How pro riders overcome the fear factor

ANNEMIEK VAN VLEUTEN lay crumpled in a damp gutter above Rio de Janeiro during the Olympic women’s road race in the summer of 2016. Van Vleuten’s crash left her with fractures to her spine and a severe concussion, yet 10 days later the Dutchwoman was back training, riding imaginary miles on her rollers. Two weeks after that, van Vleuten was riding on open roads, and less than a year later, she won the world time trial championships in Norway.

During the 2017 Giro di Lombardia, Jan Bakelants (Ag2r La Mondiale) careened over a metal guardrail and catapulted into a 40-foot-deep ravine, breaking four vertebrae and seven ribs on impact. As medics prepared Bakelants for an ambulance ride, a motorcycle ran over his leg. After undergoing back surgery, the Belgian told reporters his goal was to race again.

Pro cycling has produced hundreds of these tales of calamity and resilience, of riders rebounding from awful crashes to race again. Each account is a reminder of the dangerous nature of the sport, as well as of the intense passion of those who make a living at it. A regular person would likely abandon the sport after a brush with death. You’d walk away, count your lucky stars, and perhaps go find a job in a bank. Yet despite the dangers, pros almost always come back for more.

What drives these riders to challenge cycling’s ever-present fears? Over the past few months, VeloNews interviewed more than a dozen cyclists about this topic. Their individual tales and informed perspective paint a picture of a lifestyle and profession that revolves around fear and anxiety. As much as modern bike racing has transformed into a mathematical equation, cycling remains, at its core, a mental game. Riders must balance the demons of uncertainty, job security, the threat of crashing, and the pressure to chase after their goals. Those riders who master cycling’s fears are often those
who enjoy the most fruitful careers.

“Cycling at the elite level is all about mental strength,” says Kristin Keim, a clinical psychologist who works with dozens of endurance athletes. “The differences at the top of the sport are so limited — the big differences are all mental.”

‘Fear-based operation’

What do pro cyclists fear most? The list is long: keeping his or her job in the peloton; letting down teammates; being unable to live up to expectations; controlling weight; or cracking under the demands of leadership and success.

“You cannot be ‘normal’ to do this, and that’s okay,” Keim says. “There is no professional endurance athlete who hasn’t had some anxiety or depression at some point. Does that mean they all have to go to therapy and have meds? No.”

Cycling is about pushing mind and body to the absolute maximum. Winning might come easy for a few truly blessed riders, but no victory comes without hardship, sacrifice, pain, and discipline. For most, any victory or personal milestone comes only after incredible mental anguish. Some fail to handle the pressure.

“The mental side of the sport is huge,” says Aussie veteran Rory Sutherland (UAE-Emirates). “I’ve ridden with enough leaders to know they cannot hide it. As soon as they sit down at the breakfast table, you know if they’re shitting in their pants before a big stage. Everyone picks up on that.”

All too often, professional cyclists end up divorced; many develop eating disorders, or become alcoholics, or worse. They sacrifice nearly everything to be an elite athlete, and often end up as exhausted and frustrated husks, with empty bank accounts and few tools to deal with the real world. Many become dependent on the speed, adrenaline, and power that come with racing.

“Cycling is a fear-based, mercenary operation, that is for sure,” says Canadian pro Svein Tuft (Orica-Scott). “I see a lot of people suffering from that. I wish that wasn’t the case.”

‘You know you’re gonna eat shit’

Chad Haga knows what it’s like to overcome fear. The 29-year-old Texan has quietly become one of the reliable workers at Team Sunweb and was key in helping Tom Dumoulin win the 2017 Giro d’Italia. It almost didn’t happen.

Magnus Backstedt. Photo: Tim De Waele | Getty Images

In early 2016, Haga was involved in a horrific training crash when an elderly driver plowed into the Sunweb team’s training ride. Haga was airlifted to a Spanish hospital and received 100 stitches to his face and neck. Like most pros, he defiantly vowed to return to racing — but it wasn’t so easy. Haga was not afraid of the ruthless dynamics of the peloton, but rather developed a fear of training on open roads.

“We were all scared initially — because of no fault of your own you realize how powerless you are,” Haga says. “I was still scared of getting hurt again, and having it set me back.”

Every year dozens of pro riders are felled by serious crashes. Just in the past few years, some top riders have seen their careers come to an abrupt end due to misfortune. Adriano Malori, the Italian time trial champion, was forced to retire in 2017 after suffering a head injury. Taylor Phinney’s career has never been the same since his crash in 2014. Then there are more tragic stories. In 2011, Wouter Weylandt was killed during the Giro d’Italia, while in 2016, Antoine Demoitié died after being struck by a motorcycle during Gent-Wevelgem.

