Guest Voice Nathalie Novembrini: Diminishing opportunities

Of the 22 teams taking part in the Tour, only a few have so far recorded stage wins or worn one of the jerseys. The second week brings more opportunities, but it is always difficult to win a stage in a grand tour. As a consequence, some riders are bound to feel frustrated that their plans have come to nought. In the third of her four-part Tour series, sports psychologist Nathalie Novembrini considers the effects on the riders. Here’s the issue in a nutshell.

Breakaways and frustration

This Tour de France hasn’t followed its traditional format of a large number of flat stages in week one, followed by some mid-mountains and summits in the second and third weeks. It’s in those mid-mountain stages that breaks often succeed while the GC contenders mark one another and the sprinters’ teams aren’t interested in giving chase.

Typically, riders try to escape as soon as the flag goes down, hoping to take a few others with them even though most of the time they aren’t so confident that they can make it to the end. However, as the time gap grows, confidence and motivation increase and give the riders strength. As the final kilometres approach, providing the breakaway still has a defensible lead, maybe – just maybe – they manage to stay clear.

But races can only have one winner. If the break is a quartet, three riders will end up disappointed. In psychological terms, there may be frustration, an emotional response arising from a perceived hindering to the fulfilment of a personal goal or desire: the greater the will, the greater the frustration. Obviously riders know their limits, so frustration is greatest for whoever comes second and has similar physical characteristics to the winner. For example, Alberto Contador would be more frustrated if he was runner-up to Cadel Evans on a summit finish than if he finished behind Andre Greipel in a bunch sprint.

The most important thing about frustration is not the disappointment itself, which is quite normal, but how a rider reacts to it after the finish. If he starts a process of rumination, he will go over and over in his mind the reasons why he failed. Should he have attacked earlier? Or maybe he could have waited longer before starting to sprint? This is a detrimental process that wastes mental energy and could lead to growing resentment and aggression directed toward himself or to others, depending on who or what he blames for his failure. Remember the unfortunate episode involving Tyler Farrar and Tom Veelers during stage five of last year’s Tour?

The best thing to do in cases of perceived failure is the most difficult to do. The rider has to calmly analyse what happened, which mistakes he might have made and why, and consider in what aspects the other riders were stronger than him. In addition, he also has to recognise what he did well – it is important to underline his own qualities and room for improvement. This kind of analysis is useful not just to lower one’s emotional response, but also to enhance future performance.

Dealing with pain

During a grand tour, crashes, fatigue and injuries are the norm and you often see riders pedalling with bandages, road rash, fractures and wounds that would prevent most other people from getting out of bed. But pain, or the tolerance of pain, is a complex area. It varies in strength and unpleasantness and it isn’t simply related to the nature and extent of tissue damage, but also to neurological and psychological aspects.

Riders have higher pain thresholds than most people who don’t practice sports at professional levels, largely because they are exposed to greater physical training and therefore have a much greater self-perception. They are used to ‘listening’ to their body. They always race at the limit, so they have to be able to understand how far they can take their physical effort before it becomes too dangerous for them. This clearly gives riders a familiarity with pain and an understanding of how to grin, bear and ride with it.

Despair and pain on stage one to emphatic victory on stage 11, Tony Martin (montage: Laura Meseguer)

Despair and pain on stage one to emphatic victory on stage 11, Tony Martin (Montage: Laura Meseguer)

The knowledge that they can tolerate pain gives riders the confidence to overcome it. In addition, there are others psychological aspects, such as expectations of healing quickly thanks to a team’s doctor’s treatment. Also a high level of self-motivation helps to keep the rider in the race. There are more practical motivations, for example related to economic reasons (contract renewal, sponsors’ pressure), but also the will to finish such an important race and to avoid the frustration of a withdrawal.

For example, during this year’s Giro Katusha’s Angel Vicioso crashed but got back on the bike despite three broken ribs, a broken wrist and a cracked shoulder-blade. Vicioso later said he finished the stage because he didn’t want to abandon the race for what might be simple bruising. In this year’s Tour we have seen individual time trial victor Tony Martin (OPQS) closely resemble a mummy after leaving most of his skin in Corsica and Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack) continuing to ride with a broken wrist.

Today is another rest day for the riders and they can use this precious time to recover from those mental and physical strains. The Alps await. It won’t be easy for any of them. Sprinters have to deal with time limits, while GC riders are approaching the last showdown. Let the final battles begin.

Friday Feature: An interview with RadioShack’s Maxime Monfort

When I first moved to the Cote d’Azur I used to regularly see a group of cyclists whom I dubbed ‘The Four Musketeers’. To me they seemed the epitome of professionalism and a credit to their team: always smartly clad, helmeted and on gleaming steeds. I’ve finally had the pleasure of interviewing all four of them for VeloVoices, with GC contender and former Belgian time trial champion Maxime Monfort now completing the quartet. I caught up with Maxime recently after the difficult stage three in Vuelta al Pais Vasco which finished on a 400-metre, 21% ramp! Continue reading

Clasica San Sebastian 2012 podium l to r Gerrans, Sanchez and Meersman

Clasica San Sebastian review

Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) timed his escape to perfection on the second descent of the Alto de Arkale and time-trialled the final ten kilometres to solo across the line and record his second victory in three years in the Clasica San Sebastian. His seventh win of arguably his best season and some consolation for his bad karma in the London Olympics. He dedicated the win, as always, to his deceased brother. LuisLe also picked up the points prize and was adjudged the classiest rider. Fitting given how good he looks in the large black floppy Basque beret sported by the winner.

