2014 Tour de France – Stage 11: Why Athletes Need to Keep Going

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.

Comments 7

  1. question: why did garmin sharp seem to make a point of attacking when talansky was struggling. I’m not judging them; I just don’t get it. They have no sprinters who could beat Kittel, Sagan, or “the Gorilla”…Talansky’s their team mate. It seems the least they could do is simply stay in the peloton, to make it seem to some as though they were dissing talanksy…

    1. Post

      Probably less of a diss to Talansky and more of an acceptance that they had to get on with the job. At that point there was nothing they could do to help him and there was no guarantee that the sprinters would have the day. In the end it was Tony Gallopin who took it. You could argue that going to the front sped up the peloton and reduced the cutoff time, therefore making it harder for Talansky to get to the finish under the cutoff time. But even that’s a hard argument to make because Garmin-Sharp wasn’t driving the pace for that long, there were other teams doing the same, and Talansky was already 15+ minutes behind. With the big mountains looming, Garmin needed to go stage hunting on a lumpy stage like Stage 11, where they had better chances than either on a sprint stage, a mountaintop finish, or a time trial. – Jim Rutberg, CTS Coach

  2. Who knows what the right call is??? Sprained my ankle at mile 9 for the Massenutten Mountain 100 mile run. About 30 hours and 80 miles later the sweeper pulled me off the course. That was two months ago and my ankle still isn’t right. Maybe I’ll be mentally stronger for my next attempt, maybe my ankle will always be an issue.

  3. Been there- This year in particular at the 54k classic American Birkie- soft slow conditions- hip flexors totally blown at 42k- passed by 100s of skiers- had to finish as nothing feels worse than dropping out!

  4. We run a 100k in our suburban woods South Mountain Reservation within view of the NYC skyline https://sites.google.com/site/southmtn100k/ Elite runners and rec runners..small home grown race thanks to Glenn Butcher who started it. Participants often are very much like Andrew T in Tour De France..totally tired..not too much reason to fight onward..still determined to do so..A tribute to perseverance

  5. I watched Andrew and had so many of my own race flashbacks. Abandoning an endurance race always seems the right thing at the moment of the crisis, but the “I should have, could have” thoughts haunt me for years afterward. The best thing I have done has been to work with CTS Coaches and participate in the epic “bucket list” events like DK200, Amgen ToC, and USA Pro Challenge. I have learned so much about how to train, fuel and hydrate and that keeps me in the race. Plus, it is always really helpful to have a coach that can inspire you forward when you think you don’t have anything left. Last year I had the chance to meet and spend time with many of the professional riders that are in the TdF Peloton when I rode the Amgen ToC and USA Pro Challenge. It has made me feel much more connected to the riders and I truly feel for them and know how much effort they put in.

  6. This is all so true. I had such a bad day at this year’s Boston Marathon and thought about that as I watch Talansky battle today. With 3 miles to go, I was ready to hang it up. I was having stomach/hydration issues, my legs were beaten, and I was bonking. I forced myself to shuffled and keyed off other runners who were walking. I would use each one of them to tell myself how much stronger I was than they were. It worked, somehow, and I never stopped running. Congrats, Andrew.

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