Lessons from the Peloton
An ex-professional cyclist’s tips on surviving a tough crowd
By Leah Goldstein with Lori Friend Moger, M.Sc.
When I first started cycling, I raced in duathlons which includes running and biking. I trained very hard, and actually became the Israeli National Champion while I worked in the military. I took the competitions very seriously, as did most of my competitors, but the atmosphere still felt supportive and relaxed, as if we were all part of the same team and may the best person win.
Professional cycling never felt like that. Teammates yell at each other for not performing; opponents grab, push, even slap one another to get an advantage; and directors accuse their riders of being too stupid, slow and fat to survive the season. Yet, athletes are still expected to show up each week and give 100%.
I already had pretty thick skin when I became a pro cyclist. I had spent my teen years kickboxing my way to a world title and my twenties working in the Israeli military and police force. My experiences and my comparably older age gave me a head start in adapting to the stress and pressure, but I still managed to learn some valuable lessons from inside the churning, volatile pack called a peloton.
Know when to fight.
Think of the peloton as a microcosm of life, with your co-workers, boss, spouse and irritating neighbor all jockeying for position. Some of those people are friendly, some maybe not so; but regardless, they all want to win just like you. Those unfriendly sorts may try to throw you off your rhythm. They may verbally abuse you, cut you off or even physically interfere with your ride.
Most of that nonsense is intimidation, which I personally find desperate and more often than not, reveals their fear. During my first year of European racing, a Spaniard riding next to me grabbed my arm and tried to push me back. I ripped my arm away and calmly yelled at her, “You put your hand on me again, you’re going to lose it.” With rumors flying around about me (Israeli commandos, kickboxing and even my favorite, that I’d killed seven people), she believed me. But I also used my energy to set a precedent. You race, I’ll race. But don’t you dare try to intimidate me.
Know when to make friends.
A horrific downhill crash in 2005 nearly cost me my life, but instead just dislocated my shoulder, broke my arm, leg, foot, most of my teeth, shattered my pelvis and road-rashed the entire front of my body. Another rider had fallen into me, causing the tight peloton to collapse, and I ended up on the bottom. I rehabbed myself, got back on the bike, and started asking teams for a position. But they all said no. They didn’t want to take a chance on a broken body, and I could hardly blame them. So I started racing solo.
In my first multi-day stage race, I miraculously held the lead going in to the final day. But since I had no teammates to shield me from the wind, “pull” at the front, and attack the rest of the peloton, I was spent. I knew I couldn’t win alone. I approached a team director, a team not in contention, and made them an offer. If the team helped me win the final stage, I’d split the winnings with them. They jumped at the chance to make some cash, and worked incredibly hard to pull me to the finish. I won, and ended up joining their team for the next 2 seasons, which turned out to be the most successful of my career.
Don’t be afraid to take chances
We all have people telling us what to do, and I suppose sometimes we simply must follow orders. But, not always. I tend to be a skeptic, and a very independent thinker (which may surprise you, seeing that I survived the military). I’ve had trouble conforming since I was a child and always regarded experience as a much better teacher than, well, a teacher.
My cycling coaches and team directors constantly berated me for not following orders. I always trained too long, ate the wrong foods, set the pace too fast. And sometimes they were right. But just as often, I was. After my crash, the packed peloton made me feel so nervous (I had flashbacks for over a year) that I’d just take off at the gun and leave everyone else behind. My director would scream at me through the radio, “What in the (insert choice words here) are you doing Goldstein? Get back with the team!” But I couldn’t, and just churned my legs harder. I won many races just going it alone. For me, it was a gamble worth taking.
Never, ever, quit.
That’s what your competitors WANT you to do. And when a race isn’t going well, and the pedals feel like cement blocks, believe me, that’s all you can think about! Just quit, your brain screams, just think how great it will feel to unclip and lie down and just catch your breath! But then what? If you give in, the next time you entertain those thoughts it’ll be even easier to pull on the brakes and get in the follow car.
In Race Across the West, an 800 miler from Oceanside, CA to Durango, CO, I raced at threshold for over 24 hours straight. I couldn’t keep any food down, the temperature was over 105 F, and I was being beaten by a very tough ultra-distance legend, Seanna Hogan. I started steadying myself for defeat. It won’t be that bad to be second. You can learn something from losing too. But I never considered stopping. I trudged on, and somewhere down the road found a new reserve of strength. I eventually pulled into the lead, never looked back and set a new course record. Unless I was scraped off the pavement after a crash, in 13 years of racing I always, always, finished my race.
The only thing we can count on from life is obstacles, bumps and challenges. Will you fight? Will you quit? These decisions are made by design – we tend to do what we’ve always done. Practice being a fighter and taking risks. Convince yourself that you simply won’t give up on the task at hand. Over time, it gets easier. Practice, as they say, may not make perfect, but it makes habits. These small habits create an internal energy that your foes will fear and others will crave. You can create your own momentum for success – in the peloton and in life.
Leah Goldstein is an internationally sought-after speaker. She is a World Champion Kickboxer, Israeli Undercover Police Officer, National Cycling Champion, record holder of multiple ultra-distance cycling races and all-around crazy person. Leah’s memoir, “No Limits” is available now at www.leahgoldstein.com/book/ and all online retailers.
Lori Friend Moger, M.Sc. is a writer, speaker and Kinesiologist. She is co-founder (with Leah) of No Finish Line Living, a wellness company providing keynotes, seminars and retreats with the sole purpose of pushing people into their best lives possible. For more information, visit us at www.facebook.com/leahgoldstein1