By Dr. Jim Taylor
When you compete in a cycling race, you are, in fact, competing in three races. The obvious competition is the one that occurs against the other cyclists in the field. Your goal, presumably, is to beat as many of them as possible.
Before you can win that race, you must win the race against the course: the climbs, descents, road conditions, and weather all exist to beat you. Your more immediate challenge is to conquer the demands of the course. If you can’t win this race, you won’t be able to win the race against the other cyclists.
But before you can win the race against the course, you must win the race that goes on inside your head against yourself. Here’s a simple reality: If you don’t win the mental race, you can’t win the races against the course or against the other cyclists.
How Important is the Mind?
Contrary to what you may think, at whatever level in which you’re racing, the technical and physical aspects of cycling don’t usually determine the winner. Riders who compete at the same level are very similar technically and physically. For example, does Cadel Evans have greater stamina than Frank Schleck? Is Mark Cavendish stronger than Thor Hushovd? In both cases, the answer is no. So, on any given day, what separates who dons, for example, the Tour de France’s yellow or green jerseys and who stands a step or two down on the podium? The answer lies in who wins the mental race (strong team support and a bit of luck help too, of course).
Whenever I talk to cyclists, I ask them what aspect of our sport seems to have the greatest impact on how they ride. Almost unanimously they say the mental part. I then ask how much time they devote to their mental preparation and their answer is almost always little or no time.
Despite its obvious importance, the mental side of cycling is most often neglected, at least until a problem arises. The mistake cyclists (and coaches) make is that they don’t treat the mental side of cycling the same way they treat its physical and technical sides. You don’t wait to get injured before you do physical conditioning, do you? You don’t develop a technical flaw before you work on your technique, do you? Of course not. You do physical and technical training to prevent problems from arising. You should approach the mental side in the same way.
Peak Performance is Not the Goal
One of the most popular phrases in sport psychology is “peak performance.” Athletes in all sports typically think of peak performance as performing their best, as being at the top of their game. That sounds good, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to achieve peak performance? And when I came out of graduate school, peak performance was what I wanted athletes to achieve.
But as I became more experienced as a consultant and a writer, I began to appreciate the power of words and how important it is that the words I use are highly descriptive of what I want to communicate. I decided that peak performance was not descriptive. I saw several problems with peak performance:
• A peak is very small, so you can’t stay there long. Would you be satisfied if you had one good race and several poor ones?
• Once the peak is reached, there’s only one way to go—down! And, and as with most peaks, the drop is usually precipitous. Have you experienced those big swings in race performance where one week you’re totally “ in the zone” and the next you’re completely out of it?
• You may arrive at the peak too early or too late, missing a chance for success. Have you felt the frustration of lost opportunity because you weren’t mentally “on” for your big race?
It’s about Prime Performance
So I needed a phrase that accurately described what I wanted athletes to achieve. I struggled for several years, unable to find such a phrase, until one day I had one of those rare meetings of readiness and luck. Walking through the meat section of a supermarket I saw a piece of beef with a sticker that read “Prime Cut.” I had an “aha” experience; I knew I was on to something. I returned to my office and looked up “prime” in the dictionary. It was defined as “of the highest quality or value.” I had finally found the phrase, “Prime Performance,” in this case, Prime Cycling, which I believed was highly descriptive of what I wanted cyclists to achieve.
I define Prime Cycling as “riding at a consistently high level under the most challenging conditions.” There are two essential words in this definition. First, “consistently.” I’m not interested if you can have only one or two great rides and then some poor ones; that is not enough to be truly successful. I want you to be able to train and race at a high level day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, all season long. This means training and racing with minimal ups and downs instead of the large swings in performance that are so common among cyclists. Second, “challenging.” I’m not impressed if you can ride well under ideal race conditions against an easy field in an unimportant race. What makes the great cyclists great is their ability to ride their best under the worst possible race conditions against the toughest field imaginable in the biggest race of their lives.
Experiencing Prime Cycling
A question you may ask is, Where does Prime Cycling come from? Though I’ll be focusing on its mental contributors, the mind is only one necessary part of Prime Cycling. You must also be at a high level of physical health including being well-conditioned, well-rested, eating a balanced diet, and free from injury and illness. Prime Cycling also isn’t possible if you’re not technically and tactically sound. And you must have the best equipment optimally prepared. If you have all of these elements prepared to the max, then you will have the ability to achieve Prime Cycling.
Now here’s a question for you: Have you ever experienced Prime Cycling? Let me describe what it’s like:
• Effortless: It’s comfortable, easy, and natural.
• Automatic: The body does what it knows how to do and there’s no mental interference.
• Sharpened senses: Seeing, hearing, and feeling everything more acutely than normal.
• Time shift: Everything slows down enabling you to react more quickly.
• Effortless focus: You’re totally absorbed in the experience.
• Boundless energy: Fatigue is simply not an issue.
• Prime integration: The physical, technical, tactical, and mental are working together to enable you to ride your best.
As I share insights about mental side of cycling with you, remember that Prime Cycling is the goal and all of your efforts are directed toward experiencing that elusive state. I will give you the mental tools to experience Prime Cycling, but it’s up to you to develop the physical, technical, and tactical tools you will need. When you get to the start line for the most important race of the upcoming competitive season, you’ll be able to say with confidence that you are totally prepared to ride at a consistently high level under the most challenging conditions and achieve your cycling goals.
About Dr. Jim
Dr. Jim Taylor is a clinical associate professor in the Sport & Performance Psychology graduate program at the University of Denver. He has worked with professional, world-class, junior-elite, and age-group athletes in many sports for over 26 years. He has been the team sport psych consultant for two professional cycling teams. A former internationally ranked alpine ski racer, Jim is a 2nd degree black belt and certified instructor in karate, a marathon runner, an Ironman triathlete, and an avid cyclist. Jim is the author or lead editor of 12 books, including Prime Sport: Triumph of the Athlete’s Mind, The Triathlete’s Guide to Mental Training, and Applying Sport Psychology: Four Perspectives, has published over 600 articles in popular and professional publications, and has given more than 800 workshops and presentations throughout the North America and Europe. He publishes the Prime Sport Alert, a bi-monthly e-newsletter and blogs on sports. To learn more, visit his web site.