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The performance-boosting powers of superstitious rituals in pro cycling

Stephanie Constand
26 Sep 2018

Can the order in which you put your shoes on or when you choose to shower really boost your cycling? We've tried to find out

At this year’s Tour de France, Lawson Craddock crashed on the opening stage, fracturing his left scapula and sustaining lacerations to his forehead. His race number? Thirteen. Triskaidekaphobics will tell you that’s no coincidence.

Before every race, Laura Kenny makes sure to step on a wet towel, and Mark Cavendish refuses to bathe. Rachel Atherton will never put on her right shoe before her left one, while Ted King always donned his right shoe first. He also only ever used seven pins per dossard, two vertically down each side and three horizontally across the top, placed in exactly the same orientation each race.

A lucky marble accompanied Evelyn Stevens during all of her pro races, and 1988 Giro winner Andy Hampsten would only use an odd number of cogs on the climbs.

But can lucky undergarments, highly-regimented sequences of pinning on dossards, and illogically elaborate warm-up routines actually help pro riders to sprint faster, climb harder or avoid crashing?

Can the outcome of a Tour de France time trial, contested in front of an audience of millions, really depend on whether Fabian Cancellara remembered to pin his number 13 dossard upside down, or whether he forgot to tuck his famously equal-parts-lucky-and-garish angel charm under his jersey (the one which, of course, took him to back-to-back wins in Flanders and Roubaix in 2010)?

Despite the reach of sports science, data analysis, and technological advancements into every minutiae of the modern sport, the dark art of superstition still remains a ubiquitous force within the collective consciousness of the pro peloton.

So does an element of the numinous really reside in the semi-neurotic pre-race rituals and lucky charms of the pros? Probably not.

But that doesn’t mean that these slightly zany habits aren’t effective. In fact, there is mounting scientific evidence to suggest that rituals exert a significant influence over sporting outcomes, to the extent that they could even be considered performance-boosting practices.

Lucky charms

Researchers at the University of Cologne who recently investigated the power of lucky charms and superstitions came to this very conclusion.

As part of their study, they instructed 28 volunteers to each putt 10 golf balls. Before they attempted the task, half of the group was told that they would be using a 'lucky' golf ball, and the remaining half simply received a 'regular' golf ball.

Both groups completed the same number of putts under the same conditions and used exactly the same ball. However, quite remarkably, the participants who believed they were putting with the 'lucky' ball sunk an average of two more putts than the control group.

The same phenomenon was again observed when the subjects were told that they were using a putter that belonged to a successful PGA player, with the participants who played with the lucky putter performing over 30 per cent better than the control group.

From a physiological point of view, there is clearly no causal nexus between supposedly lucky golf clubs and superior putting performance.

However, what is at play here are significant psychological forces. And that’s where the magic, so to speak, of superstitious rituals lies – in sports psychology.

Sports magic

What we see in these studies, and indeed also in the pro peloton, is essentially a manifestation of the placebo effect. So how exactly does this work? And can you make it work for you?

Recent experimental evidence in the field of cognitive psychology suggests that rituals improve performance by reducing anxiety and providing a sense of control.

It’s also been theorised that when athletes engage in their ritual of choice, they are so preoccupied with tending to their good luck charm that they become distracted from the forthcoming competition, an otherwise significant source of anxiety.

So rather than nervously loitering around on the team bus and visualising the daunting slopes of the Hors Catégorie climbs that lie ahead, many pro riders are instead distracted from such discouraging thoughts by the task at hand, be it affixing an amulet to their brake cables or fastidiously cleaning their shoes.

In addition, rituals and lucky charms are also thought to provide a boost to self-efficacy, that is, an individual’s belief in his or her ability to successfully complete a task.

Essentially, a rider who believes that his pre-race meal of a hollowed out baguette will boost performance will ultimately end up performing better, thereby reinforcing his irrational belief in the bread’s magical powers.

Yet these theories are far from merely anecdotal or speculative in nature. The effect of superstitious habits has recently been proven to exist at the neuropsychological level.

Rituals modify the brain’s ability to cope with performance anxiety and the fear of failure by acting as a palliative against the neural responses to these two stimuli.

A 2017 Canadian study proves just this. As part of the experiment, researchers tracked the brain activity of 59 participants while they completed an arithmetic quiz.

What they specifically sought to measure was error-related negativity (ERN), an electrical signal that our brains produce when we make a mistake.

They found that, compared to the control group, there was a noticeable reduction in ERN in the participants who had performed a 'luck-bringing' ritual prior to the quiz. From this, they concluded that superstitious habits desensitise the brain to its anxieties about failure.

Given that the fear of failure is a known hindrance to sporting performance, it becomes clear how otherwise illogical rituals can give athletes a mental edge.

When things get prickly on the cobblestones or when riders find themselves struggling to make the break, superstitious habits and on-bike lucky charms can actively turn down the brain’s anxiety dial.

Yet why are these rituals so prevalent in pro cycling? The answer may lie in the unpredictable nature of the sport. On a 200km-long stage over cobbles, down sharp hairpin bends, and through rain and snow, anything can happen.

Despite months of preparation, so many riders’ hopes of victory are often dashed by sheer chance, be it an untimely crash, an unavoidable puncture, or a race-ending bout of illness.

To win in cycling, it would seem, you must be favoured by fate.

In the hands of fate

Races are often unpredictable and the potential for disaster would sometimes seem to be ubiquitous.

In this context, many riders seek to take every chance to steer clear of ill fortune, to force the locus of control to gravitate towards themselves and away from the myriad of unforeseeable and often erratic extraneous forces that abound on the road towards the finish line.

In a sport that is already so drenched in psychological tension, a rapid surge in confidence or escalation in anxiety attributable to the presence or absence of fortune-bringing habits or lucky charms could significantly impact the outcome of a race that is decided by a matter of centimetres or milliseconds.

So where does this leave you? Should you go out and attempt to find yourself your own lucky casquette or pair of bib shorts?

Unfortunately, if you believe anything that you’ve read in this article, then that probably wouldn’t do you much good. The potency of your lucky racing charm is rooted in your belief in its inherently mystical powers.

Once you acknowledge that your performance on the bike is indeed a product of your own physiology and racing equipment, rather than any magical properties of your lucky trinket, it essentially becomes useless.

In light of this you’d probably do well to forget that you ever read this article. Or better yet, perhaps email a copy to that guy who keeps stealing your Strava KOMs.

It might just sap some of the power out of those hideously mismatched lucky socks which he swears give him that extra edge.

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