The Fear of Winning

A scary moment?

In recent interviews the likes of Dan Martin and Richie Porte have both expressed a similar idea: a fear of winning. In the recent Tour of Poland Dan Martin confessed to being uncomfortable with the lead and the pressure that came with it. We saw a visible example in the 2009 Dauphiné when Sylwester Szmyd’s legs locked up on Mont Ventoux, despite being promised the win by Alejandro Valverde, the Polish rider was almost unable to ride to the line.

It’s an interesting idea. After all every rider wants to win but when confronted with the prospect of the finishing line and daylight between them then some seem to choke up. In a way it’s normal, in that so much work can go into making this moment happen that the emotion can be overwhelming.

Victory can often be a bore as well. The joy of finishing first is soon diluted by the obligations.  There’s a possible doping control, the newly-crowned champion has to pee into a pot in front of an observer, a humiliation not a celebration. The podium can often be fun but it’s not unknown to force a smile. And whilst all the other riders head for a shower, a massage and food, the winner then has to attend a press conference and late into the evening the phone will ring with interview requests. Even if accompanied by a good PR handler it takes a while for a rider to learn to handle this.

Fear of failure
If a rider has a leader’s jersey then the next day brings the responsibility of defence, of living up to the hopes of team mates and well-wishers alike.

Psychologists and behavioural economists talk of “loss aversion“, some studies suggest that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains. In other words winning is great but you can soon “bank” the benefits and then you fear the loss. Losing something you’ve had can hurt more than never having it.

Everyone wants a piece of you

I’ve been fortunate to lead a stage race a few times and you realise quickly that it’s very stressful. Whilst many respect the jersey and might give you a bit more space there are still 20 guys trying to steal it off you. The jersey can give some wings but it’s often a target for others. Personally winning a stage race gave me emotions of relief more than joy.

Big deal
Take this to a race like the Tour, Giro, Dauphiné and it’s no surprise that the difference between a respectable top-10 finish and winning can be small in physiological terms but a big step mentally. Sport is a “winner takes all” environment and a few seconds here or there can change a lifetime.

Dan Martin podium photo: