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Common cycling fears and how to overcome them

Scared of corners, frightened of descending? Conquer your cycling fears and you'll be a stronger cyclist.

Cycling fears
James Witts
1 Mar 2016

How many of you watched The A-Team? Excellent. Now, who can forget the bejewelled BA Baracus (aka Mr T), a man so tough he even turned up in a Rocky film? And who can forget how such a chiselled frame of muscle would become fetal at the mere thought of sitting in a plane? It’s the same in cycling – even the most hardened professionals can succumb to the fear. 

Take Sir Bradley Wiggins, who crashed on a treacherous rain-soaked descent during stage seven of the 2013 Giro and, near enough, tiptoed down subsequent descents before withdrawing because of a chest infection. It was the same with French rider Thibaut Pinot, who in 2013 told the French newspaper Le Dauphiné, ‘I know that I’m tense on descents – this is my weak point.’ 

Pinot obviously worked on his fears, finishing third overall at the 2014 Tour de France, but it’s clear that overcoming mental anxiety of certain cycling situations will have a positive physical impact. That’s why we’ve cherry-picked a number of common cycling fears, dissected their causes and, via some of the finest sports psychologists in the land, prescribed a range of simple-to-apply cures. Time to bolster your cycling performance…

Fear of Injury

CAUSES

The most common bike scenario that sends shivers down many a cyclist’s aerodynamic spine is crashing on a descent. Why? ‘It’s damn scary!’ comes the educated opinion of sports psychologist Alan Heary. But it really needn’t be. Just relax and read on…

CURES

Touching 50mph on a descent can be a thrilling experience. Clearly, though, that adrenaline rush is stimulated by the potential fear of crashing. According to Heary, who not only coaxes riders to lose their fears, but also organises races – the first, most basic method of killing the fear begins with the basics. ‘Skill development is key, especially if you’re new to cycling. Many newcomers worry because they’re inexperienced. Find a good coach. Failing that, head out with an experienced cyclist who can show you the ropes.’

Peak district descending

Once you’ve engineered a proficient bike set-up, shifted your weight evenly over the bike and have nice, relaxed elbows, it’s time to hit the hills. But don’t look to plummet down from Alpe d’Huez as your opening salvo; instead, it’s all about steady progression.

If you feel a little nervous when descending, that’s absolutely fine.

‘That means rather than starting with a hill that’s 5km long and 20% in places, begin with a smaller, easier hill,’ explains Heary. ‘You should then progress to a steeper, longer hill, each time, going slightly out of your comfort zone. So if you feel a little nervous when descending, that’s absolutely fine.’

While a few butterflies are to be expected, a fleet of Red Admirals isn’t. That’s where easy breathing comes in. ‘Firstly, defy your natural instinct to hold your breath,’ says Heary, advising deep breathing from the diaphragm. Also avoid tensing up, though clearly that’s easier said than done. ‘A lot of people will tell you to relax, but that’s too vague – I mean, how do you gauge how relaxed you are? So I ask riders to tense up and then relax. 

‘By deliberately tensing up their muscles, riders can easily identify what relaxing feels like, but it also puts them firmly in control. Many fears simply come down to a loss of control – and that’s an easy one to remedy.’

San Francisco descent

While a few butterflies are to be expected, a fleet of Red Admirals isn’t. That’s where easy breathing comes in. ‘Firstly, defy your natural instinct to hold your breath,’ says Heary, advising deep breathing from the diaphragm. Also avoid tensing up, though clearly that’s easier said than done. ‘A lot of people will tell you to relax, but that’s too vague – I mean, how do you gauge how relaxed you are? So I ask riders to tense up and then relax. 

‘By deliberately tensing up their muscles, riders can easily identify what relaxing feels like, but it also puts them firmly in control. Many fears simply come down to a loss of control – and that’s an easy one to remedy.’

Fear of failure

CAUSES

Fear of failure is near omnipresent in cycling, from failing to turn up for a club run to being unable to mend a puncture. But the biggest lung-squeezer for sportive riders is failing to reach your goals.

CURES

Many of you who’ve raced for a few seasons or have undertaken plenty of tedious corporate training events, will be aware of SMART goal-setting. SMART’ stands for Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic and Time-Phased, and is the go-to acronym for many a coach. It’s all about deconstructing your goals to see if they’re realistic and motivating.

Turbo training

Heary, on the other hand, recommends an alternative model to ensure your goals stretch you far enough to stimulate, but are still attainable. ‘I look at the “what”, “why”, “why not” and “how”,’ he says.

The plan can delve as deeply as you like, but we’ll briefly explain how each approach works. The ‘what’ simply applies to your goal for the year. What is it that you want to achieve? Do you want to complete an international sportive or finish in the top-third of the Dragon Ride? As a general rule, the more specific the goal, the better.

Then it’s the ‘why’. ‘This is the most important, but perhaps most neglected,’ continues Heary. ‘You must know what you’re going to get out of it and what sacrifices you’ll have to make. If your reason isn’t strong enough, you won’t be motivated to train.’ In other words, you’ll have more chance of reaching your goals if raising money for a cherished charity than if you’d signed up to a 300km race after 10 pints with your mate.

