North American pro cyclists have to build mental fitness quickly when they make the leap to living, training, and racing in Europe. Pez talks candidly about mental skills with Andy Hampsten, Meredith Miller, and Amber Rais, who share wisdom that we mere mortals can use on and off the bike.
By Marvin Zauderer
In the previous installment of this Sport Psychology column, we explored the potential connections between your cycling and spiritual life, and opportunities to use those connections to build your mental fitness on the bike. This month, as a follow-on to our 2008 and 2009 “Minds of Mentally Fit Pros” columns, we hear from three North American cyclists about facing – and learning from – the mental and emotional challenges of living, training, and racing in Europe. Our guests:
• Andy Hampsten is the only American to win the men’s Giro D’Italia. His epic ride through the snow over the Gavia Pass in 1988 won him the race and the hearts of many Italians, who call him “il nostro Andy” – “our Andy.” For many years, he has lived for part of each year in southwest Tuscany, where he leads cycling/culinary tours and sources delicious olive oil with his partner, Elaine. He also co-owns Hampsten Cycles in Seattle with his brother, Steve.
• Meredith Miller of Team TIBCO is the current Elite Women’s U.S. National Road Champion. She nearly pulled off the double, finishing 2nd at the 2009 U.S. National Cyclocross Championships. Meredith came to cycling in 1998 after success as an all-Big Ten soccer player at UW-Madison, and raced for the Denmark-based Team SATS from 2003-2005. She has competed in the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, Tour de l’Aude, Tour of Flanders, Fleche Wallonne, and Milan-San Remo among many other European races. She has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Exercise Science, and gives back to the sport as a cycling coach.
• Amber Rais has proven herself as one of the top female cyclists in North America, finishing the 2009 season with the overall victory at the Tour de Nez, a second place in the Cascade Cycling Classic GC, and a fourth place finish in the U.S. National Championship Time Trial. With 47 career victories to her name, including two major stage race victories, and 20 National Racing Calendar podium finishes, Rais also has an excellent reputation for her abilities as a domestique and teammate. For 2010, Amber is racing full-time in Europe with the Austrian-based UCI team KUOTA Speed Kueens. She mentors cyclists of all ages and ability levels, and is fundraising in order to race U.S. Nationals this year.
PEZ: Andy, what have you found to be mentally and emotionally challenging about living, training and racing overseas?
Andy Hampsten: I turned pro just to do the  Giro. For me, it was a dream come true, I was delighted to do it, but it was also on a one-way ticket as a career [move]. I looked as it as straight into the deep end – having the Giro as my first pro race – but I was pretty prepared…I was pretty fit, I was super-excited to do it, but I was definitely intimidated. But I had already been through it as an amateur: When I was 18, I went with the National Team to top international races – I didn’t sleep the night before, I was really scared. Pro racing was clearly [going to be] harder than amateur racing, but, you know, they don’t go ten miles an hour faster. [After a few stages] we had the first King of the Mountains [stage]…I was trying to get some KOM points; it probably went four-deep and I was 5th or 6th [at the KOM]. So I didn’t get points, and I was a little disappointed.
Then I was on the descent, there’s 20K to go, I’m the eighth guy in line, and four of the guys ahead of me are World Champions: Saronni, Moser, Hinault, and LeMond. So I thought, “there’s no way the announcer is going to be saying, ‘Saronni, Moser, Hinault, LeMond, and Hampsten.’” But then I thought, “on the other hand, well, Andy, here you are, on a one-way ticket, descending, with 20K to go, the whole pack is strung out, and half the guys ahead of you are your heroes, are you really going to sit here and do nothing?” So I attacked. I got away, I probably had 20 or 30 seconds for 8 or 10 minutes. I got caught with 8 kilometers to go, it’s not like I almost won. I felt a little stupid about the whole thing – I’m glad I attacked, but I felt like a fly that got swatted.
