The Athlete’s Superstition

The Athlete’s Superstition

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The mind’s influence over the athlete is considerable; particularly in a sport as difficult as cycling. A strong mind can push its body well past its limitations and into the realm of the supernatural; forcing the legs to continue giving more despite each of the million muscle fibers screaming in unified agony. You could say the rider is primarily made up of the mind, for when the mind is broken the rider becomes little more than a clumsy organism perched upon a bicycle. (I speak from experience in this last matter.)

Paradoxically, the same mind that holds such control over the body is also woefully fragile and prone to superstitious thought. It fills easily with doubt and is distracted by ancillary details. This is why the tape must always be perfect, the machine silent, the kit spotless: the slightest problem can disrupt the mind as it steels itself for the suffering that is to come. Indeed, the greatest athletes are marked by the heights of their superstitions.

As a matter of fact, even the moderate ones are. At a certain point in my Nordic ski racing career, I determined that there were a particular pair of gloves and lenses that always landed me at the top of the result list.  Like most racers, I had gloves for warmer weather and colder weather, and lenes for sunny as well as overcast weather, but this particular combination of mid-weight gloves and dark lenses rendered me in a position of supernatural Nordic Ski Racing Power. The world was mine, so long as weather conditions permitted their use. I told myself that I performed better with those lenses due to some kind of improved optics. I rationalized the glove by determining that I could better grip my poles with that specific weight of glove.

It wasn’t long before I found myself selecting those gloves and lenses before every important event, regardless of the weather conditions. I could be at the height of my powers, with a perfectly executed training plan, yet they became what I used to convince myself I was ready to race. We’ll tell ourselves anything if it helps us muster the courage to face our sport and the agony that comes with the efforts we put forth.

I can only speculate as to the degree to which this must effect the professional athlete as the suffering and dangers they face become a daily reality. Merckx be merciful; I cannot begin to comprehend what they must give to carry out their craft.

// Look Pro // Nostalgia // Racing // Tradition

  1. I have no superstitions when it comes to racing but for the number 27. I’ve crashed wearing that number at least twice, maybe more, but it’s been 13 years since I pinned a number on so the memory fades.

  2. I heard Roid Landis had a favourite syringe and flatly refused to race if he had to dope with an “unlucky” one.

  3. I have heard stories of how Kelly would astain from “sexual relations” for up to 6 weeks prior to the Tour de France and, of course, the whole “no shaving the day of a race” thing.

    I think I would prefer to NOT miss those relations as opposed to maybe placing one or two spots higher on the GC!

  4. Merckx be merciful.

  5. While I can’t really relate to the whole superstition thing, as a pianist I can definitely relate to the whole control over details bit. Before a performance my shoes have to be perfectly shined, the fit of my suit or tuxedo has to be perfect, and god forbid if my tie didn’t dimple when i tied it, or is 1/2″ to long.

    Oh man, and if my shirt cuffs don’t extend 1/2″ from the jacket sleeve or if my trousers break too much on the shoe? Game over.

    Somehow, being in absolute control over certain details makes me believe that performances will go better.

    In many ways, getting on stage and performing a solo recital is much like a bike race. For one, I sit on my ass for both a solo recital and for a bike race.

    Secondly, they’re both games of cause and effect. Being on stage may bring new musical ideas into my head regarding a certain piece, and making the decision to implement these ideas on the fly and then reacting to the following sounds appropriately becomes more instinctual than anything else. In some senses, you begin to react before you even hear the sound.

    Not sure where the hell I was going with that. It’s 1:30am and I’ve had a good conversation with my friend Johnnie Walker.

  6. I’m completely free from any ritual or in considering any piece of my kit indispensable (even at the time where racing was a great part of my life).
    I don’t really feel the devious allure of superstition, even if I live in a country where this activity/habit is very common.
    One of my old friends cyclists (google: renzo zanazzi giro 47) when I was young once told me: clean bike, clean socks, clean legs and combed hair. That’s it :)

  7. @Buck Rogers

    Buck Rogers:
    I have heard stories of how Kelly would astain from “sexual relations” for up to 6 weeks prior to the Tour de France

    Things have been a bit quiet on the home front lately. Wow. Who’d a thunk I am now only a few weeks from peaking?

  8. Pedale.Forchetta:
    One of my old friends cyclists (google: renzo zanazzi giro 47) when I was young once told me: clean bike, clean socks, clean legs and combed hair. That’s it :)

    I love it – simplicity itself.

  9. Can you imagine what a book compiling all the pro rider superstitions would do to all of us amateurs!? Village hall race HQs up and down the land would be filled with crazy circus-esque routines and pre-race rituals so bizarre it could become it’s own sport outright!

  10. I have to sing the theme tune to The Rockford Files between coats of tub glue otherwise I can’t go round corners for fear of them rolling off.

  11. @Dexter
    Eheheh…

  12. I’m not superstitious but I pretty much only wear my complete kits now. I feel faster/cooler in them.

  13. I don’t have any superstitions myself, but everything needs to be “just” right. I went on vacation this last summer for a week and took my bike, and misplaced one of my gloves. For some reason I was really bothered that I’d have to ride without gloves for the week, even though it really wouldn’t make a difference I just feel more “complete” as a rider with them.

    Thankfully, I found the gloves (dropped them when unloading the car at night and spotted them the next morning under the rear bumper) and once again, all was right with the world.

