Opening up the professional cycling and sports world.

The Resilience of Cadel Evans

This episode tells a story that begins with a spectacular failure. Now, there’s many ways to fail in cycling but this is about a cyclist who gave it everything and came up short. His name, Cadel Evans.


Episode transcript

 Damian: Episode 2 Damian: From VirtuGO, this is INSIDE. I’m Damian Ruse and a quick heads up today that there is some language that’s not appropriate for younger ears - so if you’re listening with kids, it might be best to wait until later. Today, I’ve got a story to tell you. This story begins with a spectacular failure. Now, there’s many ways to fail in cycling but this is about a cyclist who gave it everything and came up short. His name, Cadel Evans, and it was at the final climb of stage 9 of the 2010 Tour de France in the Alpine village of Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne.... Damian: The Australian cyclist cracked on the last big climb of the day and suffered for the final 10 kilometers of the 204.5-km stage. Damian: After finishing the stage he embraced his BMC teammate Mauro Santambrogio who had dragged him up the final climb and in an uncharacteristically rare show of emotion he broke down in front of the media. This was about more than losing a single stage of the Tour de France. Cadel’s dream to win the Tour de France was also gone. This was devastating for Cadel - and if you were a pro cycling fan back then, you’d known about his near misses at the 2007 and 2008 Tour de France, placing second on both occasions by mere seconds. But how did he bounce back? What made him the champion he was when he retired in Feb 2015 at his own race? In comparison, later on in the same year as Cadel’s retirement, in November, 2015, another BMC cyclist retired, this time, though, he had only been a professional for 12 months. The rider, Campbell Flakemore. Flakemore was on a steep trajectory ever since this race... Clip - Winning the World Champs ITT. Damian: I read an article by Campbell Flakemore last year, and in the article he discusses the build up to those World Championships and gives an insight into to his short time as a pro, where he quit after one year in the World Tour with the BMC Professional Cycling team. Curiously enough, Cadel Evans backed him to become a future Australian Grand Tour winner… What happened to Flakemore that ultimately proved Cadel wrong? A few good points were raised in the comments which are worth discussing here. These comments can be summarised that Flakemore didn’t possess the deep seated desire to be a pro and therefore didn’t have the resolve to continue after a crash. The love of cycling and desire to be a professional is not something you can work on - but the second part, the ability to pick yourself up after it gets tough, you get injured, you fail, have to recover and you have to bounce back. We’re going to take a deep dive through the eyes of both these riders to learn more about resilience. Is it something we are born with? Or is it something we can learn? I mean, resilience is an essential element to reach the pinnacle of anything. Author Matt Fitzgerald talks about resilience being the mother of all coping skills... Matt: [13:43] Resilience is, you know, I call it in the book the mother of all coping skills. Really resilience is just getting back up when you've been knocked down. But of course you have to do that in order to develop any of the other coping skills because those other skills require that you be in the game. So if you quit when you're knocked down, if you're not resilient, forget about developing any of these others. That's your foundation. You have to be resilient, because everybody's going to get knocked down. Damian: In other word’s resilience is about more than just reaching the pinnacle, it’s about even being in the game. Damian: From VirtuGO this is INSIDE. And today we’re talking about resilience. The essential coping skill to reach the pinnacle of your chosen discipline. We’ll take a look what it takes to reach the top even when you have everything you need, and then we’ll take a look at how you can cultivate resilience no matter what your starting point is. Damian: If we’re talking about someone with bucket loads of resilience, someone that reached the pinnacle of his sport, we can talk about Cadel - here he is talking to Jason Bennett about fear on ESPN’s Aussies Abroad. One of the biggest driving factors in successful athletes is fear, fear of failures, not being the best, crashes, injuries… something you learn with experience Damian: Cadel is talking directly about confronting the issues you can face as a professional athlete and I would go as far as to say that his story exemplifies resilience - even when he had everything to succeed. Cadel had always been one step ahead of the competition and my introduction to Cadel was arriving early one morning in the Australian ski resort town of Thredbo. The faint voice of a race announcer calls out the name Cadel Evans - so I quickly turn my head only to see a blur of colour disappearing in the distance. The year was 1993 and even then, as he sped off to victory in the under 17 National Championship race, he had an aura about him. And for good reason - he was that good that he went up to elite senior men’s class at national events a year early to push himself harder. This paid off when he raced an elite men’s XC World Cup in Cairns, Australia and placed fifth. A feat so remarkable the podium was extended to 5 people - a tradition that remains to this day. Fast forward 20 years later to December 2014 back in Australia on his original training ground outside of Melbourne riding up one of his favourite hills for the first time since he decided to retire, he had a moment of reflection while talking to another Australian track cycling legend, Shane Kelly about a brief return to to his original training grounds before his