Are you suffering from a dry mouth, palpitations and rising levels of excitement? If the answer’s yes then you probably have Tour fever. To help us cope with the inevitable strains and stresses of covering a grand tour, we’ve brought on board sports psychologist and friend of VeloVoices Nathalie Novembrini. She’s going to talk us through the gamut of emotions experienced by those brave boys in the peloton during a three-week race.
Watching a grand tour is always exciting. But what exactly passes through the minds of those amazing boys on their beautiful bikes? A lot of things: the long hours of training and the sacrifices they have made, the fatigue and pain they bear during every stage, the joy and relief they feel at the end.
In a long race there are many maps beside the one you can find in the race guide. A significant one is drawn by the emotions of the main characters of the show: the riders.
This map isn’t easy to read and it won’t ever be complete, since the field of emotions is both broad and complex. Every person is different. Each has his own thoughts, his own view of the world, his own emotions and reactions.
The route of a grand tour is long and it’s made up of excitement, happiness and hope, but also setbacks, suffering and frustration. Plus, each stage has different features and every day is a race on its own.
Before the Tour starts
Just before the start of a grand tour each team tries to plan how the race may evolve and sets out goals for each rider. The teams are conscious of their riders’ limits and condition. Thus some will aim to win, others hope to finish in the top ten, to win a stage or one of the jerseys, or to get in as many breakaways as possible earning valuable airtime for sponsors and maybe stay away to contest for victory or receive the ‘most combative rider’ award for the day.
It’s important for a rider to exactly understand his role in the team’s overall race plan so that he knows how to interact with teammates and other riders and where to address his efforts. Riders are also made aware of their responsibilities towards the team and that helps to increase motivation, because they know what the team expects of them.
During the press conference you usually hear optimistic and confident claims when the teams explain their goals and ambitions. These claims are typically based on form throughout the season plus riders’ and teams’ own expectations. While it’s important to be realistic, some claims can appear to be quite presumptuous: “The team has demonstrated its strengths with wins in ….”, “We’re in a fantastic position – we have one of the best GC riders in the world and he has a competitive will to win.” On the one hand, you cannot be seen to be going into the biggest and most important race of the year with a negative attitude and some teams might also want to prevent others from knowing the riders’ real condition and what a team could actually achieve. On the other hand, if the riders feel that their team is relying on them, their self-efficacy is enhanced (this is the belief in your ability to succeed in specific situations and may be influenced through various techniques, e.g. encouragement).
The other side of the coin is that showing too much confidence could put the riders under even greater pressure, especially potential GC contenders. For this reason it’s important that the entire team has a realistic vision of its potential and that there isn’t an overly oppressive atmosphere within the team to avoid adding to the burden of stress.
The team presentation is fun for both the fans and the riders. Finally, the start is more tangible. Excitement soars thanks to the enthusiasm shown by the fans: the first applause, the first requests for photos and autographs. Public recognition conveys a great sense of satisfaction and gratification, but it also adds more stress to riders, especially GC favourites, as they actually realise what fans expect from them.
As the first stage approaches, the excitement starts to mount. At this point, the excitement experienced by riders and fans is palpable and similar. The only difference is that the riders also experience a good deal of anxiety, due to various types of stress.
There’s performance anxiety, especially if they’re riding ‘at home’ or aiming for the overall standings. The media, team and fans are expecting a lot from these riders and all eyes are focussed on them. Sometimes the riders could be beset by negativity or apprehension about possible misfortunes, such as “What if I’m not in as good condition as I thought, what if I fall, what if I get ill, what if it rains, what if it’s sunny …” It is better not to think about this if you want to sleep well at night! The riders need to try to remain tranquillo. In addition, if the rider hasn’t yet received confirmation of his contract renewal, there’s also stress from uncertainty about their future and the desire to demonstrate their value to the team.
Ready, steady, go
So you see, even before the start riders are overwhelmed by contrasting emotions, going from excitement to anxiety. It is important that both the team and the riders are aware of the huge impact emotions may have on performance. The consequences of ignoring it may be sleep disorders, poor relationships with teammates, lack of attention during the race, misunderstandings, prickly team atmosphere and so on.
Emotions aren’t always a negative. If a rider is eager to do his best for his captain, this helps him to stay focussed and to perfectly fulfil his role. Some riders may even benefit from being under pressure, because it keeps them alert and keeps their motivation high.
But how do the riders cope with this range of emotions? In sports psychology there are many techniques, but in general the rider manages this type of anxiety with a good level of self-awareness and self-efficacy. On a more practical level, it may also be useful to try to maintain some distance from the Tour hullabaloo and minimise interactions with the press, which can exacerbate nerves. Vincenzo Nibali did this successfully throughout the Giro d’Italia.
In short, how successfully the riders cope with the emotional turmoil can make the difference between having a great Tour and a so-so one.
This is part one in a series of four articles which we’ll be running throughout the Tour de France examining the emotions experienced in the peloton as the Tour progresses to its conclusion in Paris.