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The Hidden Motor: The Psychology of Cycling

The Hidden Motor: The Psychology of Cycling

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The Hidden Motor: The Psychology of Cycling

236 Seiten
5 Stunden
Aug 31, 2016


Cycling is one of the world’s great sports. From The Tour de France to the Paris-Roubaix to velodromes across the globe, it encompasses many disciplines: from climbing mountains to massed sprints to the loneliness of the time trial.

But what separates race winners from the nearly men? Top cyclists are physically similar, train the right way, eat the right things, and yet there is something that separates them. It’s their hidden engine – not a secret mechanical aid - but what’s between their ears that makes the difference.

In this superbly-researched and accessible book for fans of cycling, psychologist and cycling author Martijn Veltkamp gets to the heart of the supremely demanding and challenging sport of professional cycling, and the mental side of performance that drives success. He addresses fundamental questions in an easy-to-read way, including: what motivates riders and how does motivation affect performance? Where does a rider’s fear of descending originate from, and how do you get rid of it? Why do some cyclists succumb under pressure, whilst others do not? Why is cycling on your own mentally more challenging than when in a group?

Written for connoisseurs of cycling, but equally rewarding for general readers, the book examines cycling from the viewpoint of classic psychological studies, and stage and race histories, as well as interviews with former professional riders. The Hidden Motor is a must-read book for anyone who wants to know all about this most exceptional of sports.

This book is the English language translation of De Verborgen Motor, originally published in The Netherlands in 2015.

Aug 31, 2016

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The Hidden Motor - Martijn Veltkamp

The Hidden Motor: The Psychology of Cycling


Martijn Veltkamp


[Smashwords Edition]


An imprint of Bennion Kearny


Published by Dark River, an imprint of Bennion Kearny Ltd

Copyright © 2016 Uitgeverij Prometheus

Original Title: De verborgen motor

This edition published by agreement with Uitgeverij Prometheus

ISBN: 978-1-911121-18-3

All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.

This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that it which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Dark River has endeavoured to provide trademark information about all the companies and products mentioned in this book by the appropriate use of capitals. However, Dark River cannot guarantee the accuracy of this information.

Cover image used under license from Adobe.

Published by Dark River, an imprint of Bennion Kearny Limited

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Table of Contents

Title Page

About the Author



1: Time Trials: How Strong is the Lonely Cyclist?

2: Lead Groups: Speedsters versus Slowpokes

3: Team Spirit: A Team is More than its Members

4: Great Expectations: Coppi’s and Giant-Alpecin’s Trust

5: Mental Breaking Points: How to Lose the Tour de France

6: Fear: The Fall of Wiggins

7: Social Dilemmas: The Decision in the Amstel Gold Race

8: The Balance of Power: from Raleigh to Sky, from Badger to Spartacus

9: Leadership: Oh Captain, My Captain

10: Motivation: Fondriest’s Milan-San Remo

11: Setting Goals: Jalabert’s Fata Morgana

12: Willpower: The Strength of the Lion of Flanders

13: Doping: Psychology in Practice



1. Time Trials: How Strong is the Lonely Cyclist?

2. Lead Groups: Speedsters versus Slowpokes

3. Team Spirit: A Team is More than its Members

4. Great Expectations: Coppi’s and Giant-Alpecin’s Trust

5. Mental Breaking Points: How to Lose the Tour de France

6. Fear: The Fall of Wiggins

7. Social Dilemmas: The Decision in the Amstel Gold Race

8. The Balance of Power: from Raleigh to Sky, from Badger to Spartacus

9. Leadership: Oh Captain, My Captain

10. Motivation: Fondriest’s Milan-San Remo

11. Setting Goals: Jalabert’s Fata Morgana

12. Willpower: The Strength of the Lion of Flanders

13. Doping: Psychology in Practice

Other Books from Bennion Kearny

Tipping The Balance: The Mental Skills Handbook For Athletes

Coaching For The Zone: A Practitioner’s Guide to Coaching for Business and Sport 

The 7 Master Moves of Success

The Bundesliga Blueprint: How Germany became the Home of Football

Bendelow and Kidd's Dictionary of Football

Golf Tough: Practice, Prepare, Perform and Progress

FIFA Football: The Story Behind The Video Game Sensation

About the Author

Martijn Veltkamp is a psychologist based in The Netherlands. He obtained his PhD from the University of Utrecht in 2009, and specializes in motivation and behaviour. He is a passionate cyclist, writer, and follower of cycling.