final months as a professional... Clip - The amount of dreams I had riding up there - Shane interview… Damian: Cadel fulfilled his dreams but as you heard at the start of the show - it wasn’t an easy road. In order to succeed he had to rely on his psychological resilience - what’s that you say? Well to help us understand this more, I enlisted the help of this guy... Clip: David Fletcher… Damian: Dr David Fletcher focuses on the psychology of performance excellence in sport, business and other performance domains. His work addresses how high achievers thrive on pressure and deliver sustained success. And he defines psychological resilience at its simplest level, as... David: It's about an individual withstanding or adapting to pressure, so there's sort of two elements to it the first one is the withstanding so it's this idea of you know where explain to kids at the simplest level is having this sort of protective force field around you which can deflect. A lot of the pressures that are coming in so they [00:01:00] don't they don't get through and they don't get to you and then I mentioned the other aspect is adapting to pressure it's this idea of bending and rebounding back so this idea of bounce back ability, and so if any of these pressures do get through they basically don't get through for long, or if they do they don't throw you off course too much. So that for me is to sort of elements to resilience and what we're trying to teach them teaching resilience in sport contexts, and it's probably worth. Just briefly saying what I don't think resilience is, and I don't think it's where. You have this break down under pressure and under stress it might be choking or it might be something a bit more prolonged where things are getting on top of you, and then you have to go through some Rehabilitation and counseling and you have to get back on track and that's not talk to ultimately say that. That's actually bad and inverted commas um that might actually help you in the longer term most [00:02:00] top-level athletes have had periods where they've really struggled and that's probably something we might want to pick up on later later on, but yeah, that's how I see resilience in terms of what it is, and what it isn't Damian: These two sides of psychological resilience play a really important role in our understanding of what it takes to protect yourself from failing from pressure. And here’s where I want to talk about Campbell Flakemore again - and I do want to recognise something here - it’s only because he was so brave in opening up and telling his story - that we can even go a bit deeper into the process of his decision to quit his short professional career - so this is not meant as disrespect - but the signs were there even before he signed a professional contract. In an interview with Rob Arnold from Ride Media right after his Under-23 World TT Championship win - and a year before quitting pro cycling - Flakemore talks about the doubts in his ability to withstand the pressure of international performance. Campbell: “There were times this year where I didn’t have many results and, for some reason, I just wasn’t in good shape from April through to July. I was just struggling a lot and those sort of thoughts were going through my mind a fair bit. ‘I can’t compete with these guys, and I’m just suffering, and I’m getting beaten, and I’m away from home, and it’s too hard…’ all those thoughts go through your mind but it’s like anything really, it just takes one or two good things and then you’re back. Then I was lucky with l’Avenir and worlds. And I think I made the right decision, that’s for sure.”Damian: Laying this out for everyone to see exposes how fragile confidence and performance can be. Especially if there isn’t something to fall back on - a solid support network for example. While it’s hard to read into Flakmore’s decision and find one main reason why he quit, there are a lot of signs when you read through his article that things could of been handled in a way to set him up for a higher chance of success. But for me it raises this question about how much of handling the kind of environments and setbacks experienced in pro sport is innate? I mean we all respond to pressure in different ways but what makes top level performers different? I asked Dr David Fletcher this but not after he talked about his own experience as a National level swimmer. A period in his life that gave him a chance to be surrounded by high level performers and spark his interest in studying these people. David: ...taking a look around it became very clear to me that some people were better at handling things than others, so it wasn't just about technique, and it wasn't just about brute strength and the gym it was also about what went on between people's ears and between training sessions as well, so yeah, that was a big part for me, Damian: and let's talk about that observation of the other people that you see around like everybody kind of knows those people. [00:06:00] The same to be able to get through those these difficult things these stresses these moments how much of it. Do you think is a innate? How much is it in the person before they do any training or we have any awareness about what's going on? David: Yeah, really good question that and there's there's a lot of discussion debate in the literature. I've been lucky enough to work with a lot of athletes now down the years, and I think that the truth of the answer is. Is that it is a significant proportion is innate and you don't have a great deal of control over IE you're born with uh certain genes, which predisposes you to handling pressure better, and there's a whole raft of different psychological factors. Elements relating to your personality. Could be things like being an optimistic individual, or it could be darker traits like narcissism and self-absorption and those types of things a whole raft of different [00:07:00] personality traits that are influenced by your genes and will enable you to work better under pressure, but that said that's not the whole part of the story if it was then there won't be much need for sports psychologists and to some extent coaches. There are also a lot of techniques that you can use. To improve your ability under pressure and stress, and you know the evidence for that is you know we're not all the same in our mid-20s or in our 30s, and we were when we were 11 years old and that's because we've grown. We've developed and we've we've we've learned different skills and strategies so. It is both, and it's you know. It's just like the physical skills so I mean if you talk you've got an advantage in certain sports like basketball Etc, but being tall on its own is not enough to excel in other sports. You need to um put the training in on top of that and I think psychology is just the same. I don't think there's any particular mystery there, I think. If you're kind of a change Rod [00:08:00] at the very top levels you need to have both the some of the genetic aspects of psychology, but also you've got to put in the the mental training and apply in training your physical training day in day out and also in competitions to. Damian: So David is basically saying that yes, you can naturally have more resilience, but it’s a matter of building on whatever you already have - something Cadel actually mentioned before, that dealing with setbacks is something that is much the same as building on your physical ability “like training your aerobic conditioning or training a skill”. It’s funny he mentions this other side because Cadel’s physical ability was never really in doubt as he progressed through his career - but his resilience was tested after that 2010 loss. We get an insight into this in his book, The Art of Cycling. You see when Cadel crossed the line in 42nd place on that stage 9 of the 2010 Tour de France he yells in his teammates ear ‘I’m sorry, I have a broken arm.’ His teammate can’t believe Cadel was able to keep going. Cadel recalls the day further in his book, where his BMC Team manager decides that it’s best to speak about his injury publicly where Cadel tells the press: ‘I suffer on my bike every day but I do it with pleasure. The guys and the team have supported me and believed in me in this whole project. I’m so sorry to have let them all down.’ My Tour de France is pretty much over. After the stage I think, ‘Well, OK, I can’t win the Tour so I’ll just ride to stay in the first ten.’ After a while, ‘OK, the first twenty-five.’ I’m in survival mode for the rest of the Tour. I just want to finish. Considering what I’ve been through, 24th on GC by the time we reach Paris is probably pretty good. Damian: Up until this point in Cadel’s career everything had been building towards to a Tour de France victory. And the 2010 results added up to failing to win for the sixth straight year. And to inject myself into the narrative - I like many of the people around me, and this troubles me to say, had pretty much given up hope that Cadel would ever make the top step of the podium in Paris. How Cadel responds here is where things get really interesting in the world of resilience. I haven’t been able to find anything about how exactly devastated Cadel was after the 2010 Tour result. But I believe this result and indeed all of the disappointments that preceded fed into what might have been the best thing that could have happened to him because things changed in the lead up to the next year - which I will get to in a moment. But first David actually supports this idea this type of loss and failure to motivate yourself.... David: there is data to suggest that you know a couple of failures along the way do act as a sort of springboard to go on and Achieve better things. You know maybe a fourth place that Olympics where I say failure and inverted commas I mean it's all relative, and it's this idea of you know the athletes that then realize just. How lucky they are to be on that stage how transient an elite-level career is and how temporary it can be and they can redouble their efforts when they go back to training they can more forensic [00:23:00] examine their training programs and Pathways remember chatting to sports scientist who?Closely uh work closely with Jeff Ennis and she didn't have a failure at the Olympics before London. It was an injury, but a major trauma nonetheless that prevented her from competing at the 2008 Beijing games, and he talked about how this or redoubled their efforts coming back from that injury in terms of leaving no stone unturned in terms of reflecting upon the training program taking lessons from. You know training sessions from competition subsequently and the felt that that sort of gave them a little bit of an edge at world-class level that then you know obviously the rest was history in terms of going on and winning. Gold gold medal, so yeah, I know I don't think. It's necessarily all about a childhood adversity. I think there's also major challenges and events that happen along the [00:24:00] way as well, which but and not just negative I might add there's also positive ones. You know if you got a major success at a certain point then that could be you know major motivating factor particularly at these big decision moments. Damian: So brings us to the preparation of the 2011 Tour de France - and lots of things changed. Not really a forensic examining of things - yet - but changes here and there. Spending Christmas in Europe for the first time in 7 years, less intensity in the early season, less training camps, but also having a real team around him - but then there’s the set back of a crash in training - and the way he frames this in The Art of Cycling sounds like someone that doesn’t get wiped out by a couple of weeks off the bike. He sees it as a chance to give his body a break, and he sees the upside of now being