When I started riding in the 1970s we all wore wool shorts and jerseys, used sew-up tires and rode on Brooks leather saddles with a rivet in the front. The term “on the rivet” comes from those days, meaning to slide forward on the saddle and to ride hard. Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx was king, and we envisioned him racing when we rode on the rivet.
In this new series of monthly columns I’m going to teach you the mental side of riding “on the rivet”; i.e., to be a better rider. Your best could be doing better on the course you regularly ride. Or riding 10 miles longer than you are used to riding. Or setting a personal best in a time trial. Or anything in between.
Mental preparation is one of the components of peak performance for the pros, and it can be for you, too. Here are three examples:
1. When Sir Bradley Wiggins attempted the hour record he knew that he couldn’t possibly race on the rivet for an hour, so he used a mental device to do it: he divided the hour into five 12-minute segments and just raced one segment at a time. On June 7, 2015, he smashed the hour record with a ride of 54.526 kilometers.
2. Jens Voigt was known for his breakaways. After he retired he said, “I should have had more confidence in myself, realized I was a better rider, and that I didn’t need to cover every crazy, early breakaway.”
3. On Feb. 27, 2016, Evelyn Stevens set the women’s hour record of 47.980 kilometers. In addition to working with a sports psychologist, she took mental preparation a step further. She floated in a sensory deprivation tank for 60 minutes at a time. It helped her tune into her body and then visualize what she would have to do during the attempt.
Here’s a personal example: My cycling career had surprising parallels to a somewhat better known road rider, Greg LeMond. The similarities include serious injuries we both suffered in our primes – after winning important races – and our comebacks. We both used the mental skill of focusing to ride on the rivet to win the same races again, and other events, as well.
My Surprising Parallels to Greg LeMond
Greg LeMond won the 1986 Tour de France, finishing three minutes and 10 seconds ahead of Bernard Hinault, the first racer from an English-speaking country to win the Tour. Then on April 20, 1987, LeMond was shot with a shotgun by accident while bird hunting in California. A passing California Highway Patrol helicopter airlifted him to the UC Davis Medical Center, which saved his life. Had he been transported by ambulance from the remote site of the accident, he would have bled out. UC Davis has a trauma center that specializes in the treatment of gunshot wounds and other trauma. In a five-hour operation, the surgeon removed 30 of the 60 shotgun pellets.
Although I raced ultra-distance then, my history was similar to LeMond’s. On April 18, 1989, I won the inaugural Furnace Creek 508 (508) qualifier for the Race Across AMerica (RAAM). I finished the 508-mile race through the deserts of California, including Death Valley, in 30 hours 54 minutes. I was in eighth place at the 83-mile mark, moved up to third place at the 155-mile mark and, racing on the rivet, took the lead at the 255-mile mark and won by 106 minutes. Only eight of the 25 men racing finished.
On June 30, 1989, while training for RAAM, I was hit by a truck, which knocked me 80 yards. A helicopter airlifted me to the hospital in Stockton, California. I was bleeding badly, my pulse dropped to just 20 bpm and I received several pints of blood to stabilize me. I was transferred to the same UC Davis trauma center. My left knee was crushed – the orthopedic surgeon said that it was one of the few orthopedic emergencies he’d seen.
By the 1989 Tour de France, LeMond was fully recovered and battled with Pedro Delgado and Laurent Fignon, each of whom had also won an earlier edition of the Tour. The last stage was a 24.5-km time trial. LeMond was 50 seconds behind Fignon, who was in the yellow jersey. He had to make up two seconds / kilometer.
I watched the race on TV from my hospital bed. Every 10-15 seconds the coverage jumped from Fignon to LeMond, and the scenery moved across the TV screen noticeably faster. LeMond was on the rivet! He won by eight seconds, the closest victory in the history of the Tour.
How did LeMond do it? By focusing 100% on his effort, metering it out so that he was completely spent at the finish.
In 1992 I was again in peak form and set a course record of 52 hours, 35 minutes in the 750-mile Boston-Montreal-Boston (BMB). On October 3, 1993, I completed my comeback, winning the 508 again in 32:25, despite a high of 108F on the second day. I was 2 hours, 36 minutes ahead of the second finisher. Only 11 of the 27 men and two of the three women finished.
How did I win the 508 twice, and BMB? Other racers were stronger that I was in each race. What helped me to race on the rivet for so many hours and beat the stronger competitors? I focused 100% of my attention and effort on pacing myself.