But our Italian co-sponsor came straight up to me, chomping on his cigar, and started spewing all this Italian, and I had no idea what he was saying – he was delighted. Essentially he was saying, “You’re a real pro. You were on TV for 8 minutes!” I was asking, “Is that a clichй? Is he just trying to make me feel good?” But my director said to me, “being a pro is making your sponsors happy; he likes the fact that even though it’s your third day as a professional, you saw a tiny opportunity and took it.” So I felt pretty good about it. Looking back, it was pretty important for me that I recognized that when my legs said go, to go ahead and let it happen. Even though I got clobbered, and tactically it wasn’t brilliant, I went for it.
PEZ: So rather than being intimidated and overwhelmed that you were around all these world champions, you just figured, “what the heck!”
Andy: Exactly. It was exactly what you need to do in pro bike racing, which is be there when things happen. If you’re not super-fast, or a great climber, or a crazy-strong escape artist, you have to make your chances. It’s really easy to just be one of 200 guys in the whole day instead of one of 200 guys in the result.
PEZ: Were those 8 minutes an important 8 minutes in your development as a cyclist?
Andy: It was definitely a threshold, a trigger that I was able to switch – getting over being intimidated. That helped me later on – I could see that in the most challenging setting, I could respond.
PEZ: So one of things you faced was feeling intimidated, but you chose to face it rather than getting frozen by it.
Andy: Yeah. But the pressure was on me – the goals for the team were to win a stage and if things go really well, we’ll get a guy in the top 20, with all eyes on me to try to get in the top 20. I had never done a race over two weeks, and not at that intensity. When we did finally hit the mountains, it was pouring rain, and on the final climb I cracked, and lost about 12 or 15 minutes to the winner of the stage. So all the fears I had were certainly true; it’s not that I was having an easy time in stages I was supposed to do well in.
PEZ: How did you deal with that?
Andy: I put a lot of pressure on myself as a racer. I was hard on myself. But Mike Neel was our director, and I was really fortunate to have him as our director. He just said, “that’s great, you were in the first group going into it, and this is racing – you’ve got to get it behind you.” It took me more than a night’s rest to get it behind me. I was learning to ride [more] conservatively, and by the second week I started doing well in the mountain stages, and proved to myself and the team that things were looking really good for the final week, which of course had most of the mountains in it.
PEZ: Interesting what you said about being hard on yourself – it’s pretty common, athletes being hard on themselves.
Andy: I did learn a lot from Mike Neel, our coach. If I had the leader’s jersey, and I was nervous about what was going to happen, a lot of how I would calm myself down was to tell myself, “there’s a million combinations that can happen, Mike has his ear to the ground, he’ll know if teams are conspiring to gang up on me.” Which is pretty weird, because it’s everyone’s job to gang up on me. But I just told myself, “when it happens, you’ll see it. You’ll either react, or you have good teammates [to help].” I learned to trust my instincts. Getting nervous before a race, I learned, “hey, this a 5-hour race, there’s a lot of time to figure things out. You’ll see it unfold.” Later on, I had people like Sean Yates, Steve Bauer, Phil Anderson – really experienced riders. I could say to them, “I’m worried, what should I do,” or “I feel like I’m choking, what should I do?” Teammates really help each other. So I learned to just go to sleep and think, “when the moment comes, I’ll know what to do.” I know I’m going to push myself. As long as I finish the day 100% drained physically, without doing anything really stupid tactically, I’m going to have to be happy with myself.
PEZ: What came into play for you, mentally, on the Gavia?
(Read Andy’s own account of the day here.)
Andy: It was as cold as you can ride your bike in. Just bucketing sleet and rain. After a second category climb, I was shaking uncontrollably, and the storm was coming from the north, which is the direction we’re riding into, so we know the descents are more dangerous than the uphills. In the team meetings, it was “Andy has to drill it, and the rest of you have to survive.” So my tactic was to ride uphill at 95% to save a little bit for the descent – when your glycogen gets really low from drilling it all the way uphill, your coordination goes down [on the descent].
Physically, I knew I was in crazy shape. I was also very excited about the stage, partially because Gianni Motta [who won the Giro in ’67] told me, “you’ve got to win this race, and you’ve got to win it on the Gavia.” But I had woken up that morning really scared about the snow. I was bummed out that here was my big day, and something might happen – this was not the scenario I had in mind for sunny Italy.
