differently next time, and this is what I can do to get better at this.” You can find a teammate or another person in the peloton that you’ve gotten to know, an ally, and stick with that person, work together, whatever you might do to keep building that confidence and not let things bring you down.

PEZ: How has facing these things helped you be mentally stronger now?

Meredith: I was involved in a lot of stressful situations – I think that I’ve learned how to deal with that a lot better. I’ve learned to take a deep breath, relax, say, “there’s a way through this.” If the situation doesn’t turn out right, there’s always tomorrow, there’s always a new race, somewhere soon you’re going to be able to turn things around again. Things always turn out for the best; just being able to make my way through daily life without letting the little things bother me. Figuring out that I can make it through whatever country I’m in, whether I know the language or not – I’m not scared to approach people; just to have confidence that whatever the situation is, I can make the best of it.

PEZ: Amber, you’re living in Europe right now; what’s been challenging for you?

Amber Rais: The word that comes to mind is “isolation.” Being a North American, having grown up in America, my support network, my friends, my family, the training routes that I know, everything that I’m accustomed to – it’s all very much integrated with my life in the U.S. Having come to Europe, it’s been a whole new game. You’re isolated by language, you’re isolated from your friends – that isolation is a major source of stress, whether consciously or unconsciously. That’s one of the biggest challenges thus far.

PEZ: How has dealing with that challenge affected you?

Amber: It’s certainly been a journey. Looking back on that first year, I realize it was extremely difficult. What it’s done is that I think it’s helped with my resiliency in being in a strange foreign place. For one thing, I’m learning the language. That’s slowly breaking down one of those major barriers. I’m making friends, recruiting training partners, and I’m now racing with a team that’s all-Austrian and based in my hometown here in Graz. All that serves to build a community and that support network – anew. That serves to reduce the stress.

PEZ: What other mental skills have you used to reduce the stress?

Amber: When I first moved here, it was hard – you read on Facebook and Twitter all the updates of all of your friends at home, they’re arranging group rides and all of these things… I felt a pang of jealousy – I wanted to be there to be able to do those things. When I did feel those pangs of jealousy and homesickness, I’d remind myself, “look, I’m in the middle of a pretty amazing adventure here.” A lot of people back home might feel the same twinge of jealousy but for different reasons. Whenever I feel that way, I just remind myself that I need to cultivate my life here. To expend energy focusing on a life that I can’t participate in is not a constructive use of my time. I did a lot of thinking about how I could build a happier existence here.

When I talk about the sense of isolation, it sounds very negative, but there’s also an extremely positive side to it. You get stripped of everything around you that’s familiar, so the only thing really familiar to you that’s left for you is yourself. It’s interesting how you learn a lot about yourself when you step out of your comfort zone like that. You’re not motivated to go out to train by the fact that you’re going to see all your friends on the training ride. You have to find internal motivation to get yourself to go out for that same four hours to do a tough training ride, when you’re by yourself for the 10th, 20th, 30th day in a row. That’s been a valuable lesson in learning about myself but it has also strengthened my self-reliance. That’s been a huge, huge benefit from this whole adventure. The stress of being in an unfamiliar place…I think it takes more of a toll than people realize.

PEZ: So there’s been a link, for you, between increased self-reliance and decreased stress.

Amber: Yes. Everybody talks in cycling about how it’s not just about how strong you are, it’s also about how well you can recover. A big part of recovery is reducing stress. That’s something that’s been an advantage for me over the last couple of years.

The crux here is identifying the top three or four things that you get from your support network, whether that’s acceptance, unconditional love from loved ones, the encouragement of friends that see you on this path – identify the things that are most valuable to you, that affect you the most, that you would miss the most if they weren’t there. If you can learn, at least to some degree, to give yourself the support you need, then when you’re in a situation where you don’t have access to your support network, you’ll be less affected, because you’ll be better able to provide yourself with what you need.

PEZ: Interesting how you’re talking about the central importance of your connections with very important people in your life, but at the same time how important you are to you…you had to become a better coach for yourself.

Amber: For me, and I think for most athletes, we rely heavily on the support of our coaches, parents, friends, everyone who’s willing to support us on this path – it’s a very difficult path. As much as we can’t necessarily expect to provide all of that support ourselves, the better we can do that, the more resilient we will be when we find ourselves in unfamiliar situations. And the people you rely on are not always going to be able to give you the support you need, so the more adept you are at recognizing your own needs and providing yourself with the support you need, it’s really a very valuable mental skill.