For more information, please visit

Twitter: @MartVelt


I would like to thank a number of people who were of great help during the process of writing this book. First the (former) pro riders and experts for sharing their experiences with me, namely Greg van Avermaet, Gert Jakobs, Harm Kuipers, Henk Lubberding, Steven Rooks and Tom Veelers. Matthijs Nikolai Bal, Olivia Butterman, Thomas van Rompay, Gert Veltkamp and Johan Fjodor Verwoerd provided valuable suggestions and constructive comments on early versions of several chapters in the book, for which I would like to thank them a lot. I am very grateful to Michiel Rouwenhorst and Egbert Veltkamp for critically reading the entire first draft of the manuscript, and Marieke van Oostrom, Mariska Kortie and Inez Veneberg at Prometheus for their endless detailed comments and suggestions while editing the manuscript; it really translated to a much better end result! A great thank you to Niels Stegeman for the good and swift translation of ‘de Verborgen motor’ into ‘The Hidden Motor’, and James Lumsden-Cook at Bennion-Kearny for the many suggestions to optimize the English text. Finally, and last but not least I like to thank Laura, for the many discussions on the content as a fellow psychologist, but also for providing me with the opportunity to spend so much time on this book, time that for sure could have been spent elsewhere.


There was a time when almost everyone was just dying to take apart Fabian Spartacus Cancellara’s bicycle.

A conspiracy theory, in 2010, claimed that the vigorous Swiss had won both the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix with the help of a motor hidden somewhere in his bicycle, and not on his own merit. Even now, the internet still abounds with clips showing Cancellara speeding away from Tom Boonen on the Kapelmuur in the final lap. Large, red arrows pointing towards the Swiss’ handlebars, combined with frames so enlarged they become vague, near Impressionist smears, suggest that Spartacus used so-called ‘mechanical doping’ or, in other words, activated his mysterious motor.¹ The question, therefore, is – would we uncover the Swiss’ big secret were we to cut up his bicycle?

When a racing cyclist performs so splendidly that he outraces his competitors with apparent ease, as Cancellara did in 2010, is it any wonder that both friend and foe want to figure out the secret to a rider’s success? And, aside from speculation about hidden motors, what about more likely suppositions regarding illicit substances? Especially when we take into account the abundance of doping scandals in the 1990s. Whatever the case, when a supreme performance is delivered, to many people, mysterious forces appear to be at work.


Mysterious Forces at Work in Sport was a book that was published way back in 1941. Its author, sports journalist Joris van den Bergh, described how people in many different branches of sport are capable of extraordinary achievements based on their mental strength. There is a reason why people such as Gert-Jan Theunisse – mountain jersey and Alpe d’Huez stage winner in the Tour de France back in the 1980s – commented that, as far as he was concerned, the mind is the key to success. Or, as he put it: Climbing is, above all, mental labour. Whatever the head is grinding away at, when you’re in the mountains, it affects the body nearly 100%.²

As we shall see in this book, what Theunisse says about climbing applies equally to all other race elements and terrains. The mind is the invisible, mysterious power they were already writing about in 1941, but it is also the power that, with all the doping scandals nowadays, seems to be in danger of being forgotten.

When viewed in this light, Fabian Cancellara is indeed racing with a hidden motor. A very strong and silent one: his mind. A few years after the rumours about a hidden motor in his bicycle, he won the Hell of the North for the third time in his career. Unlike previous victories, the champion that year was decided at the finish line itself, in a duel with the Flem Sep Vanmarcke.