So after that cold, shaky descent, I finally just started looking at my competitors’ faces. It was a field of ghosts. People were freaked out. I wasn’t happy about the cold, but I could see people were scared, so I started changing my perspective, getting a little bit psyched for it [the Gavia]. We could see that it was going to be absolutely horrible – it was near-freezing where we were, and we had a near-1000-meter climb. All my competitors were on my wheel and expected me to attack. As soon as we came to the dirt section, I just drilled it. If you’re carrying a big stick, and everyone knows it, just swing it.
Psychologically, I can’t explain to you where I went. I went so deep into my mind pushing myself to keep going, both on the uphill and certainly on the downhill.
There was a miscommunication earlier in the year between our tubing manufacturer and our bike manufacturer where a bike fell apart on me. So I lost all my confidence in my bike, and insisted that I buy my own frame from someone I trusted. So I went to John Slawta. When I was out of my mind [on the Gavia], that bike found its way down the hill. Any bad feedback from the bike, I would have freaked out. Having a bike that I could trust with my instincts had a lot to do with it.
PEZ: How about the challenges in Europe for you, Meredith?
Meredith Miller: Food…getting around….and emotionally, because you’re far away, you can’t always just pick up a cell phone and call those people you would normally talk to that would comfort you. You don’t have that day-to-day or even hour-to-hour contact with people you’d normally be in touch with to help you through certain situations. Fortunately, I’ve been there enough now, so I can get myself in a pretty comfortable place right away. For some of the newer, younger riders who are going over, it’s having the support structure within the team, and people like myself and other riders who’ve been there and can show the riders the ropes. We all have to count on each other…to pick each other up when we might be having a bad day, or to talk about what’s going to be coming up, those sorts of things. We have to be our family away from home.
The racing in Europe is more difficult than in the U.S. It’s more aggressive. People aren’t just going to politely say, “oh, you want that wheel, okay, you can have it.” If you let them take a wheel once, they’re going to come back to you again and again and again. So it was really challenging to figure out how to fend for yourself out there, because they’ll take advantage of any weakness you have. And also, fitness – they’re just on a different level there. Whereas here, races might not start until midway through a race in a road race, there they start from the gun. So you have to be prepared and on your toes from Kilometer Zero. The courses are more challenging – it’s all about being in the right position.
PEZ: Ever find yourself intimidated, overwhelmed, confused?
Meredith: Absolutely. I had had several years of racing under my belt before I got there, so I knew more than my teammates about how to take care of myself in the peloton and how to move around in the peloton. But you come home each day and you’re frustrated, and you say, “Tomorrow, I just have to keep myself at the front,” and you try as hard as you can, and you feel that’s all you can focus on in the race; not what’s going on in the race, but “where am I in the race?” It was tough; there were a lot of hard days, we’d come home and say, “wow, what happened?”
PEZ: How you coached yourself through those times sounds like it was very important.
Meredith: For sure. You had to make sure you were confident in your abilities and your talent, and you told yourself, “I deserve to be here, just as much as everybody else does. So if they try to push me off a wheel, sorry, you can’t have it.” You just have to have that confidence and fight back. If they see a weakness, they’ll take advantage of it – they’re so good at that. You couldn’t give up a wheel, you couldn’t give up your space in the peloton. You had to make sure you were confident – you just stuck your elbows out and fought back just as much.
Sometimes I felt like I was in over my head, and I wondered, “should I be here?” But then, you find your spot, you find what you can do, where you’re strongest, you know the riders around you more, and you realize you belong. You’re just as strong and capable as most of the other riders in the peloton.
PEZ: So if you have those intimidating experiences and you decide they mean, “I don’t deserve to be here,” you’re in trouble.
Meredith: You can’t let those things consume you and get into your head too much. You have to say, “It happened today, but I’m not going to let it happen again, and this is what I’m going to do differently next time, and this is what I can do to get better at this.” You can find a teammate or another person in the peloton that you’ve gotten to know, an ally, and stick with that person, work together, whatever you might do to keep building that confidence and not let things bring you down.
PEZ: How has facing these things helped you be mentally stronger now?