The thundering herd, seven seconds down, were led home by Milan-San Remo winner Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) and Gianni Meersman (Lotto-Belisol) who rounded out the podium. Adrian Palomares (Andalucia) won the sprint prize, Tomasz Marczynski (Vacansoleil-DCM) won the mountains prize (presented by Miguel Indurain), Igor Anton was best placed Basque and Gorka Izagirre adjudged most combative rider (both Euskaltel-Euskadi). Most sympathetic rider was Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank), Rabobank won the team prize and Haimar Zubeldia (RadioShack-Nissan) was given a special prize for six consecutive race appearances. [They’re making this up as they go along, right? – Ed]

Clasica San Sebastian 2012 podium l to r Gerrans, Sanchez and Meersman

Clasica San Sebastian 2012 podium (l to r) Gerrans, Sanchez and Meersman (image courtesy of Suzi Goetze)

At the post-race press conference, everyone’s favourite Kazakh Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) announced that the Clasica had indeed been his last competitive race. He was hanging up his cleats for good this time but had wanted to ride this year to thank his family and friends for their support after his terrible 2011 Tour de France crash and to leave the professional peloton on a high. I think an Olympic gold medal’s a pretty good high!

Flurries of attacks

The sun was shining, the spectators gave everyone a rapturous reception in anticipation of a day of exciting racing and they weren’t disappointed. The riding in the first hour was pretty fast and furious  – 45.2kph – fuelled possibly by the enthusiastic support from the road-side or more probably from the desire of many to get into the day’s break. The first one after 8km containing, among others, local boys Xabier Zandio (Sky), Juan Manuel Garate (Rabobank) and Markel Irizar (RadioShack-Nissan) was pegged back, allowing David De La Fuente (Caja Rural) and Nairo Quintano (Movistar) to join them. This grouping fell foul of the peloton and was pulled back after 19km on the first climb, the Alto de Orio.

Quintano and Zandio gave it another go, to be joined by Adrian Palomares (Andalucia), Jose Sarmiento (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Javier Aramendia (Caja Rural) over the day’s second classified climb, Alto de Garate. The duo of Palomares and Aramendia pushed on alone and they quickly built a lead of almost 11:45 before Katusha took charge of the peloton and started to reel them back in.

Quintana, Sarmiento and Palomares

Quintana, Sarmiento and Palomares (image courtesy of Suzi Goetze)

Other teams lent a helping hand and by the fourth hour of racing under a scorching sun the average speed was well below 40kph. The duo were taken back on the first ascent of the Alto de Jaizkibel, thickly thronged with fanatical Basque fans. Eros Capecchi (Liquigas-Cannondale) broke free of the bunch with future teammate Quintana (Movistar). They were quickly joined by Vacansoleil’s Tomasz Marczynski, but again they couldn’t make it stick. Next to try was Tiziano Dall’Antonio (Liquigas-Cannondale). Marczynski went with him but they were denied by Astana while Movistar neutralised the next move from Rigoberto Uran (Sky) and Sergio Paulihno (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank).

Defining race moves

In truth, no breaks were properly established until Marczynski and teammate Rafa Valls (Vacansoleil-DCM), Gorka Izagirre (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Rafal Majka (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) and Sergio Henao (Sky) escaped over the top of the Alto de Jaizkibel for the second time with under 40km remaining. Henao then attacked on his own at the summit of the Alto de Arkale but Joaquim Rodriguez and his Katusha team went on the offensive, pulling most of the leading contenders with him. What remained of the peloton caught this group on the descent and it was then that Sanchez, who’d been marking all the moves, saw his opportunity and seized it with both hands while teammate Bauke Mollema hindered the chase.

Peloton on the Jaizkibel Arkale circuit

Peloton on the Jaizkibel Arkale circuit (image courtesy of Suzi Goetze)

With Sanchez in full-on time trial mode, he maintained a stable advantage – never much more than ten seconds, but never much less either – while the chasers looked to each other. By the finish his margin of victory was sufficient to allow him to celebrate well before crossing the line to the accolades of the crowd, while behind him Gerrans won the bunch sprint for the honour of taking the second step on the podium. It was certainly a popular win.

Closing thoughts

While neither Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) nor Chris Froome (Sky) participated in the race, it would be fair to say that their key teammates and their leading contenders for the Vuelta crown are in fine fettle. Indeed all the teams will be heading over to Pamplona this evening for the preliminaries, including Friday’s team presentation. Let battle commence.

What happened to Sammy? He was atypically low-key at the start, making it quite clear that Anton was their protected rider. Work done, he rode back into town before the final circuit. But there’s also good news in that he’s re-signed with the Basque team for a further three years.

Race result

1. Luis Leon Sanchez (Rabobank) 5:55:34

2. Simon Gerrans (Orica-GreenEDGE) +0:07

3. Gianni Meersman (Lotto-Belisol) same time

4. Christophe Le Mevel (Garmin-Sharo) s/t

5. Bauke Mollema (Rabobank) s/t

6. Mauro Santambrogio (BMC) s/t

7. Mads Christensen (Saxo Bank-Tinkoff Bank) s/t

8. Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) s/t

9. Xavier Florencio (Katusha) s/t

10. Diego Ulissi (Lampre-ISD) s/t

All images courtesy of Susi Goetze who we’ll be chatting to in our VeloEye Friday Feature.

Links: Behind the barricades: images from the startPreviewOfficial website