Cancellara’s preparation for the race was far from ideal, falling twice in the week before Paris-Roubaix. In the race itself, no one wanted to take the lead in Cancellara’s group. He was the absolute and only favourite, and his competitors felt that if they raced him to the finish, they’d lose well before the end.

The race turned out to be an incredibly tough event, with Cancellara cycling from a practically hopeless position to the lead position, finally defeating Vanmarcke in the final dash. Once across the finish line, he dropped from his bicycle in total exhaustion. He lay stretched on the grassy centre of the historic cycling track of Roubaix, and needed to be supported by two aides as he made his way to the stage, completely spent.

He produced only barely coherent words in the interview following the ceremony. He explained, in English far worse than people were used to, that finishing solo was always good, but that today he had to fight the entire way – all the way to the end. But it was a fight he fought nonetheless: My head and my legs simply wanted to take me this far.

This statement is a testament to pure willpower. When your body is aching and every fibre cries out that it’s time to stop and you can’t go on, willpower stubbornly gets you across the finish line, to victory.

There are times when a sportsman can go beyond the limitations of his body. The French cyclist Joël Pelier, for example, was so driven to finish well on the 17th stage of the 1986 Tour de France, that immediately upon arriving on the Col de Granon, he had to be put on a ventilator and ended up in a 7-hour coma.³ That is the powerful, hidden strength of the mind.

Ever since the publication of Mysterious Forces in 1941, there have been many changes in the world of sport, and cycling, but also in psychology. The past decades have seen many studies that better explain why sportsmen and women behave the way they do. With cycling, a number of profound questions have been asked. Why is cycling alone – as per a time trial – so much harder than in a group? Why does one bad day in a grand Tour mean nothing but bad luck for one team, while another team with double the effort and enthusiasm succeeds in every escape? Why can a cyclist who just became a father suddenly perform so much better than before? Why does a lead group with five riders work so much better together than a group of 15? These are all questions that can be explained by looking at the sport through the lens of psychology.

The purpose of this book is to provide insights into the mental aspects of cycling and sport by examining examples from big cycling races and psychological studies that explain the course of these races. We’ll find out how Bradley Wiggins developed a sudden fear of descents in the 2013 Giro d’Italia, and what he could have learned from Gianni Bugno in this regard. We’ll see why Filippo Pozzato lost the 2009 Paris-Roubaix, and why Fausto Coppi made incredible getaways that no one else dared.

This book is an overview of the most important mental aspects of sports cycling. These are aspects people will find easy to recognise watching a race on television, and which cyclists will also feel themselves… when they’re trying to motivate themselves, and when preparing for or participating in races.

To set us off on our journey, the first chapter will discuss cycling as both a team sport and a solo venture. Let’s get started!

1: Time Trials: How Strong is the Lonely Cyclist?

Despite cycling being a team sport at heart, to many outsiders it seems more like a solo sport. After all, there are a handful of favourites (nearly always mavericks) and races are won by individual riders not complete teams.

However, as followers of cycling know all too well, a rider cannot compete successfully without being part of a team, and within any team – riders have individual roles to play. They contribute in their own way to the group’s strategy to help ensure that one rider in the team ultimately triumphs.

Time trials form a special discipline in cycling. While cycling in and of itself is a real team sport, it is here that a rider must suddenly bike alone, followed only by a car with a team manager. Time trials are viewed by riders themselves as the most difficult discipline because the rider has only himself to rely on. So, why is cycling alone so much harder than in a group?

To find the answer to that question we have to go back to 1898. At the time, professional sports cycling was still relatively new, as was behavioural psychology. This period, at the close of the 19th century, saw the birth of one cycling race after another, such as the first edition of Paris-Roubaix which was inaugurated in 1896. In 1898, this race was won in an impressive manner by the Frenchman Maurice Garin, who won by more than 20 minutes over the second place finisher. Garin, known as the ‘little chimney sweeper’ (he was only 1.63 metres tall and was indeed a professional chimney sweeper), is mostly known nowadays for winning the first Tour de France in 1903.

