Bike racing is a cruel sport. Even in the middle of the biggest race in the world, with roads lined with tens of thousands of fans and surrounded by everyone else in the peloton, at some level each rider is alone. You’re the one doing the work and making the decisions about how hard to go, what risks to take, and how much you can take. It’s that experience of surrounded isolation that every amateur cyclist – and every endurance sport competitor – has in common with the top pros, especially when the going gets tough.
When have you had enough? Do you have the strength to continue? When is it time to quit? Is continuing worth the effort or the risk?
Did you think you’re the only one that has had those thoughts during a race or event? Did you think that once you reach a certain level in a sport, once you’re a pro, those thoughts go away? They don’t. Endurance sports always remain an exercise in mental calculus.
The reason we – as viewers and fans of sport – were so enthralled by Andrew Talansky riding alone well off the back of the peloton during Stage 11 of the 2014 Tour de France was because we can all relate to the Garmin-Sharp rider’s experience. Maybe you haven’t or won’t have the experience of being off the back of the Tour de France peloton, but we’ve all been dropped. In contrast, not everyone can sprint at 45mph like Marcel Kittel or attack on a climb like Vincenzo Nibali. We may admire and be inspired by those performances, but they’re harder to relate to. On the other hand, we’ve all had bad days when it takes every ounce of your will to keep from quitting, which is why we’ll sit and watch – for more than 30 minutes – as a single rider makes his relatively slow journey to finish dead last.
Unfortunately, I can relate more directly with Talansky’s experience. Back in 1986 I eventually abandoned the Tour de France because of stomach problems. Abandoning was the last thing I wanted to do, and I fought with everything I had to stay in the race. But I wasn’t getting any nourishment, couldn’t recover from day to day, and on the bike I was weak as a kitten. I finally reached a point where I had to face the reality that abandoning was the only option. At the time, it sucked but I took it in stride because I figured I’d be back the following year. It wasn’t that I was taking that for granted, I was just young and confident in my abilities, and I had no reason to think otherwise. That winter I broke my femur in a skiing accident, and though I returned to the peloton I never fully recovered the power I had prior to the accident. The 1986 Tour de France turned out to be my only one.
Working Through the Worst
Failure is an unpleasant but necessary learning experience for athletes. Yes, it helps with developing mental fortitude, but perhaps just as important it teaches athletes to be problem solvers. You have to work the problem, remove emotion from the situation, and try everything you can think of before pulling the plug. Quitting is easy. It happens in an instant and brings immediate relief, which is very enticing when everything is going wrong. Having worked with a lot of athletes, from amateurs to pros and across many different sports, here are some of the strategies my coaches and I use with athletes who are struggling during events:
1. Remove the pressure
Athletes are goal-oriented. They want to win or maintain a specific pace or achieve a goal time. Then they add deeply personal goals like riding in support of a charity or to honor the memory of a loved one. At the pro level it’s the pressure to do your job and the desire to not let your teammates down. But when athletes are on the brink of quitting, removing those pressures enables them to address the situation more rationally. Inspiration is absolutely necessary for keeping an athlete going, but that’s different than feeling an obligation or pressure (real or perceived). Let the goal pace go. Don’t worry about your overall standing. You’re not letting anyone down. Take it one step or one kilometer at a time. It’s important for an athlete to know they’ll be supported whether they choose to continue or not, and that it’s their choice.
2. Work the problem
The problems that cause endurance athletes to slow down or stop moving forward don’t typically solve themselves. You have to actively work the problem. We’ve seen athletes get into deep nutrition and/or hydration crises during endurance events and dig themselves back out to finish strong. But it takes focus and skill and being proactive. Working through the tough spots is what teaches you how to persevere in the future.
3. Keep them moving
Andrew Talansky stopped at the side of the road, sat down on a guardrail, and had a minutes-long talk with Robbie Hunter – one of Garmin-Sharp’s team directors. It was a surprise to see Talansky remount the bike, because once an athlete sits down it often indicates they’ve tipped over a critical decision point. It says a lot about Talansky that he had the guts to get back on the bike, and a lot about Hunter that he knew how to communicate with a rider in that condition to help him keep going.
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When my coaches and I are in aid stations during endurance events like the Dirty Kanza 200, Ironman triathlons, or the Leadville 100 (MTB and Run), we want to help athletes and then get them out of the aid station quickly. We’re nice about it, but we try not to let athletes get off their bikes or sit down. It’s better to be moving forward, no matter how slowly, than to be stationary. Moving helps to keep an athlete’s head in the game and that is what keeps their body in the game.
4. Be willing to be the bad guy
While the goal is always to keep an athlete moving forward, you also have to recognize when it’s time to pull the plug. When athletes are likely to endanger themselves by continuing, are no longer capable of making good decisions, or are going to put other competitors/participants/event staff in danger, the right decision is to stop. The athlete is still the one who has to make the final decision but coaches and team directors need to be the voice of reason, especially when athletes are exhausted, disoriented, and passionate about not giving up. We never want to see an athlete give up, but sometimes it’s the appropriate choice.
Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talansky should never forget Stage 11 of the 2014 Tour de France. Nor should he shrug it off and dismiss it, either. In the long run it may prove to be one of the most influential days of racing he’ll have in his career. The lessons he learned today had to happen as a matter of his development. It was hard to watch but there are no easy ways to learn hard lessons. Chapeau to him for gutting it out, and to his team and directors for supporting him.