When we ask riders why they come to the Haute Route, time and again their answer is about the personal challenge, and about cycling over the mythical mountain passes made famous by the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia. Many of us have dreamed about this since first watching the Tour on television as children. The moment of truth is now fast approaching!
For different people the challenge is at a different level: for some it will be a massive personal challenge just to finish, whereas the motivation of others is to gain a place in the top 20. For many, it is a leap into the unknown. There are thus many different races going on at the Haute Route.
Riding the Haute Route is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. In spite of this, most of you will have spent far more time training your body than your mind. It isn’t too late to give some serious consideration to the mental side!
So, what can you do when the cycling gets really tough and you feel like quitting?
There are several tried-and-tested motivational tools you can use to manage your mental energy and preserve both motivation and fun:
- Setting Goals
- Visualising success
- Directing your thoughts
- Distracting yourself
Goals are arguably the most powerful motivational tool you have. Use them wisely! For goals to be effective (in this context) they must be specific and challenging but both achievable and consistent with your overall goal of finishing the Haute Route.
- “Ride the Haute Route” is a meaningless goal that will have no impact on your performance.
- “Finish in the top 50” is only meaningful if you have the data to know it is achievable.
- “Climb the col ABC in x minutes” only makes sense if consistent with the overall goal…
So what type of goals should you set?
If you have no previous experience on a multi-day stage race and little performance data to go on, you might consider goals such as these:
- Ride the first three days at a deliberately slow pace (let people overtake you; reach the summit of each climb feeling you could have gone faster). If you have a heart rate or power meter, you should spend 60-70% of your time in Zone 1 or Zone 2, no more than 30% in Zone 3 and no more than 5% in Zone 4. Avoid Zone 5 completely.
- Increase your pace very slightly on days 4-7 in order to finish well. (The increasing fatigue will mean it becomes harder and harder to sustain your effort in Zones 3 and 4).
During the stage, it can be helpful to set very short term goals such as:
- Reach the next kilometre marker (or even the next corner)
- 100 more pedal strokes, then have a drink.
After the stage, set goals related to your recovery such as:
- Drink enough to need to urinate every two hours; the urine should be clear
- Spend a minimum of 2 hours on your back with your legs raised during the afternoon
- Have a massage, a Compex electrostimulation session and/or wear compression socks within one hour of arrival.
Visualisation is an extremely powerful tool for success. Put simply, if you can’t see yourself doing something, you are unlikely to be able to do it.
During your preparation, try to watch as many videos as possible of the critical climbs, and visualise yourself climbing them on a good day, powerfully and steadily. Replay these climbs often in your mind’s eye so that you fix a positive image of yourself succeeding, and when things get tough on the bike, recall the mental image and play it again.
Directing your thoughts
The crucial point here is to replace negative thoughts by something more constructive. You can only not think about something by focusing hard on something else. (Try telling yourself NOT to think about a pink hippopotamus).
Use affirmations such as “I am a strong rider”, “I am a good climber”, “I am going to make it”, “nothing can stop me reaching the summit”.
Focus your attention elsewhere, such as:
• Remind yourself why you are here: did you come all this way to quit now?
• Think of the sense of achievement you will have when you finish
• Think of all the others who have done this before
• Think of how lucky you are compared with XYZ (insert name…)
• Think of the far greater suffering undergone by others who don’t have a choice
Another way to avoid thinking about the pain is to distract yourself deliberately. You can try:
- Focusing on the scenery and the natural beauty
- Focusing on your breathing (slow it down, make it deeper)
- Using a mantra (Tibetan, Buddhist or more mundane such as “smooth power ride”)
- Humming a song, reciting a favourite poem
- Solving mental arithmetic
- Counting in a foreign language
The most important aspect of the challenge presented by the Haute Route is that you have entered into it willingly. Because it is your choice, you may impose on yourself much higher constraints than you would ever willingly accept from elsewhere. You become your own hardest task-master, demanding and obtaining ever higher tolerance of pain as you push yourself to the limit.
Herein lies the danger however: push yourself too far and you risk the worst. In previous years, riders have been forced to abandon due to exhaustion, and have taken serious risks descending in a semi-lucid condition. There is absolutely no point in risking your life for small gains. Your family needs you to stay safe!