Learning to Focus Through Tai Chi
After I got out of the hospital in 1989 I had started practicing tai chi (pronounced tie-chee). Tai chi is a series of movements performed in a slow, focused manner and accompanied by deep breathing. Martin Lee, a Ph.D. in engineering and a tai chi master, and his wife, Emily, taught me a simple mantra: relax, breathe and do nothing extra, i.e., learn to focus solely each moment during a tai chi workout.
Workout? Yes, but not because it was physically hard. I was learning the mental skill of focusing. Mental skills are like physical skills – they both take time to learn through repeated practice. Through tai chi, I trained myself to focus 100% on something, which led to wins in the 508 and BMB.
In this series of columns I will teach you the mental skills that LeMond, other pros and I use. I’ll write a new column the first of each month with a new skill for you to practice that month.
How this can help you?
Why bother with mental training when you already don’t have enough time to ride your bike, stretch, build core strength, hit the gym, etc.
Here’s why: For the simple reason that by devoting just 10-15 minutes to mental training just four days a week, you’ll improve your cycling more than by doing anything else with that time.
As part of their weekly training regimens, I assign many of my clients short mental training sessions to work on a specific skill, depending on their needs. I cut back the riding time by the same amount. Here’s how they (and by extension, you, will) benefit:
- Confidence: One older client who lived in the flatlands worked on confidence for several months. After Bob went to his club’s three-day weekend of riding in hilly country, he reported that for the first time the hills didn’t intimidate him.
- Relaxation: Another client has trouble sleeping. Sam’s learned a relaxation technique that he practices before bed so that he sleeps better.
- Better workouts: A third client struggles with intensity workouts. By using a simple focusing technique, Joan is able to produce more power during her interval sessions.
- Pain management: Despite our best efforts a brevet rider developed some of the aches and pains I described in recent columns. By learning to focus, Larry could direct his attention away from a problem area. It still hurt, but didn’t affect his ride.
- Problem-solving: Steve, a rookie endurance rider sometimes had mechanical and other problems during long rides. When something happened, he would get anxious and then struggle to figure out how to deal with the problem. By learning how to calm down, he became a better, more efficient problem-solver.
This month’s practice: Focused Breathing
Find a time in your busy day when you can be quiet by yourself for about 10 minutes. First thing in the morning is a good time to practice, as is the end of the day. You could combine the breathing practice with stretching or riding, although you’ll get more benefit if initially you focus simply on breathing.
- Set a timer for just 10 minutes.
- Lie quietly on your back with your hands resting between your pubic bone and belly button. Close your eyes. Close your mouth softly and breathe through your nose.
- Breathe from the abdomen – your hands should feel your belly rise and fall.
- First, just be aware of your breath. Notice the rhythm of the breath. Feel the breath coming in and out. Notice how long it takes to inhale . . . and exhale. Spend a couple of minutes feeling yourself breathe. Notice if anything changes. Are your breaths getting longer? Or deeper?
- Once you feel the rhythm, then focus on the in-breath. Feel the breath entering your nose. Feel it moving down your throat and into your lungs. Feel yourself taking in energy. It may help to imagine that you are inhaling a white mist. Feel how deeply into your lungs the breath comes. Is your breathing changing?
- Then focus on the out-breath. Imagine that the white mist has changed to gray and that you exhale your feelings of tension or of fatigue or from sore muscles or whatever is bothering you.
- Try to just focus on your breathing without thinking. Initially, your mind will wander and you’ll start thinking. Sometimes, my mind still starts thinking instead of being quiet. This morning while I was practicing my breath-watching I started thinking about this column. If this happens, just bring your attention back to your breathing.
Learning to be aware of the breath is a skill, a skill that teaches you how to focus, to let go of distractions. You can then focus your energy on riding down the road.
In November, try to practice this breathing skill at least four days a week:
1. Noticing the rhythm
2. Feeling the inhalation
3. Feeling the exhalation
4. Quieting your thoughts
In the December column, we’ll learn to use breathing to relax.
Coach John Hughes earned coaching certifications from USA Cycling and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. John’s cycling career includes course records in the Boston-Montreal-Boston 1200-km randonnée and the Furnace Creek 508, a Race Across AMerica (RAAM) qualifier. He has ridden solo RAAM twice and is a 5-time finisher of the 1200-km Paris-Brest-Paris. He has written nearly 30 eBooks and eArticles on cycling training and nutrition, available in RBR’s eBookstore at Coach John Hughes. Click to read John's full bio.