To survive this epic three-week endurance race requires more than just physical fitness, what can we learn from the rider’s experience?
The Tour de France, is a magnificent sporting event, but also so much more. Sometimes referred to as ‘chess on wheels’ the tactics, team work, dramatic failures and stunning successes allow us to observe in close-up many of the challenges of human life played out in the microcosm of this spectacular race.
Expend your energy wisely
Seeing opportunities to rest is a skill as important as knowing when to attack. Monitoring energy levels, managing tiredness and re-fuelling strategically are the only ways to survive, let alone win, the Tour de France. A frequently used cycling analogy is that you start each day with a bag of coins – how many you have got depends on things like your sleep, your diet and your mental energy – you can drip them away, spending them slowly on small efforts throughout the day or you can hoard them to expend them on one big ‘purchase’ like attacking hard on a final climb. In racing, as in life, it’s all about keeping your eye on the prize and not wasting energy or being side-tracked.
No one can win at everything
There are several races within races; the yellow jersey is for the person who completes the race in the least accumulated time, the green jersey is the points or sprinters jersey for whoever wins the most intermediate and stage-end sprints and the polka dot for the best climber.
These are all specialist skills and there will be parts of the race that allow climbers to dominate and parts where they will struggle. Watch a sprinter charge toward the line, shoulder to shoulder with another rider at 60kph and they look like heroes, see them struggling over a climb, way behind the front of the races and suddenly they look much more human. The secret is discovering your own talents and finding a role that allows you to shine whilst recognising you can’t be good at everything.
Nice guys do win sometimes
Not only do nice guys win sometimes but when they do their friends and their rivals take pleasure in their success. One of the most touching interviews of this year’s race was with Mike Teunissen (Jumbo-Visma) a surprise stage one winner and the first yellow jersey holder of the race, he described how other riders came up to him in the bunch the next day to congratulate him, including the top riders and former race winners. Having his childhood heroes know his name was one of the greatest emotions of having the yellow jersey he said.
Strategic planning plays off
Team INEOS as we know are masters of planning and preparation. The often touted ‘marginal gains’ attitude means that every tiny little aspect of the riders lives during the tour are controlled and monitored. From how much they pee, when they drink and even the pillow they sleep on at night, it has all been researched and carefully thought about.
The upshot of this is SKY (before they became INEOS) produced three Tour de France winners. It’s a lesson we can all follow – as Brailsford has been quoted saying many times “anything that can be measured can be controlled” and controlling the controllable is what Team INEOS does best. One of the best ways of reducing stress and anxiety is by knowing the difference between what you can control, and doing something about it, and what you can’t.
But so does going with your gut
Control, strategy, preparation and planning is the route to success but there is still a place for the ‘guts and glory’ approach of seeing an opportunity and responding to it faster than anyone else around you. Mike Teunisson’s stage one win is a case in point – when his team leader crashed out and he saw that the other top sprinters around him were tiring, instead of backing off he pushed harder. He had nothing to lose, no pressure on him as he wasn’t the team leader expected to compete in the sprint, and everything to gain. Even if you are in the right place at the right time, seizing an unexpected opportunity takes confidence and self-belief to act.
Group solidarity can make life easier for everyone.
When pro riders need to go for a pee during a stage they all stop together, it’s never (thankfully) caught on camera but at an appropriate moment a large number of riders will stop together to relieve themselves by the side of the road. One rider stopping for a pee would have a hard job of chasing back to the bunch on their own, when 50 stop it makes life easier for everyone.
No one can keep their foot on the gas all the time
Three weeks is a long time to sustain physical and mental focus and no one can ride at their limits for every moment of it. What you won’t see in the highlights package is the steady miles where riders are eating their snacks or chatting with their mates, someone might be away in the break having their moment of glory but for others it could be an easy day. This isn’t laziness it’s tactical, saving their energy for the moments when it counts. It’s ok to cruise sometimes and let others take the load.
Sometimes you have to work with your rivals
The success of a break away is dependent on all the riders in it working together and taking their turn at the front to share the job of cutting through the wind. Sometimes there will be more than one team represented and rival team riders have a choice to make – work together and make it stick or start in-fighting and almost certainly get swallowed up by the bunch behind. The decision is often to work together until the success of the break is assured. You can’t always pick your team but recognising that everyone benefits from working together is the easiest way to get the job done.
People only notice your highs and lows
Cheering crowds love spectacular failures as much as they do winning moments, the parts that don’t get applauded are the hours of steady, often monotonous consistent effort. Sometimes our lives, especially our working lives, can feel like one long plod – or the first 180km of a 200km flat stage – but those often unnoticed and sometimes boring hours are an essential part of the overall experience. It’s not the lows that make the highs stand out – it is the flat bits in between.