IN DEPTH: VISUALISING VICTORY
How WorldTour teams are using advanced planning methods to try and make the difference in races
The stage victory of our times came on the 19th racing day of the 2018 Giro d’Italia. Saddle sores and indifferent form meant Chris Froome sat uncomfortably fourth on GC, 3:22 down on fellow Briton Simon Yates. Yates’s tempo, cadence and tactics had been metronomic. He was doing a Team Sky to Team Sky. Then with 80km to go, everything changed. Froome attacked on the hour-long climb of the Colle delle Finestre and, as the world would hear later, enacted phase one of the team’s threephase plan: destroy Yates. Phase two required similar treatment to Tom Dumoulin. As Froome flew, Dumoulin scrambled. Phase two complete. The third and final phase? Stretching the stage lead enough to propel Froome into the GC lead. As we know, he completed all three phases and with it his last grand tour triumph to date. The secret of Froome’s success? “When Chris does a big performance, he visualises, and he plans, and he thinks about it,” team principle Dave Brailsford reflected at the time. “He builds himself up emotionally. And on the day, he can go so deep, he can suffer so much, that it’s quite something.”
The team had recced Finestre the year before after being in nearby Sestriere to look at some of that year’s Tour stages. Froome and his team had justified the devil in the detail. The course reconnaissance and Froome’s mental imagery catalysed into victory, but they’re not the only team trying to plan and visualise victory.
“One of our first course recons that paid off was in Corsica at the 2013 Tour de France,” says Team BikeExchange’s head directeur sportif Matt White. “I’d been there in March, had a look at the three stages and pinpointed where we could attack. A week before the race, I’d also taken the team out there and we spent the weekend nailing down tactics.”
Stage 1 didn’t go to plan – the team’s most notable contribution to the day was their bus getting stuck under the finish gantry; stage 2 didn’t suit the team’s strengths. Stage 3 went like clockwork. “We wanted someone in the break so we didn’t have to chase,” White continues. “Then to have numbers with Simon [Gerrans] going into the last corner. Daryl Impey had to nail a tricky leadout – which he did – and then Simon was good enough to come off his wheel to hold off [Peter] Sagan for victory. It’s exactly how we’d pictured it five days before.”
In 2021, the course recon continues to lay the foundations for stage and race tactics, to dictate pacing strategies and equipment choice, to identify where to ease off and where to attack. It’s not always successful – Froome crashed during the morning time-trial recce at that 2018 Giro and, more seriously, at the 2019 Critérium du Dauphiné – but, more often than not, failing to plan forges a competitive disadvantage.
“We do them for the big races and new routes,” says White. “Seeing courses that I don’t know helps in the process of formulating a plan; I go through different plans and different scenarios over and
over before a race. It helps me make decisions under pressure because I’ve really thought about those options. Ultimately, there are multiple ways to do a recon, depending on budget, time and individual preferences.”
When it comes to the practicalities, White prefers to recce with a fellow DS to share intelligence, perspective and driving duties. “Even by car, a stop-start 140km stage can turn into a 12-hour day, especially as I record key parts of the course into my dictaphone and transcribe when I return to the hotel when it’s fresh in my mind.”
If the race calendar and training blocks allow, White will take riders with him, too. “Yesterday I went through the final segment of stage 6 of this year’s Giro with Simon [Yates] and one of our climbers. We were all tired as it was a day after Tirreno-Adriatico [Yates finished 10th], but it was a useful exercise to paint a visual picture of what we’ll face in May.”
Stage 6 is the first mountainous parcours of this year’s race, with 3,400 metres of elevation gain, taking the peloton from Frasassi Caves to Ascoli Piceno. It’s a chance for Yates to slip into pink. The race’s importance to the team meant this was White’s fourth Giro recon in two weeks, identifying where GC could be won or lost. He’d also covered the Strade Bianche style gravel stretches on stages 9 and 11, primarily to work through equipment choices.
How times change. When sprinter Caleb Ewan led the team, White would have pencilled in the Giro’s finishing hosts of Novara (stage 2), Cattolica (stage 5) and Temoli (stage 7) to break down the finishes. “Sprint recons look very different,” says White.
For all teams. Nicki Sørensen, former super-domestique at Tinkoff-Saxo and now DS at Israel Start-Up Nation, picks up the story.
“So many sprints are packed with roundabouts, with road dividers, that it’s important to prepare yourself and your riders for what lies ahead,” the Dane explains. “In the last five to 10 kilometres, the intensity and pacing is really high; you go from zero to 100 in no time. So you must have a clear picture in your head of positioning and key areas to accelerate.”
This rise in intensity defines the stage. A long day in the saddle can reach six hours, much of which is passing time at a professionally sedentary pace on a sprint stage. If the mind wanders at the wrong moment, it’s opportunity lost.
“That’s why I work with the riders’ mindset into a finish like this,” says Sørensen. “There’s a huge surge in tension when fighting for position, especially if it’s the opening day and they’ve been training at home for two weeks. Riders can quickly forget how mentally and technically demanding it is battling shoulder to shoulder at 55kph. So I’ll speak over the radio and ready them. You don’t want to feel you’ve missed out on victory because you weren’t mentally prepared.”
THE MIND MATTERS
This in-race imagining complements the course recon, detailed work on VeloViewer (see High-Tech Insight box for more) and the pre-stage bus PowerPoint, and is a real-life and dynamic example of visualisation
Visualisation, or mental imagery, is a psychological tool used by elite cyclists to prepare for an upcoming race – a cerebral recce, if you will. It’s about leaving an accurate imprint in the brain of the parcours to come so the body can execute what’s required at the
right time. If that sounds woolly, it’s hardly surprising. Look down a WorldTour team’s staffing lists and while prosaic employees like mechanics and soigneurs dominate, sports psychologists are notable by their absence, aside, of course, from Steve Peters’ consultancy work at Ineos.