“How cycling isn’t considered an extreme sport is beyond me,” says Paris-Roubaix winner and Eurosport commentator Magnus Bäckstedt. “It’s bloody dangerous out there. You know at some point you’re going to eat shit. It’s going to happen. The only question is when, and how bad.”

Within that acknowledgment lies a crushing psychological conundrum. Cyclists realize they will someday crash — and crash hard — yet the sport is built on speed, and hesitation often costs a rider a shot at victory. There is no room for a fear of crashing. As Mario Cipollini once said, “If you brake, you don’t win.” Not long after a rider loses the ability to manage the fear of danger, he or she often accepts the writing on the wall that retirement is in order.

In fact, most riders crash more than they win. Unless a rider embraces and confronts the fear, just like Haga did, he doesn’t hang around enough to enjoy the fruits of his labor. Haga vowed to return to racing in part for his father, who later succumbed to a long, multi-year battle with cancer.

“You cannot focus on the fear in cycling — [if you do] you’re at the back of the peloton before you know it,” Haga says. “It took me a few months, but I got over it, and it’s not a problem anymore.”

‘Fear of not delivering’

Climbing to the top of the peloton’s hierarchy is difficult. The fear of falling off that pedestal can be crushing.

Tyler Farrar lived that emotional rollercoaster during his 13-year pro career. After turning professional at 19, he enjoyed the best-ever run by an American sprinter from 2009-2011, winning stages in all three grand tours, and other major races. Then the wins stopped coming. Farrar spent years wondering why he was unable to challenge André Greipel and Mark Cavendish, as he had done before.

“It was hard, but as a pro, you have to be able to make an honest assessment,” Farrar says. “The problem was that I wasn’t getting any slower. My power was the same. Times had changed. The races had changed. Today, there are three climbs in the last 50km. I like flat roads.”

Desperate to chase results, Farrar began taking more risks and crashing more often. It was a high-wire act, and Farrar experienced first-hand the emotional, physical, and mental strain that every pro endures. After a few subpar seasons, he embraced a chance to become a team captain and domestique at the expanding Dimension Data team. Rather than race to win, he raced to help his teammates win.

Farrar was lucky that he could find a new role and extend his career. Riders are constantly squeezed and pressed by the media and sponsors to win, no matter the cost. Often, there’s no support structure for those riders when they lose.

“You’re around people a lot, but it can also be very isolating,” Farrar says. “It’s every man for himself in a lot of ways.”

There is a thin line between injury — or worse — and glory. Straddling that line requires a special mental toolbox. Measuring risk, overcoming apprehension, managing the anxiety that comes with it, and eventually embracing the fear is as essential to becoming a professional cyclist as one’s VO2max.

Facing such pressures, it’s no surprise that professional cyclists often adopt neurotic behavior. Many are prone to extreme emotions. Since cycling is such a mentally taxing profession, it’s surprising how little attention has been paid to that aspect of performance. Many agree more could be done.

“Some riders fear success,” Keim says. “They’re the underdog, and it becomes their identity. Then they do well, and they have to keep it up. They become their own worst enemy. Others have the unique ability to really step up when the pressure is on to perform. Every athlete has their own unique qualities and challenges.”

Professional racing can be a nomadic experience, with pros living out of suitcases and in hotels for months on end. They’re often isolated, and living in a cocooned existence that is unlike any other athletic endeavor. Race, eat, sleep, recover, and then repeat. That’s their day-to-day mantra. Inside that seemingly benign routine, cyclists face real or imagined demons. There’s often a lack of introspection. Results count; whining doesn’t.

During the off-season, Farrar would retreat to the mountains of Washington to get away from the chaos of racing. Hunting and exploring were his salve. After retiring from his racing career, despite having one year left on his contract, Farrar began preparing to be a firefighter. He wanted to give “something back” to his community after dedicating most of his life to the self-serving pursuit of racing.

“I didn’t want to be the guy who stuck around too long, and just hung on for dear life in his career,” Farrar says. “Cycling was always my dream, but the one thing I struggled with in being a pro athlete is that it’s a pretty selfish existence.”

Farrar is something of an oddity in the peloton: a pro who retired on his terms with sound body and mind.

Tyler Farrar. Photo: Tim De Waele | Getty Images

‘It’s a male macho sport’

Cycling’s pressure impacts riders in different ways. When the Orica-Scott team bus rolls into a hotel every night, Canadian veteran Tuft is on the lookout for a secluded area where he can escape for a morning routine of yoga and meditation (see “Sitting In”). Peter Sagan rocks through the peloton as if he’s starring in his own movie. Some riders become narcissistic egomaniacs, bent on destroying rivals and themselves.

