Grand Tour mind games
We explore the psychological secrets of cyclists riding a grand tour like the Tour de France, from the way they deal with leg pain to how they stay motivated for the brutal three-week race.
BREAK DOWN THE CHALLENGE
The Tour de France leaves even super-fit pro riders feeling physically shattered at the end of each day. As four-time Tour winner Chris Froome once remarked: “The Tour is so brutal that some nights I have to sit in the shower because I can’t stand up.”
The only way for riders to survive these three weeks of relentless suffering is to break each day down into much smaller and more manageable chunks. Instead of thinking about the painful 250km stage ahead, riders simply aim to get though the next 10km, or to reach the top of the next climb, or to make it to the next feed station.
2018 Tour winner Geraint Thomas has explained that this strategy is one which riders have to learn the hard way. “At my first Tour de France in 2007, I had just turned 21, I was the youngest guy in the race, and every day I was on my knees,” he explained. “I’d wake up and think: I can’t finish today, but I’ve got to start. Then you start and you think: I have to finish. Then you get to the finish and you think: I’m not starting tomorrow, this is ridiculous! But then you start again. It feels a lot easier when you think this way, and it goes a lot quicker.”
WIN THE PAIN GAME
Tour de France riders spend three weeks enduring extreme pain – and on challenging mountain days this pain can become unbearable. Riders therefore develop a range of personal strategies for dealing with the pain. Two-time Tour stage winner Jens Voight would scream “Shut up legs!” to fight through the pain, whereas 2012 Tour winner Bradley Wiggins would count to 100 in his head to distract himself from the pain. “In tough times, you just have to battle through,” he once explained.
But two-time Tour de France finisher Ben Swift says it is often better not to think about the pain at all. “As soon as you start thinking how much it hurts and how far to the top, you are going to get dropped,” he once explained. “So I concentrate on what I am doing and try to relax into it by looking at the wheel in front or the road ahead instead.”
Adam Yates – who has two top-ten finishes at the Tour – agrees that it is often better to distract yourself from the pain. “If you think too much, you’ll end up saying: hold on here, what am I doing?” he explained. “If you start thinking about the suffering it’s a recipe for disaster. It’s better not to think about it and just do it.”
CHALLENGE YOUR CHIMP
Even experienced pro riders have negative voices swirling around their heads during a long endurance ride. “You go through so much in your head,” Geraint Thomas once explained. “That little voice is telling you to stop: ‘What are you doing?’ It’s a big battle.”
That is why legendary cycling psychiatrist Dr Steve Peters teachers Tour riders to control their inner ‘chimp’ – his term for the irrational and emotional part of the brain – and to focus on their ‘human’ brain – the more rational and sensible part of the brain – instead. Tour riders are taught to replace emotional thoughts (“I’m nervous about this stage, what if I crash?”) with more positive ones (“I have trained hard for this, I am ready.”) This helps the Tour rider to remain calm, confident and focused under pressure.
BUILD CONFIDENCE WITH GOOD HOMEWORK
In stressful situations, like a sprint finish, it is easy for riders to panic and make a big mistake. But that is why they do their homework in advance. Eleven-time Tour stage winner Andre Greipel studies all the intricate details of a stage, from the wind conditions to the quality of the road surface. “A sprint involves a lot of planning and preparation and a lot of thinking,” he once explained. “You see how the wind is, how they put the barriers out on the road, how the (traffic) islands are. These small details can influence how you sprint in the final moments.”
By preparing in intricate detail, Tour riders feel much more confident in moments of high tension out on the road.
DRINK MORE OFTEN
One of the simplest but most easily neglected ways for riders to sustain a positive mood during long Tour de France stages is to drink more often. Dehydration doesn’t just affect a rider’s physical performance; it also negatively impacts their motivation, mood, focus and concentration. To stay hydrated, riders may have to consume up to 10 litres a day. Some riders sip water flavoured with tasty pineapple juice to encourage themselves to drink more often.
Over the course of the three weeks, Tour riders will inevitably find their motivation rises and falls along with their mood. That is why successful Tour riders focus on commitment, instead of motivation. “Your motivation goes up and down but so long as you are committed you will go out and do it anyway,” Geraint Thomas once explained.
OVERPOWER YOUR RIVALS
Winning the mind games also means overcoming your rivals. According to two-time Tour stage-winner Frank Schleck, riders have to be ruthless. “In general we are all pros and we are also friends but once you are in the race you have the knife between your teeth and you know it’s a competition and it’s hard. There is no hiding place. It is balls to the wall and you fight each other. Off the bike you can have a beer. But in the race it is a competition and there is no friendship.”
The 2012 mountains classification winner Thomas Voeckler has explained that even body language is crucial. “If I was in breakaway with different guys in the mountains you do try to find signs to see if this one or that one is having a good day or not,” he once explained.
KNOW YOUR BIG REASON WHY
When the pain kicks in, Tour riders need to remind themselves why they are at the race in the first place. “It was always my dream to do well in the Tour de France ever since I was a boy sprinting for road signs and pretending I was in the Tour,” explained Wiggins. By remembering your big goal and your primary motivation, you are better able to handle all the pain and the stress. Tour winners never take their eyes off the prize.
Pro riders develop all sorts of psychological strategies to stay focused and motivated during the Tour, but it all boils down to one simple question: am I going to quit? “You have two options: you quit or you fight,” explained Frank Schleck. “If you fight, that feeling stays with you forever. If you quit, that stays with you forever also. Pain is temporary but memories stay forever.”