Coach’s Corner: Jonathan Vaughters on early season psychology

    The early part of the year is always a fascinating study in human psychology in the world of professional cycling. Or maybe I should say sociology, as the variables involve many different players and a broad social ecosystem. Guiding riders through the first part of the year is by far the trickiest time of the entire season as both a coach and a manager.

    What’s the challenge? Well, as the old adage goes, “you never get a second chance at making a first impression.” Riders want to make a good first impression to teams, directors want to make a good impression to managers, and managers want to make a good first impression to sponsors. The rationale extends far beyond keeping the important people happy. No, that would be too simple. The underlying motive of all this first impression making is, like most things in life, money.

    A rider who racks up a great early season stands a good chance of signing an agreement with either his own team or another team quite early in the year. This will not only give the rider comfort and security for his family in the years to come, but it will also give him a solid chance at getting a bigger contract than he might of, had his results come later.

    Why?

    A team’s payroll budget is like a table full of food in a family with many siblings. The first person to the table can get a larger portion of food than those who arrive late. A team manager with a sponsor locked down for the the next season feels a little more secure in negotiations early on in the year as he sees his budget as still having much room to spare. So, the psychology of the table full of food and the first sibling to sit down is very much at play in the early season races. Results in the opening months of the season mean you get to be the first to sit down.

    More food. Bigger money.

    This subtle pressure, or maybe we’ll call it incentive, doesn’t end with the riders. No, directors also feel the need to get to the table first. They may not be chasing a more lucrative contract with early season success but rather a sense of personal comfort.

    Directors are the captains of cycling, having to lead not only riders, but the staff that back the riders for weeks on end. Keeping morale high with everyone from the bus driver to the cook can be challenging at the best of times, but when good results aren’t coming early on, good morale becomes more difficult to find. Building up a bank account of early results can feel comforting to fall back on when the high pressure races of summer come. Luck often doesn’t go your way in the Tour de France, so having a few victories in March feels nice if you’re having to pick riders up off the road in July.

    With managers and sponsors, all of this early madness applies equally as much. A sponsor, new or old, will feel calmer about its investment if its team has produced big early on. In the world of high finance sponsorships, it’s all about “what have you done for me lately?” And after a quiet off-season, starting things off with your name in lights always makes a sponsor happy. Plus, if you’re looking for a new sponsor, having some quality air time might give you a better chance of getting a new deal locked down sooner.

    Or so goes the thinking…

    All this often times mean managers pressure directors, directors pressure riders….and on and on we go around the early season merry-go-round

    That wild racing you see early in the year is a product of this dynamic. Everyone comes into the season in very good shape these days. No more bellies and slow speeds. We see higher power values and higher tension in March than we do for the entire season. Forget about your preconceptions of a rider easing his way into the year, that shit doesn’t happen anymore. If you don’t come in fit and ready, the races are so fast and hard, they kill you rather than train you.

    So, how do I treat the early season? Well, I tell all the riders and directors not to worry about the pressure as much as they can. The way I see it, the races that create real value for sponsors are much later. I don’t let myself get wrapped up in the early season circus, and I do my best to encourage the team to keep eyes on later season prizes.

    Wait! What’s that you say? Rigo just won a race? I gotta wrap this up so I can call all the sponsors. Man will they be so happy we won early on!! Yay!!