In a field still treated with scepticism by many, Peters the psychotherapist stood out as an outlier, respected by riders like Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton for adding consistency to their world-class performances. In the eyes of some, Dr Richard Freeman’s long and interrupted trial has dented Peters’ reputation. Ergo, denting the importance further of the mind’s role in cycling success. But spending time mentally weaving your way through the parcours is a worthwhile and, importantly for empiricists, proven exercise.
“When you stimulate your mind, like you do with visualisation, you have motor activity,” says Ian Robertson, neuroscientist and clinical psychologist at Trinity College Dublin. “In fact, the only bit of the circuitry that’s not tapped into is the final output to the muscle. You observe it when using fMRI.”
Robertson gives the example of Steve Backley, who won successive Olympic medals between Barcelona in 1992 and Sydney in 2000 in the javelin. Before Atlanta in
The course recon continues to lay the foundations for stage and race tactics, to dictate pacing strategies and equipment choice
1996, an Achilles injury put him out of action for three months. He didn’t even pick up a javelin but still won silver, thanks in no small part to hypnotist Paul McKenna.
“They spent a lot of time on visualisation,” Robertson explains. “From his armchair, Backley would picture entering the stadium to a roar; he’d feel the buzz of the crowd. Then he’d picture himself, in real time, running and projecting that javelin. He used all of his senses – the interoceptive ones, the proprioceptive ones – and created a routine that was less vulnerable to the vagaries of attention.”
Maintaining attention is the key attribute of visualisation, says Robertson, and provides an academic rationalisation for Sørensen’s race-intensity technique. “Studies have shown that a critical aspect of endurance is controlling attention, achieved by visualisation and self-talk,” he continues. “Both are powerful tools for the brain and have been shown to lower perception of effort and boost speed. The problem is, attention is difficult to maintain when there are competing demands like muscle pain or a sense of exhaustion.
“One way of maintaining attention is having intermediate goals, and the more tired you are, the shorter and more proximal these goals must be. If you allow your mind to reach the distal goal of the finishing line, it’s much harder to sustain attention and negative, confidence-sapping thoughts can enter your mind – ‘I’ll never do this, how can I overcome this…?’ It has the opposite effect of positive self-talk. It’s all about the right frontal lobe and creating clear images that boost confidence in action.”
Conscious or unconscious, Bradley Wiggins utilised many of these techniques. Take this passage from The Hour. “The Hour record’s a big mental battle. You can’t afford to start thinking after 20 minutes, ‘Bloody hell this is painful’ – when there are still 40 minutes to go – so you play games, persuade yourself. ‘No, no, it’s not hurting yet, I can do half an hour no problem, we’ve done that in training loads of times.’”
Wiggins talks about time slowing down in the second 30 minutes of the Hour; that he gave himself a series of goals that continued to acknowledge he was hurting but no worries – it’s expected and the pain has permission. It worked as he recorded 54.526km.
So visualisation is multifaceted, used to nullify pain and breed confidence by mentally mastering the route, and is maximised when running through the section in real time and multiple times. “The fidelity of the programme running through your head is greater if you run through a situation 30, 40… 70 times,” says Robertson. “But just the key parts – the whole race would be exhausting.”
BENEFITS THE BEST
It’s something, says Robertson, that Primož Roglic could benefit from to break his French hoodoo. In the past 12 months, Roglic has plucked defeat from the jaws of victory at the Dauphiné, the Tour and Paris-Nice. “This recent history of losing creates more negative sensations, meaning it’s even more important to construct mental goals for yourself. Whatever the sub-goals are – picturing a church with 20k to go, whatever – he needs to avoid thinking about the overall goal. Your mind’s a strange thing. When you think of victory, you also think of defeat. They’re two conflicting, emotionally laden thoughts. That’s the battle.”
And a battle won by the very best, says Sørensen. “I rode with the greats, including [Alberto] Contador, and one of the things that linked the biggest stars was their ability to remember courses.
Whether it was from course reconnaissance, looking at the history of races or reading the road book, they could picture things so clearly in their head. It was like they had a mind map for victory.”
Sørensen feels the greatest can assimilate vital bits of information, neatly sidestepping clutter and confusion. It’s a theme of White’s course-recon philosophy – whether months beforehand, the day before or on the team bus, don’t confuse the riders with too many presentations, too much information. Do, however, always keep feedback up-to-date.
“That’s where the race recce, morning recce and VeloViewer are vital,” says White. “You can look at the Giro or the Tour 10 days out and it won’t look the same on race day. That’s why sprint and climb prep are equally important. For the sprint, you have the barricades and millions of fans; for the climb, Alpe d’Huez as an example, it’s a different proposition in May compared to July. God knows how many drunken fans edge close to the riders. It can make it claustrophobic. A perfect example is London 2012. I was manager of the Australian team and knew the TT course blindfolded. I spent months out there, knew all the corners… and got there on the day and didn’t expect so many people on the course. Things that I was identifying – certain houses, certain trees – it was impossible with a 10-deep crowd.” Needless to say, Australia didn’t win a medal.
Course reconnaissance is far from perfect. But it is a tool that helps to control the controllables in a chaotic sport. Dissecting potential race-winning moves in person, picturing twists and turns in the quiet of an Ibis or even using virtual reality – as Jumbo-Visma have done in time trials – elite riders demand every performance box be ticked. It breeds confidence and, every now and then, will turn the vision into reality.
“O ne of the things that linked the biggest stars was their ability to remember courses. It was like they had a mind map for victory"
Nicki Sørensen, Israel Start-Up Nation DS