mental toughness

Scott Mercier: Mental Toughness and Mental Health in Cycling


By Scott Mercier,
CTS Contributing Editor, US Olympian, Retired pro cyclist

Professional athletes are known for their mental toughness. And professional cycling, with its biblical levels of physical suffering, requires mental toughness in spades. Let’s face it, to be a professional in the peloton, you have to be tough, like hard as nails tough.

But it’s also important to be aware of your mental health. We’ve recently seen many examples of professional cyclists speaking out about their own mental health issues, which often developed as a result of the stress of constant training, being away from family, and the pressure to perform.

Tom Dumoulin, one of the best stage racers and time trialists in the world, announced in January 2021 that he was taking a break from competitive cycling. He’d lost his joy in cycling.

Joy – it’s an important word to remember. Yes, to be fast on a bike requires enormous sacrifice and suffering. But we also need to remember, and to make time for, finding joy on a bike. It’s important to have a support group, whether it’s a coach, friend, or family member to help as well. Dumoulin had that with his director sportif, Merijn Zeeman, who was supportive of his decision to take a break as well as his decision to race again.

Zeeman recently said this about Dumoulin in a recent interview with

“We’ll hear his ideas and what ambitions he has. He has been rock bottom and the most important thing is that he doesn’t get to that again. We adapt as a team to his ambitions and there are multiple options. We can go in any direction but the only thing is that he’s happy in what he’s doing, and then he can go and get results.

“That’s the key to find the best possible programme and fit for him. The most important thing is that he combines happiness with being an athlete. That’s how we try and work with all our riders.”

He went on to say:

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“Every athlete is different and if you want the best from their potential then you need to look at each rider differently. That’s the core of how we work, we make the athlete the centre of everything. If you have a situation where the athlete doesn’t believe in what they’re doing, then the outcome won’t be success, it will be frustration.”

Dumoulin recently won the second silver medal in the time trial at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. His professional team, Jumbo-Visma, is amongst the best in professional cycling. They win one-day races and stage races. His Jumbo-Visma teammate, Primoz Roglic, won the gold medal but you could see in their embrace after the race that they were both genuinely happy for each other. Zeeman’s approach is refreshing, powerful, and effective. In the men’s road events at Tokyo, his riders took three of the six medals on offer. Zeeman also has Wout van Aert, arguably the best and most versatile rider in the peloton, on his team. Wout clearly puts in the work but also seems to have fun riding a bike as well.

I’ve found that men and women who are attracted to bike racing tend to be relatively serious. They are disciplined. They make sacrifices to lose weight and to build power. They stick to training schedules and track their data. There is no doubt these are important components of maximizing performance, but they can be taken too seriously and crowd out the fun, too.

Focusing on just the work and the data can lead to stress, fatigue, and burnout. It’s important to laugh, have an occasional beer or ice cream, and ride. Not train – ride. Feel the wind and sunshine on your face. Remember the joy of your first rides as a kid, of the freedom to explore and roam. Remember what attracted you to the bike in the first place. After all, life is short, and it’s better to enjoy the ride!

Good riding!

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Comments 3

  1. I am nothing close to a pro, but I love the way this article ended, because when I returned to cycling in the spring of 2019, my primary reason was to hopefully recapture that joy that riding brought me, first as a kid who rode for both the enjoyment and also the freedom of being able to get myself where I wanted to go, when I wanted to go. My first summer back in the saddle was a mix of joy and frustration; there were several periods of downtime after pushing myself too hard after many years of NOT riding regularly and learning what my body was and was not capable of, now that I’m in my late 50’s. It was a bit demoralizing, but it wasn’t the end of the world. My second year was Covid fueled, and I got much more focused on staying within my limits and expanding them gradually. Less pain, less downtime, more enjoyment. 2021 has been a bit of a breakthrough, and I find myself enjoying every opportunity to get out and stretch myself a little further. It’s about the journey, not the destination.

    1. Thanks Adam! My daughter and I just did a jungle hike in Mexico a few days ago and we both commented, “this hike is as much about the journey as the destination.”

      I’m glad your enjoying the ride and I appreciate your comments. Enjoy the rest of the summer.


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