“It’s a male macho sport,” Sutherland says. “Everyone needs to be a hard man. If you ask for help, you’re vulnerable, you’re seen as weak.”

Most pros have dedicated their entire lives to reach the elite of the peloton. Many have foregone education and a traditional career to try to make it in the professional ranks. It’s exclusive company. Of the billions of people on Earth, only 600 or so race among the elite men’s peloton, and only 198 line up for the Tour de France each summer. That’s the one percent of the one percent.

The stress of keeping a spot within that rarified world is a constant worry. A bad crash, injury, or string of bad results can end a rider’s career. So can forces outside their control. This past fall, the former Cannondale-Drapac team nearly collapsed due to sponsorship woes. The news put immense stress on the team’s riders.

“We were joking about which farm we are going to work on, or which school to go back to,” says Toms Skujins, who eventually signed with Trek-Segafredo. “We know we are lucky to be able to do this. It’s a sport, but it’s also serious business.”

The 2018 season is shaping up to be even worse, as teams across the WorldTour reduce the size of their rosters due to the limits for grand tour squads. Young talents are keen to earn their spot. Veterans look for balance between attaining results, being professional, providing for a family, and staying healthy.

Alejandro Valverde. Photo: Tim De Waele | Getty Images

‘Their bodies can just explode’

A former pro rider, Keim has established herself as one of the most trusted sports psychologists among professional cyclists. She has been on the leading edge of a movement that has developed over the past decade to incorporate mental coaching into the preparation for elite athletic performance. In a sport that is hyper-focused on nutrition, gear, and training, cyclists often under-appreciate or even outright ignore mental training.

“Their bodies can just explode due to something else going on,” Keim says. “Success is about finding balance between the physical and mental.”

In Keim’s opinion, physical performance is linked to an athlete’s psychological state. Anxieties caused by the fear of crashing or losing one’s job will eventually be expressed in a rider’s mental approach to training and racing. Once a rider loses the mental side of the sport, his or her physical performance is bound to suffer.

“You can see it in their body language, their facial expressions,” she says. “You don’t breathe right. Things can just snowball, and it affects their performance.”

Teams are slowly recognizing the benefits of mental preparation. Some squads have invested in team-building exercises to forge emotional ties between their riders. Team Sky even works with in-house sports psychologists. Yet most teams don’t have the resources to develop the mental strength of their riders. That leaves the riders without many options; some will improvise or hire psychologists on the side.

Other teams have found innovative ways to approach sports psychology. In 2017 Cannondale-Drapac began working with Gearoid Towey, a three-time Olympic rower who operates a consultancy business aimed at helping pro athletes adapt to regular life after retirement. Towey’s program also teaches riders how to maintain a healthy life away from the bike during their careers.

“Competition can bring out the best in you, but also it can be detrimental,” Towey says. “It’s natural to have fear as an athlete. But covering up those fears instead of confronting them is going to cost you energy that can affect the performance.”

Towey knows about channeling anger and disappointment. After not medaling during the 2004 Olympic Games, he and a rowing partner competed in a rowing race across the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to the United States. Some 45 days into the trip, their boat capsized 800 miles from land in a hurricane-force storm. They were lucky that a ship picked them up within 36 hours or they might have been lost forever.

‘Nothing is better in the world’

There’s a reason cycling becomes addictive. The sport offers freedom, joy, speed, health, and satisfaction. There’s no better drug than the elation that comes with winning.

Three months after a career-threatening crash at the 2017 Tour de France, Spaniard Alejandro Valverde met with reporters in Spain to discuss his comeback. At 37, Valverde could have easily called it a career. Instead, Valverde dedicated himself to a rigorous rehabilitation campaign to get back on the bike.

“I want to get back to winning,” Valverde says. “There’s nothing better in the world that I enjoy.”

In many ways, cycling is more professional than it’s ever been, with pros enjoying longer, healthier careers. Salaries are slowly improving across the men’s and women’s pelotons and larger teams have more money to invest in quality-of-life issues that translate into better results. There are more tools to help pros maximize their ability without causing permanent damage.

And with the assistance of sports psychologists like Keim and life coaches like Towey, many cyclists are motivated to battle those internal forces that are impossible to measure. These forces compel riders to challenge their fears (even after major crashes), contract disputes, or bad performances.

Like Valverde, van Vleuten returned to pro cycling to chase victories. During her comeback, she told reporters that she didn’t “want to be remembered as the girl who crashed.”

“To be an athlete you have ups and downs, and sometimes the downs make the ups even more beautiful,” van Vleuten said after her victory in Norway. “After the crash in Rio, this makes it very special.”

In essence, that is cycling’s ultimate prize: bundling fears and anxieties, marrying them with skill and training, and repacking them into victory.

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