Chris Carmichael Blog: Keeping Your Best Days From Becoming Your Worst

I’ve been in the Santa Ynez Valley in California for our Spring Training Camps over the past few weeks, my 13th year of trading the cold of Colorado for the sunny warmth of southern California to get in some great spring training. Tonight I’ll be going to the pre-ride dinner for the 30th Annual Solvang Century, an event with a rich history and great community. My first-ever visit to the Santa Ynez Valley occurred a few years after the first Solvang Century, when the 7-Eleven team came here for Team Time Trial practice in 1986.

We chose the Santa Ynez Valley because the roads from Solvang to Lompoc are relatively flat and back then there was no traffic in the valley. (Even now I’m amazed at how quiet the roads are around here.) We were really excited about the team time trial stage of the Tour de France. We were going to be the first American team to take part in the race and we had Davis Phinney and Ron Kiefel, who had earned bronze medals in the 100km Team Time Trial in the 1984 Olympics. The TTT was an opportunity to prove we deserved to be racing the Tour de France and that we were as fast and professional as the Europeans.

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We practiced and practiced. We did crisis training to simulate what we do if someone got a flat tire, crashed, or got dropped. Since the TTT was the second part of a split-stage, we talked about what we had to do nutritionally to be ready for an afternoon time trial following a road race earlier that same day. We came away from that camp super confident that the team time trial at the Tour de France was going to be a great day for the team.

The 1986 Tour de France

The road race part of the split-stage was a phenomenal success. Alex Stieda attacked right from the first kilometer. The Europeans just stared at the rest of us as if to say, “What is he doing? This is the Tour de France, not an American criterium.” It didn’t help our image that Alex was wearing a skinsuit; he’d pinned his number on using enough pins that it formed a pocket since the skinsuit didn’t have any. But Alex had the last laugh. He didn’t win the stage, but he scooped up enough sprint and climbing points, and bonus seconds, to capture the lead in every jersey competition! He had the leader’s yellow jersey, the sprinters’ red jersey, the climbers’ polka dot jersey, the white young rider’s jersey, and the combined jersey (best-placed rider in the other competitions, since discontinued).

It was a great moment for Alex and everyone in the team. It was the best way to answer the critics who said we were too weak and too inexperienced to deserve a place in the Tour de France peloton. But in the elation of that moment we lost our grip on the next moment.

Alex was on stage for what seemed to be hours. There were jersey presentations and a long series of interviews. Valuable time went by and he didn’t get a chance to eat or drink in preparation for the afternoon time trial. And even though the rest of us didn’t have the cameras and microphones in our faces like he did, we weren’t all that much better about sticking to the plans we’d talked about in the Santa Ynez Valley. There was plenty of time to both celebrate and prepare, but in hindsight it’s clear we celebrated far more than we prepared.

For a complete description of what transpired over the 56 kilometers of that afternoon’s team time trial, read Geoff Drake’s book “Team 7-Eleven: How an Unsung Band of American Cyclists Took on the World-and Won” To summarize what happened, we didn’t drive the course beforehand, so we didn’t know about a roundabout with a traffic island in the exit. The first few guys missed it, but behind them I think the rest of us either crashed or flatted. Then there was confusion over whether to go or to wait. Alexi Grewal and Doug Shapiro got into a shouting match that ended with Shapiro launching a water bottle at Grewal’s head – while still racing! We dropped Alex, waited for him, and dropped him again. Eventually Jeff Pierce and I dropped back to pace Alex to the finish line in the hopes that the three of us could get there fast enough to beat the elimination time. We did, but only by about 30 seconds. After the stage, famed cycling journalist Samuel Abt asked Davis – the Olympic TTT bronze medalist – if he’d ever ridden a team time trial before.

It was a disaster. To this day the 7-Eleven Team is the only team to win and lose the yellow jersey in the same day. We made a lot of mistakes, but they all boil down to one error: we forgot the fundamentals. During those days of TTT training in the Santa Ynez Valley we had everything dialed in. We rode beautifully together and we were fast! But we couldn’t translate that success in training to success in competition because we got too caught up in the emotions of the moment.

Bike racers, triathletes, runners, and competitors in all sports have to learn to deal with pressure. But it’s not just the pressure of expectation or nervousness that you could fail. Success and excitement – overwhelmingly positive circumstances – can be just as disruptive. As the endurance sports season starts to ramp up for the year, here are some tips for keeping your head about you:

  1. Have a schedule: You know when your race starts, so back up from there and schedule when your warmup is going to start, when you’re going to arrive at the race venue to register, when you’re going to eat, when you’re going to leave the house. If you have trouble sticking to it, use the multiple alarms function on your smartphone.
  2. Plug in: Whether it’s soothing tunes or raging metal, you can use music to tune out distractions during your warmup. Some of the pros even turn their trainers toward the team bus to reduce the external stimuli. Outside your warmup, plugging in can settle your thoughts so you can focus on your race and what you have to do next, rather than being distracted by what’s going on around you.
  3. Make a post-race checklist: Expos are awesome, but it would be a shame if spending too much time there hurt your performance in your race. Make a checklist of the things and places that interest you, and then put them out of your mind until after the race and get on with the task at hand.
  4. Hug it out, then move on: This is mostly for the bike racers who might be racing both days of the weekend. Following your first race celebrate like a rock star, wallow in self-pity, or rage like a branded bull – and then get over it. In 24 hours or fewer, you have another chance to either shine again or redeem yourself. Don’t dismiss the feelings you have about today’s race without acknowledging them, but make sure you’re able to objectively focus on tomorrow’s race as well.

Have a great weekend!

Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach
Carmichael Training Systems

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