Team Slipstream's Steven Cozza displays his Focus Face before Stage 3 of the 2008 Amgen Tour of California.
What does it take—mentally—for professional cyclists to be successful in a stage race like the Tour of California? What can the rest of us mere mortals learn from their experiences? PezCycling talks candidly with Katheryn Curi Mattis, Steven Cozza, and Ben Jacques-Maynes, and hears some surprising and inspiring stories.
Katheryn Curi Mattis was the Elite National Road Champion in 2005. In 2006 she was slowed by a life-threatening injury, but came back stronger than ever in 2007, when she had a breakthrough season.
She finished third at Redlands and at the Tour Cycliste Féminin International Ardeche—her first general classification (GC) podium in a European stage race—and helped the Webcor Builders Women's Professional Cycling Team to the number one National Race Calendar (NRC) ranking. She has two degrees in psychology and has a particular interest in the mental side of sport.
Steven Cozza of Team Slipstream also had a breakthrough season in 2007. Having won the U-23 National Time Trial Championships in 2005, Steven had begun to steadily develop his skills in the pro peloton, but then crashed heavily in the rainy Stage 3 (72 of 139 starters DNFed) of the 2007 Tour of Picardie.
After rising to the challenge of an arduous recovery process, 22-year-old Steven was named the Best Young Rider at the Tour of Missouri, and then scored his first victory as a professional in Stage 6 of the Vuelta a Chihuahua.
Ben Jacques-Maynes, Team Leader of the Bissell Pro Cycling Team, also had a terrific 2007. He scored numerous wins and top-five results, and ultimately finished second in the overall NRC standings. He credits his mental fitness—built in part on his relationships with his wife, Goldi, and his kids, Chase and Chloe—as a significant contributor to his recent success.
Pez: Which mental skills have been most important for you in stage races?
Katheryn: A lot of it is confidence: knowing that I'm coming into the race having done everything I need to do to do my best. I know I can't control everything, and there are so many variables: the weather, crashes, etc. I make sure I've done what I can do. I study the course, evaluate my competition, eat well, and talk with my teammates and director about the game plan, particularly the goals for the race and for individual stages.
If I'm spending mental energy thinking, "my legs feel so bad," or "I really shouldn't have eaten that box of doughnuts," that takes away from being relaxed. If I get tense, or I'm paying attention to things I don't need to attend to, or I'm worrying about stuff, it pulls energy from me. The rides when I feel the best—it's effortless. On those rides, I wasn't distracted by anything, I wasn't thinking about anything else.
When I'm having a bad day on the bike, I try not to beat myself up about it. I'm mindful of it instead—"OK, you're hurting"—and can be OK with it. I use a mental checklist: I ask myself, "What's going on here, and what can I do about it?" I have phrases that I say to myself, like "C'mon, Kat, get your head in the game," or "Breathe!"
Steven: What's most tough about a stage race like the Tour of California is that it's long. It's challenging to stay focused and stay alert. You're getting tired, and it can be really frustrating: some guys are stronger at the beginning, and some guys are stronger at the end. You have to be careful not to say to yourself, "Ugh, we have another five-hour ride today." I try to live in the moment and take every stage like it's a one-day race.
The Tour of California is nerve-wracking for me because it's so close to home, and it's my first race of the year. Through the season, I'm doing 60 to 100 races, and it eventually becomes second nature, just like going to work. But for me, the important thing to work on in this first race is self-doubt and negative thoughts.
For me, positive affirmations overpower the negative thoughts—I use a trigger word or phrase. For example, before a tough climb, I'll say to myself, "it's going to be an aggressive climb." I'm so psyched that I don't care how hard it is. I've found this really helped before the cobble climbs in Belgium—it's a battle, guys are bumping arms, and there's an insane amount of pain. My director would say to me, "there's an aggressive section coming up." Now I do that for myself.