1898 was also the year when American researcher Norman Triplett performed a ground-breaking study that marked the rise of two psychological movements: social psychology and sports psychology.¹ Triplett was an ardent cycling enthusiast (he followed American races with great interest); his study was therefore about cycling.

Triplett noticed that, depending on the type of race, the average speed proved very changeable. This was only partially a surprise, as in those days (in America) it was very much in vogue to ride behind a motorised pacesetter. Indeed, some events saw cyclists ride behind them for the entire race! Nowadays, this discipline (known as a derny race, thanks to the anorexic motors made by the French manufacturer Derny) has almost completely disappeared from the racing schedule. As anyone who has ever ridden behind a motor car or other cyclist will know, it’s easy to gain higher speeds in a slipstream compared to battling the wind head on. It follows that a cyclist will ride more slowly in an individual time trial, when not behind a motor vehicle.

But there’s another factor aside from the effects of slipstream and wind. Triplett requested the results of all American cycling races from 1897 and calculated the average speed of each race. Based on more than 2,000 pieces of data, he reached the following average speeds for each type of race:

As expected, the riders in individual time trials were significantly slower than those in individual derny races. What was interesting, however, were the higher race speeds attained when riding in groups with a derny. The objective circumstances were almost the same for both individual derny and group races with riders experiencing the same effects with regards to wind and slipstream.

Certain factors may explain these differences. Individual but not group races have a flying start, and group but not individual races benefit from a slipstream advantage. In derny races, this advantage remains for group riders where in the final laps the derny motor leaves the track. But Triplett took such differences into account. Apparently, there was another factor causing cyclists riding in groups to go faster.

The difference in speeds intrigued Triplett. He suspected it had nothing to do with factors like physical conditions, equipment or race circumstances. Rather, or so he reasoned, it was the presence of other riders which made those groups perform better.

To confirm his suspicions, Triplett did the same research in a different setting, where factors such as equipment, wind and weather were not relevant.¹ He invited children to visit his laboratory at the University of Indiana, and fashioned a simple game using fishing rod reels. By attaching a red flag to the fishing line and running the line out along a 4-metre long ‘race track’, the children could wind the reel and make the flag go from A (the ‘start’) to B (the ‘finish’). During the experiment, the children were asked to race the flag to the finish line a number of times, as fast as they could. Half the children did this game alone (thus simulating the individual time trial); the other half did the game in a group – all starting on their own race track together. And as with the results of the 1897 cycling season, the children playing in a group finished faster than those children playing alone.

In short, when a rider races as part of a group it releases, as Triplett put it, hidden powers that a rider normally does not possess. Psychology calls the effect Triplett demonstrated ‘social facilitation’. You could therefore say that while time trials are not, by definition, a more difficult discipline, cycling as part of a group is easier.

The phenomenon that cyclists have things a bit easier when in a group is robust, and still has an enormous influence on sports cycling more than 100 years after Triplett’s research. The same phenomenon applies to training, too: training in a small group is easier than training solo. There are several explanations as to why riders in a group have it just a little bit easier mentally.

First of all, the competitive element is more present. While a rider in a time trial is battling for victory, he never sees his competitors, and can therefore never be motivated by their speed or tired gazes to push his boundaries that little bit more. Furthermore, a rider in a group can rely on his teammates for mental support at times when he’s completely done in. And finally, a rider in a time trial, not being distracted by other cyclists, necessarily reflects much more on his own thoughts and worries. This doesn’t have to present a problem as long as he feels he’s riding a good time trial, but should things not be going well, doubts soon settle in and concentration goes out the window.

All these mental factors, combined, can cause a rider to lose minutes over large distances in a time trial – even when a rider is physically and conditionally as strong as anyone else. The best time trial champions of the current generation all confirm this. Take the German Tony Martin, multiple time trial world champion, who has the rather tasteless nickname der Panzerwagen (the armoured car). He summarises the reason for his dominance in time trials since 2011: "To me, riding time trials is all about the mind. You need

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