Meredith: I was involved in a lot of stressful situations – I think that I’ve learned how to deal with that a lot better. I’ve learned to take a deep breath, relax, say, “there’s a way through this.” If the situation doesn’t turn out right, there’s always tomorrow, there’s always a new race, somewhere soon you’re going to be able to turn things around again. Things always turn out for the best; just being able to make my way through daily life without letting the little things bother me. Figuring out that I can make it through whatever country I’m in, whether I know the language or not – I’m not scared to approach people; just to have confidence that whatever the situation is, I can make the best of it.
PEZ: Amber, you’re living in Europe right now; what’s been challenging for you?
Amber Rais: The word that comes to mind is “isolation.” Being a North American, having grown up in America, my support network, my friends, my family, the training routes that I know, everything that I’m accustomed to – it’s all very much integrated with my life in the U.S. Having come to Europe, it’s been a whole new game. You’re isolated by language, you’re isolated from your friends – that isolation is a major source of stress, whether consciously or unconsciously. That’s one of the biggest challenges thus far.
PEZ: How has dealing with that challenge affected you?
Amber: It’s certainly been a journey. Looking back on that first year, I realize it was extremely difficult. What it’s done is that I think it’s helped with my resiliency in being in a strange foreign place. For one thing, I’m learning the language. That’s slowly breaking down one of those major barriers. I’m making friends, recruiting training partners, and I’m now racing with a team that’s all-Austrian and based in my hometown here in Graz. All that serves to build a community and that support network – anew. That serves to reduce the stress.
PEZ: What other mental skills have you used to reduce the stress?
Amber: When I first moved here, it was hard – you read on Facebook and Twitter all the updates of all of your friends at home, they’re arranging group rides and all of these things… I felt a pang of jealousy – I wanted to be there to be able to do those things. When I did feel those pangs of jealousy and homesickness, I’d remind myself, “look, I’m in the middle of a pretty amazing adventure here.” A lot of people back home might feel the same twinge of jealousy but for different reasons. Whenever I feel that way, I just remind myself that I need to cultivate my life here. To expend energy focusing on a life that I can’t participate in is not a constructive use of my time. I did a lot of thinking about how I could build a happier existence here.
When I talk about the sense of isolation, it sounds very negative, but there’s also an extremely positive side to it. You get stripped of everything around you that’s familiar, so the only thing really familiar to you that’s left for you is yourself. It’s interesting how you learn a lot about yourself when you step out of your comfort zone like that. You’re not motivated to go out to train by the fact that you’re going to see all your friends on the training ride. You have to find internal motivation to get yourself to go out for that same four hours to do a tough training ride, when you’re by yourself for the 10th, 20th, 30th day in a row. That’s been a valuable lesson in learning about myself but it has also strengthened my self-reliance. That’s been a huge, huge benefit from this whole adventure. The stress of being in an unfamiliar place…I think it takes more of a toll than people realize.
PEZ: So there’s been a link, for you, between increased self-reliance and decreased stress.
Amber: Yes. Everybody talks in cycling about how it’s not just about how strong you are, it’s also about how well you can recover. A big part of recovery is reducing stress. That’s something that’s been an advantage for me over the last couple of years.
The crux here is identifying the top three or four things that you get from your support network, whether that’s acceptance, unconditional love from loved ones, the encouragement of friends that see you on this path – identify the things that are most valuable to you, that affect you the most, that you would miss the most if they weren’t there. If you can learn, at least to some degree, to give yourself the support you need, then when you’re in a situation where you don’t have access to your support network, you’ll be less affected, because you’ll be better able to provide yourself with what you need.
PEZ: Interesting how you’re talking about the central importance of your connections with very important people in your life, but at the same time how important you are to you…you had to become a better coach for yourself.
Amber: For me, and I think for most athletes, we rely heavily on the support of our coaches, parents, friends, everyone who’s willing to support us on this path – it’s a very difficult path. As much as we can’t necessarily expect to provide all of that support ourselves, the better we can do that, the more resilient we will be when we find ourselves in unfamiliar situations. And the people you rely on are not always going to be able to give you the support you need, so the more adept you are at recognizing your own needs and providing yourself with the support you need, it’s really a very valuable mental skill.