The Hump

There was a time, not very long ago, when the average fan’s perception of Cadel Evans was not entirely favorable. Clearly a huge talent, Evans’ demeanor suggested a lack of maturity, a tendency to whine and the distinct impression that the biggest prizes would elude him. Perhaps it was the influence of the late Aldo Sassi, perhaps it was winning a World Championship, perhaps it was getting married, but Evans finally got himself over the hump.

It was a patient and tempered effort that saw the Australian win last year’s Tour de France. Where once he might have bemoaned his bad luck or chided his teammates for not being more helpful, Evans finally assumed responsibility for his own destiny. Think back to Stage 18 of that Tour when he responded alone to the attack of Andy Schleck, dragging the Luxembourger back by sitting on the front of a chasing group, grinding out the gap and keeping Schleck in his GC sights. He neither panicked, nor asked for help. While it was the Stage 20 time trial that finally put him in yellow, it was the bravura performance on the way to the Galibier that won him the Tour.

Just how Evans transformed himself from a not-entirely-convincing contender to a worthy champion is a mystery. Somehow he dragged himself over that hump. From my perspective, the hump is as important as it is hard to define.

Following on from last week’s Group Ride, can we ask: Is Brad Wiggins over the hump? He’s won a handful of one week stage races, including this season’s Paris-Nice and Dauphiné. He has World Championships on the track, and time trial medals from World Championships on the road. He is highly accomplished. There is no doubt. But can he win a Grand Tour?

Third at last year’s Vuelta, fourth in the 2009 Tour, he is nearly there. But the distance between third and first in Paris is more than the two foot rise from the third podium step to the first. There is a mile of luck and a bit more in experience necessary to bridge that gap.

If you look at Wiggins, tilt your head to one side and squint just right, you can imagine that all the bluster he summons in the press, the sarcasm and arrogance that some interpret as supreme confidence, is just the opposite. It is the demeanor of an elite athlete still harboring doubts about his ability to mount those last two steps and a resentment perhaps that, despite already achieving so much, he is expected to do more.

Andy Schleck, who has now withdrawn from the 2012 Tour, finds himself in the same purgatory as Wiggins. “Winner” of the 2010 Tour after Alberto Contador’s doping conviction, Schleck has never won a stage race on the road as a full professional. He has done everything but, standing on consecutive podiums, winning white jerseys, taking stage wins, but never bridging that last, narrow gap, never making it over the hump.

What’s it about? Is it an unwillingness to improve his time trialling skills? Despite hemorrhaging time to his opponents in every time trial he rides, he steadfastly refuses to do the basic work to be better, or even in some cases to pre-ride the courses to know what challenges await him. Is it maybe a reluctance to attack? How many times have we seen young Andy looking around an elite group, waiting for someone else to make a move? Or are all of these things together indicative of being stuck in second place without the maturity to accept and conquer his shortcomings?

One rider who appears to have been born over the hump is Alberto Contador. Discount him as a doper if you will, but that seems too facile when you consider the mental approach and discipline the Spaniard has taken on his way to a string of impressive, if tainted, Grand Tour wins. He has been audacious when audacity was called for, calm when when he needed to be, strong when he was under attack from within his own team and imperious when accused of cheating. He is a rider of great talent, but also of supreme self-possession, and that, in essence, is what the hump is about. To be self-possessed is to understand your own outer limits, to accept that there is no one else who can take you there, and to have the focus to get there.

Now, it will be easy to read this post and flame it, just as it was easy for me to say that the guys who’ve won the Tour are over the hump and those who haven’t aren’t. In elevating Contador, who is cooling his heals after a doping positive, I am praising the wrong man. And yet, I can’t escape this feeling that what separates Evans and Contador from Wiggins and Schleck is not physical. There is something more. It falls under the umbrella of maturity and mental toughness, of luck and tactical nous. To win the Tour de France, the stars must align, but you must also be ready for them to align.

Until then, you train in Mallorca, you screw around with your nutrition, your race schedule and your bike set up. You change teams. You change coaches. You train on feel or you devote yourself to studying power numbers. You weigh your food on a scale. You switch roommates.