The Mind to Ride Around the World

40,000 miles. 6 continents. 42 countries. Last week, Roei “Jinji” Sadan completed a four-year journey around our planet – on his bike. Yet to Roei, it’s not about the numbers; it’s about dreams, faith, and “embracing the pain.” Roei talks with PEZ about the mental skills he used on his journey, skills that the mentally fit cyclist can learn, practice, and use to enhance joy, performance, and growth in cycling.

By Marv Zauderer

In the last installment of this Sport Psychology column, we discussed Recovering from Injury with guest experts Ted King, of the Liquigas-Cannondale Pro Cycling team, and Dr. Renee Newcomer Appaneal, Assistant Professor at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This month, we learn from a 29-year-old Israeli man who has just completed an arduous, exhilarating cycling odyssey around the Earth.

Just under four years ago, I was riding through Marin County, California, when I saw a cyclist stopped at the side of the road. With his red hair and bushy beard buried in a map, and heavy panniers on his bike, he looked to be on a long journey. I slowed. “Can you tell me how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge,” he asked, with an unmistakable Israeli accent. “Sure,” I said, “I’m headed that way.” I introduced myself, using the Hebrew words for “pleased to meet you,” and after his double-take, we struck up a conversation (in English; my Hebrew was way too rusty). I learned he had started in Alaska, and was riding through California on his way to the southern tip of South America – the first leg of Roei “Jinji” Sadan’s amazing four-year journey around the world.

Since that day, I have been moved and inspired many times by Roei’s e-mail dispatches from the road. So many extraordinary stories, photos, movies, and people from his 40,000-mile journey, and so many challenges overcome: being hit by cars (twice), being robbed at gunpoint (once), incredibly long, high and hard climbs (many), not knowing where his next meal was coming from (often), near-death from malaria, and hundreds – even thousands – of miles of solitude without a living soul in sight. What kind of mind survives – no, thrives on – such a journey? What are the mental skills he used, skills that we might apply to our own riding? PEZ was honored to speak with Roei, shortly before his brief vacation in Asia and a ceremonial Amman-to-Jerusalem ride home, where he would be met by his family, friends, sponsor, and the president of his country.

PEZ: Before you started your journey, what were your goals?

Roei Sadan: I hiked [900km, alone] from the north of Israel to the south. After that I had a small dream – I went to the Himalayas for a year and a half. I hiked, and I did a mountain-climbing course for 3 months with the [Indian] army. I got to know myself…I always say that I get to know myself in the most extreme conditions. If it’s loneliness – that’s where I find myself.

PEZ: The solitude.

Roei: Exactly. I’m not a nomad. I like company. But, if I want to listen to my heart, I need quiet. I don’t like to ride with other people who like to measure me….I don’t need to look powerful in order to feel powerful. People who don’t know me can’t tell me if I’m capable or not capable; only I can….The goal was not getting to Sydney. The goal was the journey. The goal was to know who I am as a human being.

PEZ: So rather than being consumed with the outcome of your journey, you were immersed in the process, the experience of the journey. It sounds like your goal was to be as fully in your experience as you could be.

Roei: Yes, and I did it my way. Yesterday I went on a ride [with some people]. It was nice, but people looked at my bike, and they said there’s no way that I can ride with that kind of bike. It’s not the bike, it’s what you do with it….If you want to be a good athlete, you need to be a good person to yourself, not pushing yourself too much. I’m not a sprinter in my mind; I’m a marathoner.

PEZ: Like marathon runners, our readers struggle with suffering. When you had pain and fatigue on the bike, what helped you?

Roei: I embraced it. If you have pain, it’s not bad. It means that you’re growing.

PEZ: Tell me about a time when you embraced the pain.

Roei: One of the tools I use is [having the perspective of] a wide-angle lens. For example, in the Andes, the big mountains – a 70km climb, dirt road, no escort cars, and 40 kilos [of gear] on the bike. You don’t eat well. You need to climb to 5000m. And you’re alone. It’s you and the mountain. Now what? I could think like a victim. But I chose it [the climb] two years before when I made my first step in Alaska….There is a saying: he who has been in the lowest valley, he is the one who will appreciate the summit. I’m dealing with nature, I’m dealing with culture, with things that are stronger than me. So who am I that I’m going to be against it? I’m with it.

