The five stages of time trial grief

March 28, 2014 § 27 Comments

Clinical psychologists have worked since the 1950’s to explain and understand the mental processes that underlie time trialling. The most famous of these, “The Five Stages of Time Trialling Grief,” was developed by Wouter Herndydoo, a Belgian time trial psychologist who observed riders as they progressed through the phases of a time trial. His research created a paradigm that we still use today to analyze, understand, and to help riders cope with the emotionally devastating consequences of finding out that in the “race of truth,” everything they’ve convinced themselves of is, sadly, a lie.

At the San Dimas Time Trial today, where I participated (vaguely) in the 4.25-mile climb up Glendora Mountain Road, I observed numerous riders attempting to cope with the mental collapse inherent in such a challenging event. What follows is a primer for wives, girlfriends, husbands, and significant others who have to live with the ruined and psychologically destroyed bicycle racer after coming home from San Dimas, tail between legs, thin crust of salt on the brow, and a bag full of excuses about why he/she “just didn’t have it today.”

By monitoring your cyclist you will be able to observe as they progress through the 5 Stages of Time Trialling Grief, and you will be able to help them adjust to the “new normal”: that state where they realize the profundity of how badly they really suck.

The stages …

Denial — As the reality of going hard, uphill, full gas, for 20 minutes or more is hard to face, one of the first reactions that occurs the moment when the rider begins to swallow his tongue is Denial. What this means is that the time triallist is trying to shut out the reality or magnitude of the situation, and begins to develop a false, idealized, completely false reality. The biggest lie the rider tells himself is this: “I’m gonna catch my minute man.” The minute man, of course has vanished forever into the haze.

Anger — “Why me? It’s not fair!”; “How can this happen to me?”; ‘”Who made me sign up for this bullshit event?” are thoughts common to this phase. Once in the second stage, the rider recognizes that denial cannot continue, and not just because the wattmeter shows an average output of 98. Due to overwhelming pain flooding the things, shortness of breath, and being passed by three fat people in granny gears who started 3, 4, and 12 minutes back, the rider is very difficult to soothe with the typical lies that supporters shout while out on the course, e.g. “You’re killing it!” and “Looking good!” The anger leads to misplaced feelings of rage and envy. “Why am I so slow?” “Why is everyone shouting at me?” “Where am I?”, etc. Anger can manifest itself in different ways. The rider can be angry with himself (extremely rare), or with others (extremely common), and especially those who are passing him like he is chained to an outhouse while taking a dump. It is important to remain detached and nonjudgmental when dealing with a rider experiencing anger from time trial grief. Pretend that his lame justifications are true, and nod sympathetically. “I know you were in the wrong gear,” “They’re all doping,” and “What a bunch of sandbaggers!” will likely defuse much of the rage, along with a baby bottle and a fresh diaper.

Bargaining — “I’ll do anything for a few more seconds”; “I will give my life savings to buy some faster wheels”; “Time to start doping … more!” are common responses to getting shit out the back in the first kilometer up Glendora Mountain Road, or worse, averaging 31 mph for the first mile and then 7 mph for the rest of the course. This third stage involves the hope that the rider can somehow “pick it up” as the course gets progressively harder, or avoid finishing with a time that is unbearably humiliating when posted on Facebook, where his mother is usually watching. Usually, the negotiation for a faster time is made with a higher power (Dog, Buddha, THOG) in exchange for a reformed lifestyle (“I’ll never drink again!”; “I’m gonna lose 30 pounds starting TODAY!” and, most common, “I promise to start training — really!”). Other times, the flailer will use anything valuable as a bargaining chip against another human agency to extend or prolong the moment before total collapse. Psychologically, the individual is saying, “I understand I am a clogstacle-like boulder trying to roll uphill, but if I could just do something to buy more time … is it illegal to sell my children on eBay?” Riders facing less serious trauma can bargain or seek to negotiate a compromise. For example “Can I sit on your wheel for a few seconds while you pass? The ref’s not watching.” Bargaining rarely provides a sustainable solution, especially in time trials, since even if the passer is willing, the fact that he’s passing means the wheelsuck will eventually get shelled anyway.

Depression — “I’m so sad, why bother with pedaling?”; “I’m going to die soon so what’s the point?”; “I miss my Tuesday crit practice where I can cut the course and raise my hands in victory, so why go on?” During this fourth stage, the grieving rider begins to understand the certainty of a humiliatingly slow time that will be analyzed, pointed to, and laughed at behind is back or worse, to his face. The riders’s result will be a mid-pack finishing time for a Cat 4 beginner, a 9-year-old girl, or a fast walker on crutches. Much like the existential concept of “The Void,” the idea of riding, if not life itself, becomes pointless. Things begin to lose meaning to the rider, who no longer fantasizes about Campy electronic shifting, winning a sock prime, or moving up in the SoCal Cup standings from 79th to 77th. Because of this, the rider may become silent, refuse to talk to anyone after the ride, and spend much of the time crying and sullen. This process allows the grieving time triallist to disconnect from his teammates and sponsors possibly in an attempt to avoid further trauma in the form of having to do additional TT’s later in the season. Depression could be referred to as the dress rehearsal for this “aftermath.” It is a kind of acceptance with emotional attachment. “I’m a slug-like bat turd, but that makes me unhappy.” It is natural to feel sadness, regret, fear, and uncertainty when going through this stage, especially when your magazine is empty at Mile 2 and Phil Tinstman or Chris DeMarchi come by so fast that their draft almost knocks you over. Feeling these emotions shows that the rider has begun to accept the situation. Often times, this is the ideal path to take, to find closure and make his way to the fifth step, Acceptance of Wankerdom.

Acceptance — “I suck like an industrial drainpipe, and that’s okay.”; “I can’t fight it, I may as well prepare for getting my gonads stomped with spiked boots.”; “All the women are faster than me, and the men, too. And the children. Such is life.” In this last stage, riders begin to come to terms with their utter unsuitability for time trialling despite the finest equipment, the slipperiest helmet and clothing, and no matter how many times they parade around on the Parkway on a TT bike. This stage varies according to the rider’s situation. Riders who have died a particularly awful death on, say, an uphill TT like GMR, can fantasize about alternate realities such as, “I’m really a sprinter.”; “I’m more of a rouleur.”; “Actually, I’m best at recovery.” TT-dead riders can enter this stage a long time before the people who have passed them, often close friends and teammates who just think their pal is a total wanker and hungover rather than someone whose entire collection of bike paraphernalia is about to wind up on Craigslist. Years later, the rider typically accepts a calm, retrospective view, such as that often heard by Fields, who is known to say, “What a stupid sport,” and “Bike racing is such a colossal waste of time.”

Anyway, I hope this re-cap helps, because tomorrow it’s going to be even worse with the road race. Good luck.

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You can ensure that I’ll be able to afford extended grief counseling after today’s TT (3oth out of 55 with a wankish time of 19:34) by subscribing to the blog! Everything here is true except for the parts I’ve made up, which is all of it. Click here and select the “subscribe” link in the upper right-hand corner. I’ll be glad you did.

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