alison jackson racing 2023 Paris-Roubaix bicycle race

How to Survive the Toughest Moments of Your Cycling Event


By Adam Pulford,
CTS Premier Coach,
Host of “The Time-Crunched Cyclist Podcast

Adam Pulford is a CTS Premier Coach, worked with the TeamShoAir UCI Professional Factory MTB Team, Twenty16/Twenty20 UCI Professional Women’s Race Team, and Orangeseal Off-Road Team, and currently coaches 2023 Paris-Roubaix Femmes winner Alison Jackson (pictured above).

The Spring Classics season kicks into high gear this weekend with the Tour of Flanders, which will be followed by Paris-Roubaix, Amstel Gold, La Fleche Wallone, and finally Liege-Bastogne-Liege. In an already difficult sport, The Classics distinguish themselves through pure brutality. They are tortuously long (Flanders is 270.8km for the men and 163km for the women), feature cobblestones, roads narrower than American bike paths, countless climbs, wind, and notoriously unpredictable Northern European spring weather. Every rider suffers during a Classic, and many riders – even the champions – consider quitting. Fortunately, you can take advantage of the same strategies they use to stay in the race!

Developing Mental Toughness

You spend countless hours preparing to be at your best, but you learn the most about yourself when you’re closest to failure.  Many cyclists actively seek out tough moments. You push yourself with longer events and harder challenges and more competitive fields so you can reach the point where failure is probable and digging deep is the only path to success. So, while a lot of training focuses on being fit enough to stay ahead of trouble, it’s also important to know how to battle your way through it.

From a mental toughness standpoint, conditions that are unusual or anomalous cause stress and nervousness. This leads to doubt about how you’ll perform and a preoccupation with the conditions instead of your performance. But if you have raced in strong crosswinds over narrow paths and cobblestones since you were a young teenager, those conditions are no longer unusual and you can focus on performance and strategy as opposed to thinking about survival. This is why it is so important for athletes to incorporate some uncertainty and discomfort in training, so it is not distracting or a source of consternation when it occurs during an event.

With that as prelude, here’s how to survive the tough times in your events:

1. If You’re Suffering, So Is Everyone Else

When you’re struggling to hold the pace of the group or stay on the wheel, or you’re hot and hungry and just want to be done… so is everyone else. When the going gets hard athletes tend to narrow their thinking and retreat into their own heads. You feel alone, like everyone else is fine and you’re the only one in trouble. That’s not true; it’s hard for them, too. How does that help you? It provides perspective. They can handle it and so can you. And if you can handle it longer than they can then you’re going to finish ahead.

2. The Toughest Times Are Also the Most Fleeting

A corollary to the tip above is that although events may be long, situations within them are constantly changing. Whether you feel great or you feel terrible, it will pass. Even at the elite end of sport, the decisive periods that split the field are short, often just a few minutes, and then the pace settles back down to a more manageable and sustainable level.

During ultra-endurance races you’re out there long enough that you’re pretty much guaranteed to go through a bad patch. But when you’re digging as deep as you can and you’re ready to give up, take it minute by minute. You can do another minute. There will be relief. The pace will slow. You’ll crest the hill. The course will turn and you’ll be out of the headwind. You’ll reach the finish line.

3. Be Tough, But Also Be Smart

You’re already at your limit; don’t make it any harder on yourself. In cycling, you have to make good decisions about how to ride and where to put yourself. That’s challenging, however, because you’re so consumed with the intensity. But you can’t just shut your brain off and go harder. The people who do always lose out to the people who can both go hard and make good decisions at the same time. I see it all the time in races, Gran Fondos, and even local group rides. The pack is starting to split, gaps are opening up, and yet riders are hanging themselves out to flap in the wind. Find a wheel and get in the draft. If it’s a crosswind, set up an echelon. If you’re stuck in no man’s land between groups, either go forward or back but don’t stay out there alone.

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4. Waste Nothing

You need every bit of energy you have – and every effort you make – to help you move forward. Staying on a wheel is part of that. So is staying off the brakes (within reason, of course) and focusing on maintaining your momentum through corners, descents, and switchbacks (uphill and downhill).

The fatigue from unnecessary accelerations sends riders off the back of groups. In criteriums, the effort to get closer to the front is worthwhile because the pace is steadier there. In group rides and road races you want to find the place in the group where the effort level is the steadiest; often this is about 10-20 riders back from the front of a big group. And in gravel races like the Unbound Gravel and DBT GRVL, wasting nothing sometimes means something different: taking the smoothest line on the hardest part of the road so you don’t lose speed in the looser gravel.

5. If You Get Dropped, Don’t Give Up

Time and time again we see cyclists drop from a breakaway, triathletes lose minutes on the bike leg, and runners fall off the pace only to catch back on later. A lot of that comes back to what I said earlier about the hardest parts of events being temporary.

If you’re dropped and you mentally give up you won’t make it back to the group ahead even when they slow down. The key to making it back is to quickly dial your intensity back to what you can sustain, regroup mentally, and start using the tactics above (waste nothing, draft, get with a good group, etc.) to continue forward without losing much time.

6. Throw the Hail Mary

Dropping out of an event isn’t the worst thing in the world, but dropping out is far less devastating when you know you did everything possible to avoid it. Getting dropped from a group doesn’t typically mean dropping out of an event altogether (unless it’s criterium and you get pulled). Athletes are more likely to completely drop out of an event because they bonk, overheat, cramp, or get sick to their stomachs.

When it’s looking like your event is headed in that direction, throw everything you have at the problem. Slow down (reduces the heat you’re generating), drink, eat, pour water over yourself, jump in a creek, or all of the above. If it doesn’t work you’re going to drop out just like you were before. But if it does work – and sometimes it does – there’s no greater feeling or learning experience than pulling yourself back from the brink of a DNF to reach the finish line.


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Comments 3

  1. I remember lining up for the start of the second road race I ever entered at the Jiminy Peak Road Race in 1998 when it started raining on the Women Cat 4 field. I hate riding in rain, snow or very windy conditions and started to wimp out and feel sorry for myself. Then I looked around and realized it was not just raining on me, but on everyone in my field. I took a breath & thought “we all are in the same situation, what do these people have that I don’t have?” I figured if they could put up with a little rain and wet roads, so could I.
    That has been my mantra ever since when faced with challenging situations – if other people can deal with this, so can I.
    If you want to perform well in bike racing or endurance sports, quit obsessing about your FTP or “numbers”; nobody’s FTP ever won a bike race. Focus more on being in the moment; take a class in Method Acting! Learn to be in the moment.
    The decisive moments in bike racing occur when a rider seizes the moment where everyone else is looking at each other and makes a move. I’d love to say my biggest victories were when I worked harder than ever before, or when I hit my highest power numbers ever, but honestly, my biggest wins occurred when I seized the moment & had the courage to attack or launch a sprint when everyone else was off-guard or didn’t think my effort would succeed. (I’m a Cat. 1 racer who started racing at age 42 and have 5 UCI World Masters’ Road Cycling Championships and 15 USA Cycling Master’s National Championships)
    All I ever focus on at the start of a race is that I do the best I can do in the moment. If I feel like I stayed in the moment and gave it my best effort, I consider the event a success, regardless of the results on paper. Focus on making the most of the moment, rather than on the adversity. You’ll have more fun & probably get better results!

  2. Regarding point number two, Dr. Robert Schuller said it best: “Tough times never last…tough people do!”

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