Professional athletes not only need to be physically strong but also mentally resilient. A Grand Tour, lasting for three weeks and including 21 stages, totaling over 3,000 kilometers of racing, stands as one of the most challenging sporting events. Each day presents a new obstacle and an opportunity for riders to strive for victory. However, riders cannot predict what will happen from one moment to the next – a crash, mechanical failure, Covid, or even an unexpected encounter with a stray dog can completely alter the course of the race.
Whether a disappointing day results from the rider's performance or factors beyond their control, one might assume that it would evoke emotions of frustration, anger, and regret. Yet, when speaking in post-race interviews, those who narrowly miss out on a career-defining win often casually say, “tomorrow's another day”.
Undoubtedly, over the course of three weeks, there will be both ups and downs – such is life. However, when you combine these setbacks with fatigue and the pressure of competition, one can't help but question how riders manage to maintain composure under such circumstances.
“What you witness in a major race is the culmination of a lengthy process,” said Elisabetta Borgia, team psychiatrist for Trek-Segafredo, in an interview with Rouleur after her return from the Giro d'Italia. “It is impossible to improvise anything.”
A small step in a long journey
The process starts in December at the team’s training camp, where Borgia will work with the individual riders as well as the team as whole to set goals, looking at what went right in the previous season, what went wrong and what could have been done better.
“We try to set more performance-focused goals than results,” she said. “If we stay on performance, we can stay on the things that are under our control. Let's say the final goal is to be able to express ourselves at 100%, if we do that, our goal has been achieved even if we don’t win. Obviously everyone wants to win a race and we go to win, but we can only do the best we can.”
The efforts towards a Grand Tour isn't just for the riders. Borgia works with all the people who have a job with the team as working together is essential in a race like the Giro. She acts as a filter that connects everyone, making sure there is good cohesion and trust between riders and the staff.
Putting in the mental work months in advance allows riders to completely focus on their goals once they have arrived at the start line. Three weeks of racing takes a lot of mental energy, and having been away from their families and loved ones for so long in the lead-up to the race, the riders need to put into practise their focus and mental resilience.
“It is not an effective and economic way to be mentally active for three weeks," Borgia stressed. "So every day I say that riders should have their peak and then try to fight towards having their lowest low everyday. So, it is like being fully focused on the race, then trying to find a way to think about something else. To disconnect from the race to look at your interest, your passion for the family, or something else. Okay, help you to be less focused. Because our energy tank is limited if you keep on using it when you don’t need it.”
Borgia revealed that some of the Trek-Segafredo riders read books, FaceTime their families, watch films on Netflix, meditate or even nap with some music. She stressed that different tactics work differently for people, but the main aim is to take the rider's mind away from the race.
It’s good to feel emotions – to a point
Emotions can play a significant role in sports. Athletes experience intense highs when they achieve something remarkable, nervousness before a race or competition, pride when they secure a new personal best, or disappointment when they fail to achieve their goals.
“Emotional regulation is a skill that is really important for every human, not just sport people,” Borgia emphasised. “And it’s not just about control, but first of all, it’s about understanding which emotion, why we feel it, its intensity and which thoughts are connected to these emotions. So it is really important to educate the riders.
“Take race anxiety for example, we know that this is something that is needed to perform at your best. When riders come to me and say they shouldn’t feel this way, that is wrong because theory tells us that you need to be in that kind of arousal, which is associated with anxiety, to perform.
“The problem is when that kind of arousal or anxiety becomes an obstacle towards your performance. If we look back to the primitive humans, if they wanted to escape beasts or to try to find a place in the trees or in the rocks, they needed that anxiety, otherwise they wouldn’t be here now. So we need anxiety. Anxiety saves our life because we are more reactive.”
Borgia acknowledges the tendency of the mind is to constantly focus on the future, while the body is in the present moment. Riders often find themselves thinking about the finish line before they have even started. However, she advises them to concentrate on their tasks and responsibilities in the present moment, as it is the only aspect they can control.
Grand Tour racing is a team effort and riders rely heavily on their teammates, especially their leader. “Having a proper leader really makes the difference,” Borgia said. “But also a charismatic leader, who is maybe not the team's leader but more a road caption, can be really important for keeping the team confident. When one rider isn't having a super day and then the next is another rider, they keep the mood high.”
In moments of doubt and fatigue, having a strong support network helps lift spirits and provides a sense of camaraderie. Borgia explains how important a positive vibe is amongst the riders, but also having a good atmosphere elsewhere from those who work within the team – the directors, coaches, therapists, soigneurs, mechanics – helps to keep riders from going into those dark places.
“The people behind the scenes are so important in creating a good mood, especially when the weather is so bad, like at this year's Giro. Everyone in the team has to put in 100% in all the different areas to ensure that morale is up,” she added.
Mind of a champion
One Trek-Segafredo rider entered this Grand Tour with a strong determination to win a stage. Mads Pedersen seemed poised for success on stage two, entering the day as the favourite. However, just before the sprint finish, he was involved in a crash that eliminated his chances. He continued to pursue victory, facing disappointment each time, until finally achieving his win on stage six. His race then ended prematurely with illness before stage 13, but Borgia says the Dane is mentally equipped to bounce back from such disappointments.
“Mads is a real champion, a real leader,” Borgia said. “Every time he is able to look at the positive element even in a negative situation. He is really confident and has a glass half full mentality. He is also able to really encourage his teammates. For him the crash [during stage two] was more gasoline for the upcoming stage. After the race he would have been thinking, ‘OK, I didn’t make it today but I’m even more angry next time.’”
With several years of experience, Pedersen has undoubtedly become accustomed to the highs and lows of racing. He has learned through experience that dwelling on past events is counterproductive and that maintaining a positive outlook is crucial. Borgia agreed, adding: “I think that's what makes him different, the fact he is super confident, and this unpredictable part of the game doesn’t affect him.”
Although none of the Trek-Segafredo riders participating in this year's Giro are making their debut, some of them have only completed one Grand Tour. Therefore, they still have plenty to learn. Borgia works closely with these riders to ensure they are mentally prepared for the challenging three weeks ahead.
Using the same method she implemented at the start of the year, Borgia sets mini goals with the young riders, breaking down the big task ahead. “I usually ask the riders which length they can deal with mentally,” she said. “Three weeks is a long time, but if you can split it into different lengths, say for some people a week, their focus is then on one week, they’ll be able to think, one week, done, the next week, done.
“Then everyday a rider must have their own goal, their own task and own strategy. Then everyday is different, while also being the same.”
Breaking down the monumental task into smaller milestones will keep riders motivated and focused as the stages tick by, allowing them to channel their energy effectively and experience a sense of accomplishment along the way. And while young riders may be eager to make their mark, they will undoubtedly experience a learning curve in terms of managing their emotions.