All just hoping to get over the hump.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @thebicyclerobot

Image: Fotoreporter Sirotti

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21 comments

  1. michael

    brilliant piece Robot.

    As an add, you could see Hesjedal, quite literally, growing to the occasion and realize that the crest of the hump was just in front of him at the Giro. Stars aligning indeed, your thoughts could not have been laid to paper at a finer moment after we just witnessed it happening live over the last month.

  2. Peter Lin

    Enjoyed the post. I think too many people discount or downplay the importance of mental preparation. I’ve heard people say things like “the only reason x won is they doped.” My own experience with friends on the football team tells me differently. I know guys that used, but could never make a significant contribution despite impressive bench press and squat stats. Then there’s guys who had the magic mix of mental and physical that produced great results. It didn’t matter the guys on the other team were 40-60lbs bigger.

    Clearly cheating is dishonest, but the factors to success is far more than just physical. A sport that illustrates this is short track speed skating. Often, the winner isn’t the fastest skater. It’s the person that is mentally prepared and focused. The mind is a powerful tool.

    I’d love to see the schleck brothers get the mental toughness needed to win the tour, but it’s anyone’s guess. I’d love to see Cancellara win the tour too.

  3. Professor Salt

    Getting over The Hump isn’t crossing a hard line in the sand; it’s crossing a creek that you hope isn’t a raging river the next time you face it.

    Look at guys like Cunego – won a Giro early in his career, and has been struggling to get over The Hump ever since. Salvodelli, too. Were those victories a matter of luck and the circumstance of the parcours and rivals they faced at time? Can the wins be attributed to their abilities to persevere despite their shortcomings in skillsets like time-trialing?

    Whatever the case, I’m glad Cadel transformed himself from a whiny also-ran into an attacking cannibal. Good on ya, Cadel, and good story, Robot.

  4. Chromatic Dramatic

    Certainly there is a transformation in Cadel. Almost polar opposite, but I think a little of that is being liberated from expectations (other than is own of course).

    I can’t talk for a “hump” per se, but my own experience from lots of sports is that the mental game is incredibly important. The best example I’ve seen is in volleyball. The teams that are full of bravado / confidence / celebrate every point, most of the time come out victors, even if they are not the better team.

    Great article.

  5. Tominalbanay

    The hump. Interesting discussion. I’ve been looking for the hump for years. It seems I’ve never been going in the right direction to get there. Then, suddenly, I realize I’m not finding the hump and I know exactly which direction to go. That direction is the opposite of that to which I am running…

    That said, some people cross the hump without achieving the success. It’s a realization and acceptance of their limitations. It’s not giving in to them. It’s working on them. Working so hard you puke yet, it’s just not good enough. It’s not good enough yet you continue to fight the good fight. Because, THAT’S what getting over the hump really is.

  6. Tominalbanay

    …It’s looking the fear of “I’m just not good enough” straight in the eye and saying “I MUST KNOW!” and not, “What if I’m not?”

  7. PowerRobbingFlex

    I think there may be more than a coincidental relationship between Evans’ “improvements” and the establishment of the biological passport, and the implementation of an actual EPO/CERA test.

  8. Mike

    Not sure that I would place Contador in that mature category actually. There have been too many instances over the past four years when he has let his exuberance get the best of him by not following a simple race tactic.

    While guys like Vinokorov can get away with a seat of your pants, screw generally accepted tactics, approach, Contador can not because he is held to a higher, GC standard.

  9. Sidamo

    Are people not ignoring the elephant in the room; doping? It’s no coincidence that Cadel started doing really when when the bio-passport started to bite. His performances now (in W/kg terms) are more or less the same as 5-6 years ago, except now 5.9-6.0W/kg is enough to win a mountain stage whereas before it would see you dropped with a km to go.

    Evans hasn’t suddenly got better, it’s more that the field has come back to him, and, whereas before he was hanging on for grim death (boo! wheelsucker etc.), now he’s got a bit of reserve for the odd attack (yay! panache, etc.)

  10. Adam

    Brilliant piece Robot, even if I do agree with some others here that if you ‘as if’ Cadels’ prior 10 years to take out convicted dopers he’d be one of the most successful riders of his generation.
    Agree on Contador, I’d say Boonen and Cav were also born over the hump as is Sagan. I used to think Cunego was too, but then went the wrong way.