PEZ: So embracing the pain was about being fully in your choice rather than backing down from it. And there was meaning in it for you – you knew you would grow from climbing that mountain, and you wanted that.

Roei: Yes. I had to zoom out. For example, when I came to Perth, in Western Australia, before starting this huge continent. And OK, I already had [ridden] five continents, but still, it’s a big one. You look into the desert, 1000km of nothing, nothing, nothing. You don’t know when you’re going to finish it. I said OK, I’m going to get to the Sydney Opera House. So if there’s going to be pain I might as well enjoy it.

PEZ: How did fear or worry come up for you along the way?

Roei: Listen – when you’re riding alone [like this], every feeling comes in an extreme way – worry, jealousy, faith, love….

PEZ: It sounds a lot like being on a meditation retreat. So when fears came up, how did you handle them?

Roei: I’m looking at the world and I’m looking at my life. I’m 29 years old, and I’m living my dream. How many people in the world can say they’re living their dream? I’ve been in places, I’ve seen how people lived, I saw the poverty in Africa – and they lived with a smile. So who am I to complain?

PEZ: Fear or worry is about the future – so rather than letting yourself be drawn into the future, you brought yourself back to the present: how fortunate you felt, how grateful you were to be exploring the world, meeting new people – is that right?

Roei: Yeah. People always worry about the future. If you want a better future, you have to act now.

PEZ: How did you get support from people when times were tough?

Roei: Sometimes you only need a smile. I learned that people who have nothing want to give you everything.

PEZ: What did you learn about your own limits?

Roei: I knew that I was living for the challenge, but I knew that it could also kill me. I’m not going to do something that doesn’t challenge me, and that is a little bit frightening….When I had 2000km of desert, where even the camels think they get lost, it’s not a place for a human being to be on a bicycle.

PEZ: Was there ever a time when you considered giving up?

Roei: Never. Even when I had a gun pointing at me, when they robbed me in Mexico. Even when I got hit by cars, when I had extreme malaria. If you believe in yourself, other people will believe in you.

PEZ: It wasn’t just that you believed in the dream of this journey; you believe in all of your dreams.

Roei: I believe in myself. The dream is me. The map is me. To say that I’m giving up on myself, there’s no way. Maybe my journey didn’t begin in Alaska. Maybe it began in the Himalayas, before I knew how to fix a flat tire. Maybe it was when I was in the army, when I always pushed myself to be the best and help my friends. My first dream was to be a professional basketball player. In 7th grade, I’d wake up at 6am, my mom would make my lunch, and I’d go and shoot hoops for an hour before going to school. Noone told me to do that. I didn’t succeed, but it’s OK.

PEZ: You named your bike “Emuna,” the Hebrew word for faith. It sounds like who you had faith in was you.

Roei: Myself, and the way.

PEZ: The way – say more about that.

Roei: The way – it’s how you treat people, how you treat the mountains, how you treat the people who are helping you, how you treat the obstacles. If I want to be better, I have to have a challenge. If you want to do something big, it’s OK to do it for yourself only. People think that doing what I did – I needed to do it for a greater cause: world peace, [curing] cancer. I did it because it was my dream.

PEZ: So it was like Gandhi said – “be the change you want to see in the world.” You did it for your own growth, to become more fully yourself.

Roei: Exactly. People look at me and see themselves. People look at the mountains I climb and they see their [own] mountains.

PEZ: So by doing it for yourself, you also did it for others.

Roei: Exactly.

Following Up

In the interview, Roei illustrated a number of mental skills, each of which you can read more about and apply to your own riding:

Self-awareness, a crucial element in mental fitness
Goal-setting, and particularly the value of process goals
Comparing yourself with others
• Increasing your tolerance for suffering
Managing emotions such as fear and anxiety
Supporting yourself, including using effective self-talk – the self-coaching that is central to overcoming adversity
Getting support from others
Sustaining motivation and the power of your desire
• Setting and challenging your limits
• Putting failure in its place
• Using your riding for personal growth – the power of cyclotherapy

I leave you with one of Roei’s favorite quotes, from T.E. Lawrence – “Lawrence of Arabia” – who said:

All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.

Make it so!