able to focus on other aspects of his preparation. Where he reviews his racing and training, tightens up his diet. Plus when he is able to ride, which builds from the first day with 30 seconds in the morning and then a minute and a half in the afternoon. Continuing in this fashion but enjoying the process and making every pedal stroke count. All of these details are important and we will come back to them in a moment but first - the 2011 Tour de France. Cadel’s odds of winning stood at 27 to 1. He was 34 years old, after all. Only one rider older than he was now had ever won the Tour de France. But even considering this change is Tour favourite status, the one thing he brought to the Tour this time was a calm that was most likely from anger. In Matt Fitzgerald's book How Bad Do You Want It? : Mastering the Psychology of Mind Over Muscle he talks about anger in this exact situation. Anger is not often thought of as a calming emotion, but the fed-up feeling that transforms failure into resilience is just that. Athletes who have everything it takes to succeed but lack the highest level of resilience are psychologically dependent on things going their way—on not facing too much adversity—in competition. This dependency makes them nervous and emotionally reactive. The fed-up athlete, on the other hand, no longer hopes for the uncontrollables to work out in his favor. He has resolved to take total responsibility for his racing, to avenge adversities past and future. This simmering determination gives the athlete a sense of agency and control that is calming. And this describes exactly where Cadel was and what he needed on stage 18. At 60.4kms to go the most decisive moment of the 2011 Tour de France happened… Clip: Andy attacking… Damian: It’s the second last climb of the day of a hilltop finish and no one will chase or work with Cadel. When he hits the final climb of the day he knows that he has to chase. And in The Art of Cycling we get a glimpse of his anger... At 8 ks to go the gap is 3:45John comes on the radio and says ‘Cadel you’re doing great, this is fantastic. Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter what happens at this Tour de France, you’ve already proved you're a champion.’But as I ride I’m thinking, ‘Fucking hell, if I don’t win this tour now, I’m going to be so fucking mad! So I ride and ride. Clip: Finishing stage Damian: Cadel goes on to beat the Schleck brothers in the penultimate days 42.5km time trial and rides the final stage to win the 2011 Tour de France. It’s a pretty epic tale but me and you are not done yet. I want to go behind Cadel’s resilience to help you bounce back from setbacks and David has being working on some practical recommendations... David: ...we've got a a practical paper out that came out. I think this year or two ago now on mental fortitude training, and that's really where we've tried to talk a lot more about the Practical implications of of the work that we've done. Damian: You heard him say it but I’ll say it again, David’s concept is called - Mental Fortitude Training and it focuses on three main areas. Personal qualities, facilitative environment, and challenge mindset to enhance performers’ ability to withstand pressure. The big key with Mental Fortitude Training is that although these three areas have been presented separately in practice they will need to be addressed and integrated together to maximise their effect. And so I thought we could take a look at David’s recommendations for each area but use Cadel as examples. Focus on Personal Qualities - Develop the psychological characteristics for excellence In other words developing the psychological factors that protect an individual from negative consequences. And while it doesn’t explain everything, Cadel thinks this a character assessment from Greg Baum of the Melbourne Age newspaper is spot on. It really says to me that he had psychological characteristics for excellence at the start but also focussed on developing them further. The Environment - Autonomy Supportive Climate He talks a lot about the role people played at each step of his career. Naming people and times where they helped and influenced him. And although it’s hard for me to say how different the support environment at BMC was to his other teams - but you cannot doubt that it was a very important factor in his approach to the 2010 and 2011 Tours that got through some difficult times. And especially the way he mentions that he won because BMC where riding so well as a team and overcoming setbacks. Mindset - Positively Evaluate and interpret the pressure they encounter I just mentioned it but it is very clear that Cadel slowly built up his ability to deal with all types of setbacks - mostly from experience. He knew they were a part of the process and I’m sure there were times when it wasn’t easy to deal with them but his results suggest he managed to reframe things and get through all the major setbacks he experienced over his career. The crash in training in 2011 is a great example of this - and the way he reframes this as a chance to give his body a break, and he sees the upside of now being able to focus on other aspects of his preparation. To wrap here, I encourage you to seek out more information about Mental Fortitude Training or anything thing that can cultivate resilience because as we’ve learnt - even if you have every opportunity - and are born with amazing resilience innately - much like physical training - there is always something to work to help you reach the pinnacle of your sport, and this might make the difference between just being in the game and achieving your dreams. Damian: INSIDE is produced by VirtuGO and hosted by me, Damian Ruse. If you enjoyed this show and you want to hear more - Subscribe on Apple Podcasts of wherever you listen. And tell your riding buddies - Thank you so very much for listening and we’ll see you next episode or out on the road.