Cycling is a cruel and unusual sport, that requires huge commitment, long hours of training and racing, and a great deal of masochism to succeed. It’s a truism that what makes the difference in elite sport is not physical ability, as the margins are so small, but psychology.
It’s a cliche, but I’ve certainly found successful people require a degree of dysfunction to be blinkered enough to forge ahead. Or they have some raging force that drives them, usually childhood trauma. Greg Lemond attributes part of his success, sadly, to childhood abuse.
So do you have to be close to madness to get to the very top?
I love people. They/you/we are pretty fascinating things. I’ve been lucky enough to observe many types of people in pretty extreme circumstances (try running a nightclub or a film company!!) and I reckon that all of us are a bit messed up in some way or another. There are of course a minority of people with unavoidably serious problems such as chronic depression or schizophrenia. But there are others for whom these very terrible diseases may show themselves. Are cyclists more prone to mental illness? I do not know.
I’d say all of us have latent serious psychological problems that never surface, because our lives go smoothly enough, or we have balancing elements in our lives. But sadly, sometimes our circumstances cause them to surface, such as death, loneliness or even fame. The extremes push our mental boundaries.
Elite cyclists are at pretty extreme boundaries of physiology and psychology. Their training, endless travel, time away from family, weight of expectation from themselves, sponsors and the public; danger, injury and many more.
Lance Armstrong bettered Jan Ullrich because he was totally committed and blinkered. Ullrich was more normal (in commitment terms at least) and partied and ate too much in the off-season, to balance the insane demands placed upon him during racing season. That same psychological profile, that bloody-minded determination and blinkeredness that got Lance through cancer and won him 7 Tours is now gradually destroying his legacy.
Lance Armstrong, back from retirement, a myth broken.
It’s fascinating stuff.
There also seem to be many very balanced people in cycling. But are they as successful? We can never know how balanced their lives are, and my interpretation and even theirs are unreliable, because we are all different and see the same things from strange angles. But it makes sense that you need something extra, perhaps not always positive, to get to the top.
With confidence and utter self-belief often comes arrogance. And if things don’t turn out as you were certain they would, confusion and anger. Mark Cavendish is considered by many to be a little loopy, particularly as he is famous for verbally lashing out if he loses, but he quickly apologises once the red mist has settled. He is also a very witty and seemingly humble balanced man off the bike. It may be his evident self-awareness that keeps him balanced. I think he is probably one of the most mentally healthy riders out there. He is himself. Imperfect.
Mark Cavendish Two Finger Salute. He quickly apologised.
Take your sport too seriously, but never yourself.
I think Cav is normal in his dysfunction. His seeming arrogance is part of his competitive edge. And in fact he’s so good you could argue its not arrogance at all! Cav seems to have a ‘stage face’ of arrogant self-belief but is sweetness off the bike. He reminds me of actors, who are often shy in real life, but in your face and ebullient when they need to turn it on. Famous and charismatic people are often the most dull people in real life. Peter Sellers was a genius but famously an utter bore.
Wiggins and Millar have both had crisis of morale and drank to excess, through very different extreme circumstances. Wiggins won gold in Athens. Millar was exposed for drug-taking. There are many other stories in cycling of such wobblies. But aren’t cyclists just another cross-section of society? Don’t we all lose it a bit sometimes and throw a wobbly or get blind drunk? The difference is most of us have very normal lives that allow us, usually, hopefully, back to functioning normally again. Brad & Dave had families and trusted confidants to rein them back in and make them stronger for it.
Riccardo Ricco is facing a 12 year further ban after seemingly trying to give himself a blood transfusion of rotten blood. What seems to be Ricco’s problem is has always been known for his arrogance, but he also seems evasive of self truths and perhaps most importantly he seems to be surrounded by vampires (pun intended) and similarly corrupted people. That’s not going to balance him. And if you think you are God, and deny any fault when things inevitably go wrong, you are heading for a long terrible fall. I pity Ricco and though I hate him for his doping and pretty unpleasant demeanour, I really hope he finds a good crowd and way out into the light. We don’t want another Marco Pantani story.
Riccardo Ricco. A man on The Edge?
I’ve seen film directors blow their talent because they believe their own hype, stop listening, hang with the wrong crowd and thus never hear useful criticism. It applies as much to directors as singers, actors, managing directors and elite cyclists.
What is essential, if you have this dysfunction, is to allow balancing influences into your life. Family and friends. It all comes down to people. Racing cycling is epic, but it is epic because ordinary people become extraordinary.
It is a high tightrope that some fall off.