The Long and Winding Road to the Giro

On May 4th the Giro d’Italia will start. All will be decided in three weeks time, for the Team LottoNL-Jumbo riders as well, with George Bennett as captain, Danny van Poppel for the sprint stages, and Robert Gesink for the mountain stages. The team must be optimally prepared when they start in Jerusalem, both physically and mentally. Cycling author and Vifit Sport psychology expert Martijn Veltkamp talked with the team about their mental preparation.

The Giro takes 23 days, rest days included, but if you include the preparation to the event you can add another 180 days. ‘For us the Giro started long ago,’ sports director Addy Engels explains to me in April. ‘Usually it starts already before winter. After the season evaluation we roughly draw the selection for the grand tours already, including our plan for them.’

This doesn’t mean that from October onwards the riders are non-stop working specifically towards the Italian monster tour though. ‘During the winter you prepare yourself for the entire season, not only the Giro,’ tells 25-year old sprinter Danny van Poppel. Still, the idea that he will do the Italian race is a mental boost in those cold months with lots of – often lonely – training and no competition. ‘The outlook of being the teams’ main sprinter in the Giro is very motivating. Especially when you didn’t ride a grand tour in two years, it it’s even more motivating to work hard. To be ready for the Giro.’

The motivation van Poppel speaks of is one of the psychological elements being decisive in whether a rider is not only physically but also mentally ready for a race. Besides motivation focus is essential, and confidence, and a mental resilience in order to be able to deal with stress and setbacks. But how do you do that? 

I asked George Bennett about his route towards the start in Jerusalem. When we spoke he just finished a 4-hour training ride in a snow-covered Sierra Nevada. ‘My Giro started in the first week of February,’ he looks back. ‘I take 6 weeks without a bike completely, and then I start back to 3-hour rides at home in New Zealand. I spend the afternoon really relaxed hanging out with my family or my friends, generally away from cycling,’ which is, according to him not that hard with the country not being that cycling-minded.

‘By the time I get to February it’s pretty intense weeks. I spend about 6 or 7 hours a day on the bike, and then a few rest days,’ Bennett continues. ‘When we head to Europe, I can deal with racing good results, building confidence and just have a strong early season over here. But,’ he immediately adds ‘everything is aimed at the Giro. It really ramps up as you get closer to the main goals. Then being here in the training camp, that’s really… I mean you wake up, your days are planned for you basically. Before I was training a 100%, but now I’m training a 100% at altitude, so now the little things add up.’

This way the physical and psychological preparation go hand in hand. Early in the season there is more space to relax and detach from the hectic racing world, but as the physical training becomes more intense, the mental focus on the main goal increases as well.

Of course the Giro is not the first race of the season, and not even the first race where the riders want to perform well. For example, in January Robert Gesink already raced to a top 10 position in the Tour Down Under GC. Bennett achieved the same in both the Tirreno-Adriatico and the Vuelta a Catalunya. As a rider you need to walk a fine line between working undisturbed towards the main goal, and performing well in all races that lay in-between. Although according to Gesink the latter is not possible anymore in modern cycling. ‘In the past you gave it your max in every race you started, but the sport has changed and that’s hardly possible anymore. The times of Zoetemelk where they all started in the Mediterranean Tour and started slowly is long gone. Any race is hard nowadays, as there are always some riders that made the race their main goal. This makes the races extremely stressful. So you need breaks,’ Gesink concludes, ‘recharge, and then on to the next goal.’

At Team LottoNL-Jumbo they work with a colour system to manage race goals. ‘You have red coloured events, that are your main goals,’ Gesink explains. ‘Then you have yellow coloured races, which are important as well, but you have more of a free role. Finally there is green races, where you race supporting the team.’ Working towards the Italian grand tour the Amstel Gold Race for example is green for the Dutch climber, and the Fleche Wallone and Liege-Bastogne-Liege are red. As for the Giro itself, it is yellow for Gesink, but red for Bennett and van Poppel. ‘I’m quite a fan of this system, because everybody knows what the race means. You don’t have to mentally go to the max in every race. Not always under high pressure.’

The idea behind the colour system is psychologically valuable; it’s known for decades that people perform better when they focus on specific targets (e.g., flat stages in the Giro, as they are for van Poppel) instead of on general goals like ‘performing well’. In addition it helps to measure the progression towards the main goal via the performance in subgoals (like the Tour of Valencia). Are you where you need to be or do you need to step-up? And setting goals means getting your priorities straight, with the advantage of the pressure being high only in key races rather than every race (as long as the riders environment is also aware of this; otherwise they might still put the pressure on).

Bennett nicely captures the necessity of being able to ride without too much pressure in the way towards the Giro, when I ask him how he deals with races like the Tirreno or the Tour of Catalunya. ‘In that week I focus on the result. I go and do my best. But you know, I go there I have fun, I enjoy them, and that makes them a lot easier. I mean, if you get nervous in Down Under, Cadels’ race, then Tirreno and Catalunya, that it all adds up, it’s just not a sustainable lifestyle.’

‘If you are able to occasionally tune out from the stress,’ Gesink continues in his turn, ‘then you have more mental capacity to deal with the setbacks that you will encounter anyway. For example, my best Tour de France in the past years I prepared with my family in California, on altitude; hard work for sure, but I was very relaxed. I started that Tour so relaxed, that I think I was able to perform so well because of it. Because of the space, also in your mind, to deal with everything you encounter.’

‘Without my team I would have won the Giro just as well,’ Jevgeni Berzin from the controversial Gewiss-Ballan team claimed following his GC victory in 1994. His remark forms a remarkable contrast with reality. Cycling is a team sport, nowadays probably even more so than in the past. The Team LottoNL-Jumbo riders should be both physically and mentally 100%  ready on May 4th, but the 8 individuals should also be an actual team. The sum is greater than the whole of its parts.

A lot of thought goes into building team spirit, according to Addy Engels. ‘Large part of the Giro line-up went to training camp, altitude training, for 3 weeks in April. We do that on purpose, to prepare the guys physically for the Giro via altitude training. But for a guy like Gijs van Hoecke, he’s going to have some advantage of the altitude, but he’s there really also for the team spirit. He will need to go through a wall in the sprint finishes for Danny, and then it’s important that you know each other well.’

After months of training, monitoring their diet, their bike position, the tiniest details, after thousands of kilometres in the saddle with an ever growing focus on that one race, the first pink jersey will be handed out to the fastest man on a 10k circuit. The Dutch team is looking forward to it. Gesink: ‘We’re in a good position to make it a great Giro.’