  11. Robot

    @Adam – OMG SAGAN! That kid is a monster. When someone that young is so dominant, and I’ve seen this in other sports as well, I usually think, “He just doesn’t know he’s not supposed to win.” There is a lot of power sometimes in naivety.

  12. Steve in Duluth

    If there was a moment, it was when Cadel soloed away to win the World Championship. It was a huge, career-validating triumph. He won by attacking, and earned the respect of a lot of us critics.

    I don’t know if I buy the whole “hump-moment” theory, but it’s a useful way of marking the career of an athlete. Evans is definitely a different rider than he was a couple of years ago–perhaps doping controls help, but that doesn’t explain all of it. The man who clawed back within reach of Andy Schleck on the Galibier last year is not the same rider who helplessly watched Carlos Sastre ride away with the Tour on Alpe D’Huez in 2008.

    I don’t know what changed, but something did. And I still think he will win this July.

  13. Alex TC

    Robot, this was a brilliant piece! Congrats, I totally agree with you. I also marvel at this intangible and how it works in cycling in general and the TdF in specific. Great, great insight! Thnx!

  14. Champs

    The rise of Evans has nothing to do with dope. He made his own bed.

    After years of Tour disappointment in which Lotto’s accomplishments amounted to Wim Vansevnanant winning the lanterne rouge for several years running and a few freelance sprints by Robbie McEwen, Evans signed a multi-year extension in 2008. Lo and behold, his 2009 campaign was another disappointment.

    The moment things turned around is when he rode for AUSTRALIA at worlds that year. That rainbow jersey broke his Stockholm Syndrome, bought him out of his Lotto contract, and put him in BMC, a team actually dedicated to him *winning*.

  15. LD

    As the great Gilles Villeneuve once said (on describing what it takes as you enter a high speed corner on the absolute limit),
    “It Is better to KNOW you can, than to think you can.”
    Belief in your whole being is the obvious ingredient but until you KNOW what it FEELS like to win, that last step to the top can be as elusive as spotting the tooth fairy.

  16. Bruce says

    Maybe a combination of things for Cadel – more even playing field, a key victory re-igniting his confidence, better team environment and possibly the hump experience factor – should other riders have contributed more when Andy was ridden off in Stage 18 of the 2011 TdF ? They should have – watch the earlier footage and you can see Cadel trying to gather some support but it wasn’t forthcoming and it is then that his experience told him “if I want it, then it’s down to me”. So we saw him haul contenders up the mountain, rather than being consumed by stress when they wouldn’t contribute.
    As to “watched Carlos Sastre ride away with the Tour on Alpe D’Huez in 2008″ -that doesn’t do justice to the CSC plan or team strength – Frank was the real threat from the same team. Chase Carlos and you know what is going to happen (as it did when Frank jumped around at the top of the Galibier in 2011) … and Frank had Andy to lend a hand to close gaps. And for whatever reason Valverde seemed interested in lending a helping hand there too. Alpe D’Huez pretty much rolled out as a lose / lose situation … a great team with the right strategy. The possibility that Sastre’s TT would falter was the chance Cadel had to take.

  17. thelastbard

    Another (slightly tainted) example would be of Erik Dekker. Once he got his first stage win at the TdF, he went from a tireless worker to a tireless rouler in the spirit of Jens Voigt. Bagged a big one day victory at Amstel for the home team of Rabobank, in front of Armstrong. Had many more stage victories. But in light of the stories and off-the-record accounts now coming out after Rassmusen was let go by the Dutch team and mounting evidence from jaded former support staff of Boogerd’s “assistance” substances, it colors his rise in a different light.

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  19. Big Mikey

    Marvelous post, Robot. One of your best, actually.

    People/teams have to learn how to win, usually by losing in the finals, or at then end of a long struggle.
    Evans broke through, and has raced with total panache since the worlds victory. He’s a pleasure to watch, and he does his talent proud.

    I read Wiggins’ words in an interview, and he comes off poorly. There might be something to your theory that he’s not totally confident.

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