As for the ‘why not’, this is about being realistic and identifying potential hurdles along the way – be it being short of time because of a busy period at work or the inevitable cold. ‘It’s not all about being positive,’ says Heary. ‘We all have bad patches. But by recognising these potential stumbling points earlier, you reduce the fear of failure.’

Finally, the ‘how’. These are the process goals, which means the steps you’re going to take to reach your ultimate goals. Increasing your cadence over 60 minutes by 10rpm within a month, for example. Again, the more specific you are, the greater your chances of killing fear before it derails your goals.

Fear of humiliation

CAUSES

As for humiliation in cycling, things go straight to the ego-jugular – namely, the fear of dismounting on a stiff climb while your mates look like mountain goats.

CURES

Jean Christophe Peraud crashes on Stage 13 of the 2015 Tour de France

It’s an obvious one, but if you don’t analyse the course you’re looking to conquer, how will you replicate its specific demands in training? In other words, if your sportive features a climb of 10km and averages 7% gradient, training for the whole time on pancake-flat roads isn’t clever. Ideally, visit the course you’re racing months beforehand or, more realistically, have a good gander on Google Maps.

Pacing is also key, so having a pacing plan is important. ‘Obviously you’ll be going a lot slower up the hills,’ says sports psychologist Vic Thompson, ‘so if you’re used to pushing a certain level of speed, you’ll have a shock if you try to keep to that speed on the hills.’

That makes sense, but it’s surprising how often us cyclists ignore the blindingly obvious in the heat of the battle. That’s why Thompson says you should be as methodical as possible when approaching the ascents. 

‘Say there are six hills. Don’t see them as one big effort. You might break the course down into those six components. Or two at a time. Or into thirds. But by doing this, you’ll hopefully race in a more economical way.’

Of course, you’ll be passed by a few whippets. But as long as you’re confident you’re racing at the right level, that’s fine. 

‘Just remember there will be riders behind who aren’t able to pass you as they’re not as strong. Race at the right level for your fitness and make your peace with the suffering,’ advises Thompson. That’s sound advice.

Fear of skidding

CAUSES

One minute the sun is shining and you’re the master of the road; the next, the heavens open and you’re transformed into a nervous wreck. Riding in the rain can upset the most balanced cyclist… without calling in some mental reinforcements.

CURES

Crete crash

Competence breeds confidence, and the only way you become competent at something is through repetition of good practice. So when the rain’s pouring in buckets, head out with an experienced rider who can offer expert advice. These can range from using mudguards and dressing in the appropriate clothing to just pushing down slightly more than normal on the outside pedal when taking a corner. And remember, especially in the rain, that your bike follows your eyes – so look where you want to ride.

You can also talk yourself into a more confident, rain-defying version. ‘Self-talk is a very useful tool, especially in situations you might fear like riding in the rain,’ explains Heary. Studies support this assertion, with self-talk focusing the mind on the job at hand. Of course, there’s a few principles you must observe to maximise the benefits.

‘The first is to avoid being negative; avoiding saying things like “Don’t skid!” or “Don’t lose grip on the wet handlebars!”’ explains Heary. ‘This goes back to the old adage about not thinking of an elephant and its big floppy ears. What does everyone do? They think of a floppy-eared elephant.

‘Instead, tell yourself what you want to do and be positive about it. That could be about riding a certain line, for instance. Find a selection of useful phrases that you feel will help you overcome specific issues and start repeating them to yourself if one should arise.’

Heary says it doesn’t matter whether this self-talk’s confined to your head or vocalised. However, certain social situations might make the latter a selective choice. ‘I tend to vocalise unless I’m with a group of lads and don’t want them to know what’s going on. They also look at you a little strangely.’

Fear of race-day disappointment 

CAUSE

Not preparing properly is a common cause of race-day nerves. But there’s also the other end of the preparation spectrum – if you want to win a little too much. Thankfully, both thorny issues can be cured with some mental foresight…

CURES

One of the best ways to calm yourself down when that race-day alarm clock screams into action is through visualisation. For many of you, that might sound rather whimsical. But hear out Ian Robertson, professor of psychology at Trinity College, Dublin. ‘All top athletes engage in mental imagery,’ he says. ‘They visualise themselves and go through their routines beforehand, sometimes in real time. Using brain imaging, we discovered that almost all the same parts of the brain that are active when athletes are performing  are also active when they’re imagining doing so. It’s only the final pathways sending signals to the muscles down the spinal cord that additionally kick in when you do it for real.’

As the brain consumes 20% of your energy, you can burn a lot of calories just visualising yourself negotiating that technical corner. Take Steve Backley, the javelin thrower. He was renowned for spending more time visualising his throw than doing it for real. When he injured his knee in the build-up to the Sydney Olympics, he devoted hours to visualising how he’d feel in the stadium. He’d hear the crowd in his mind, do the warm-up preparation and normal run-up and throw, all in real time. He took silver.

‘It’s a worthwhile exercise,’ says professor Robertson. ‘The higher the correspondence of your mental moves to your physical movement, the greater the mental stimulation and the better the athlete.’

Mentally running through the whole race would be exhausting. It’s far better to focus on areas of the race that bother you the most like the climbs or descents. You should devote significant time to this skill so that your strategies become automatic. It’s all about harnessing raised testosterone levels and not letting them ruin your chances on race day.

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