Throughout the 2015 season, Herbalife presented by Marc Pro – Strava up-and-comer Chris Harland-Dunaway will provide an insider’s perspective on the trials, tribulations, agony, ecstasy and adventures of racing on an elite cycling team.
I remember my first big bike race, a stage race called Merco. Brand new to elite cycling and not knowing what to expect, I rolled to the startline with my teammates. Over on the far side of the road, the pros from Optum were chatting it up. On the other side, there was Phil Gaimon and his Bissell teammates, stoically sitting on their toptubes, very much in the zone and ready to rip the race apart. I was nervous and tired. I had only slept three hours the night before, tossing and turning.
I looked down at my feet, remembering an anecdote my high school cross-country coach offered before big races. It was about a girl he coached in the 90s — her name is all over our school’s record boards. She didn’t sleep at all the night before the cross-country state meet… and still won.
His lesson was simple: consistency is king. You see, this high school running phenom went to bed early every night and was always properly rested. When the state meet came around, one sleepless night wouldn’t stop her from winning.
At the end of Stage 1 of Merco, I was fine. I never got dropped, I felt great on the climbs, and I finished on the peloton’s time. No disaster. In the weeks leading up to it, I was well rested and my body was ready. On a day-to-day basis, I had been looking after myself.
Over the years, I’ve relied increasingly on consistency to get me through the rough and tumble life of elite racing. I now have a list of seemingly minor things that help me perform my best. This didn’t come without some interesting lessons and experiments. I have slept on a bare hotel floor a couple of times, the back of my minivan, a walnut orchard in the Central Valley, numerous budget hotels, in kid-sized bunk beds made available by gracious host houses, and an array of different inflatables with various advertised guarantees for restful comfort. (Many of these claims were untrue.)
The key is that I always bring my own pillow, the one I sleep on every night. No matter what sort of questionable bed scenario I am offered, the familiarity of my pillow helps me relax and sleep. There have been times I’ve left my pillow behind in hotels — extremely tragic. My solution: get an absurd pillowcase. Ninja Turtles, Frozen, tie-dye, paisley, pastels, whatever. Make sure it’s impossible to miss during your final sweep of the hotel room.
The second development in my adaptation to unpredictable circumstances on the road was coffee. Sadly, I have been unable to stop my unrelenting slide into coffee snobdom. Solution: I bring my single-serve pour-over equipment with me, replete with a basic grinder and my favorite beans. It may seem absurd, but the implications are more than simply getting satisfactory coffee. I drink it every morning to start my day, so if I’m waking up from a mattress laid unceremoniously in the backroom of a house in Silver City, New Mexico, my day always starts the same way. The comfort of routine should never be underestimated.
The comfort of routine should never be underestimated.
Something else I learned: You may not have a grandfather clock that ticks excessively loud inside of your studio apartment. But your host house might. Always bring earplugs, regardless of whether or not your teammate snores like a sleeping bear. Anticipate variability, and then snuff if out with your earplugs.
Sleep is important, but there comes a point where it’s time to stop overthinking everything. If you’re fretful about getting to sleep, it’s probably going to be hard to get to sleep.
You care about sleep because you care about your performance as an athlete. The paradox of pouring so much energy and passion into your sport is that when it comes to the travails of travel and competition, you need to try to care a little less. You can’t control whether the strongest team will try to split the peloton in the crosswinds. You can’t control whether the climbers will light it up on the first hill of the day. You can’t control whether the sprinters will treat tomorrow’s crit like blood sport and try to elbow you out of the front of the race. Although for real, sprinters, some of you need to stop being meatheads.
As summarized by a rider far more accomplished than me, “You can only control the controls.” Let go of the endless scenarios about how your race could go.
There are still lessons to learn about your performance and how to do better. These become evident after the race, not before. Stop endlessly rehearsing your season goal in your head the night before. Everything you have learned in the races and training leading up to the big one is built on your race instinct.
My friend’s dad used to say, “Dinner is for eating, not for talking.” In the same vein, bedtime is for sleeping, not for thinking about the vagaries of sport and what will happen tomorrow.