Each week in a Grand Tour brings its own challenges but it’s not unusual for something unexpected to happen during those first few stages. Big crashes involving half of the peloton, sprint trains tumbling to the ground, dogs crossing the road, buses stuck at the finish line … wait, this is not normal! Sports psychologist Nathalie Novembrini considers the effects of these events on the riders.
Do you remember the first stage of this year’s Giro, with its many crashes? Apart from the bad condition of the roads and weather, there are other aspects to take into account to explain what happened. Riders are overwhelmed by emotional stress during a grand tour – the effect it has on their performance depends on the rider. This ‘reaction’ is called activation or arousal: a physiological and psychological state of general wakefulness, implying a great reactivity to stimuli. There are many theories about the level of activation a person needs to perform at their best, but researchers agree that every athlete has his own ideal level. If activation is too low or too great, performance might deteriorate. But activation itself doesn’t mean much unless it’s interpreted. For example, if you feel your heart is beating too fast, you’d have different reactions depending on your interpretation from “I run a lot, it’s normal” to “better call the doctor, I may be having a heart attack”.
A rider may benefit from a certain amount of stress, because it helps keep him alert and focused on his main goal while another rider may not be able to bear as much pressure, because the level of anxiety is too big, negatively affecting his performance. Riders, therefore, interpret their level of anxiety in different ways: one thinks anxiety is a good sign and he’s ready to race, while the other might feel anxiety is detrimental to performing at his best.
What does all this have to do with crashes? Well, anxiety and eagerness often interact with that ideal level of activation, and during a long race it is very difficult to keep that activation stable – concentration and reactivity may be altered. If the activation is too low, the rider may not be able to ignore irrelevant stimuli, because he’s not focused enough on the specific action. For example, during a windy stage you can’t relax and chat with those around you for fear of being caught out when crosswinds cause breaks in the peloton and echelons form. Alberto Contador highlighted the danger after stage five.
— Alberto Contador (@albertocontador) July 3, 2013
On the other hand, high levels of activation lead the rider to be overly focused, he may not be able to absorb what’s happening around him. A good example is bunch sprints, where sometimes a sprinter is too focused on his own actions to notice that a rider near him suddenly changes his line and blocks his effort.
Let’s look at what happened in stage one. The Orica-GreenEDGE bus got caught on the finish-line gantry and as a consequence, with only 10km to go, the jury moved the finish line to the 3km-to-go banner. Increased nervousness in the bunch provoked a huge crash with 5km to go, taking out a number of those most likely to figure in the bunch sprint, which was then moved back to the original finish line. A bunch sprint is very tense with riders trying to catch the best wheel, multiple sprint trains trying to lead out their sprinters, provoking anxiety and high level of arousal. A lot of negative feeling need to be handled swiftly for a rider to succeed.
Let’s imagine how it felt for the riders. You have 10km to line up your train – suddenly the team tells you that you actually only have 7km. This wasn’t planned, but you can handle it. You know what you have to do – you ‘just’ have to start to think earlier about the sprint. You pull hard, you’re preparing for the sprint and then … they change the finish back to its original place! You can’t keep pushing, as the finish line is too far. You can’t relax, because the finish is actually near. This leads to just one thing: panic. Panic means greater physical activation that the mind reads as dangerous, so you have a high level of arousal and great tension. You don’t notice that the rider on your left is trying to pass you, you keep pushing on your line and … crash! Luckily for Marcel Kittel, his Argonauts succeeded in maintaining their concentration despite all that chaos and didn’t lose control.
QOTD @ryder_hesjedal – There is NO safe zone in the peloton: it’s a lottery out there! You just put your helmet on & hope for the best.
— David Millar (@millarmind) June 29, 2013
After an emotional first week, there’s nothing better than the rest day. Time to lick wounds and breathe a little. Rest days are important to recover from physical suffering, as well as letting your mind rest. It’s a day for recovering energies and motivation. Riders are at the limit every day, they have to stay focussed, protect the team leader, face a lot of pressure, all of which is exhausting and requires an enormous amount of mental energy.
— Adam Hansen (@HansenAdam) May 20, 2013
For the team, the rest day is time to analyse what happened in the first week and decide whether to stick to the original strategy for the upcoming stages or to change tactics. However, rest is the most important thing. Optimism tends to be the prevailing attitude: the ‘real’ Tour hasn’t begun yet. It is important to keep expectations high and not to let motivation and self-confidence waiver and vanish.
Tomorrow is another day, another stage. One week down, two more to go.