  14. It is bread in superstition the idea that climbing cogs must be odd numbered. It was only the realm of mountain bikes that had even numbered, until Sram came out with the 26 tooth big cog. Shimano always had 23, 25, 27 big for road. I still feel at ease with odd numbers.

  15. nvvelominati:
    Shimano always had 23, 25, 27 big for road.

    I wonder if that stems from the Japanese culture preferring odd numbers, for a technical reason, or maybe a little of both?

  16. @Omar

    Not sure where the hell I was going with that. It’s 1:30am and I’ve had a good conversation with my friend Johnnie Walker.

    It’s about time someone brought back booze and nonsense to this site!

  17. @Pedale.Forchetta

    One of my old friends cyclists (google: renzo zanazzi giro 47) when I was young once told me: clean bike, clean socks, clean legs and combed hair. That’s it :)

    Spectacular. Did he elaborate on what made those things indefensible if not some sort of superstition? Surely one can ride just as well in dirty socks?

  18. @Dexter

    I have to sing the theme tune to The Rockford Files between coats of tub glue otherwise I can’t go round corners for fear of them rolling off.

    Pure. Solid. 24-carat. GOLD.

  19. @nvvelominati

    It is bread in superstition the idea that climbing cogs must be odd numbered. It was only the realm of mountain bikes that had even numbered, until Sram came out with the 26 tooth big cog. Shimano always had 23, 25, 27 big for road. I still feel at ease with odd numbers.

    Campy has had a 26T for as long as I’ve paid attention, but maybe that started when they devised their ill-fated MTB Groupo?

  20. Marcus :
    @Buck Rogers

    Buck Rogers:I have heard stories of how Kelly would astain from “sexual relations” for up to 6 weeks prior to the Tour de France

    Things have been a bit quiet on the home front lately. Wow. Who’d a thunk I am now only a few weeks from peaking?

    Now THAT made me laugh out loud at my desk at work! Thanks for that.

  21. @Omar

    Great little ramble there about playing the piano. Not sure exactly where I was led while reading it, but I can say that enjoyed it.

  22. Pedale.Forchetta :
    I’m completely free from any ritual or in considering any piece of my kit indispensable (even at the time where racing was a great part of my life).I don’t really feel the devious allure of superstition, even if I live in a country where this activity/habit is very common.One of my old friends cyclists (google: renzo zanazzi giro 47) when I was young once told me: clean bike, clean socks, clean legs and combed hair. That’s it :)

    MAN, I REALLY want to hang out with you and your friends! Must be amazing to speak with these guys from the past. Too cool!

  23. @frank About this matter (to be clean) he told me that ‘le directeur’ of the Vélodrome d’Hiver doesn’t even allow a shabby racer to put a foot/wheel on the track. Not a superstition a necessity then.

  24. @frank
    About this matter (to be clean) he told me that ‘le directeur’ of the Vélodrome d’Hiver doesn’t even allow a shabby racer to put a foot/wheel on the track. Not a superstition a necessity then.

  25. @Omar

    I have this friend that I ride with that used to race until Cancer tore him a new A-hole (pretty much literally). We get along really well because he’s kind of eccentric and has a sick sense of humor like I do. He’s also a pretty much rolling probable cause as far as rule violations go. He wears thermal underwear under his short sleeve jersey because the “dimples” are aero like the dimples on a golf ball and his bike/kit is always dirty but he’s really smart and has a lot of cycling/racing knowledge and he’s become kind of a coach/mentor to me because he’s really devious and relishes when I put the screws to the arrogant Tri-prick that rides with us and has a hard time dealing with the Cyclops being his equal.

    Anyway, I dropped in on him recently and was given the tour of his digs and when I saw his baby grand I said “Oh yeah, you’re supposed to be some hot pianist huh.” He stuck in a CD of himself playing some Chopin. He will be the first to admit that he’s not quite concert pianist quality but he’s incredibly good.

    Here’s a sample of his sense of humor:

    I digress.

  26. @Buck Rogers
    That’s true, I love them they taught me to be a cyclist and more.

  27. Pedale.Forchetta:

    One of my old friends cyclists (google: renzo zanazzi giro 47) when I was young once told me: clean bike, clean socks, clean legs and combed hair. That’s it :)

    Concision for the win.

  28. I go for clean bike, clean tape, clean kit. That’s about it, but those are more Rules than superstition.

    When playing sports growing up I did have a few…wore the same shirt two shirts under my uniform from 10th grade through the last game of college…I won one in a sporting contest in 5th grade and the other was my older brother’s former undershirt for games. Just old, holey t-shirts, but I swore they had special powers.

  29. Odd numbered cogs dictate that each time the chain goes over the teeth the wide and narrow plates of the chain alternate going over each individual tooth, creating more even wear.

  30. Cyclops :
    I’m not superstitious but I pretty much only wear my complete kits now. I feel faster/cooler in them.

    I concur

  31. Buck Rogers :
    I have heard stories of how Kelly would astain from “sexual relations” for up to 6 weeks prior to the Tour de France and, of course, the whole “no shaving the day of a race” thing.
    I think I would prefer to NOT miss those relations as opposed to maybe placing one or two spots higher on the GC!

    It’s true, women weaken legs.

  32. frank:
    @Pedale.Forchetta

    One of my old friends cyclists (google: renzo zanazzi giro 47) when I was young once told me: clean bike, clean socks, clean legs and combed hair. That’s it :)

    Spectacular. Did he elaborate on what made those things indefensible if not some sort of superstition? Surely one can ride just as well in dirty socks?

    Because it’s not pro to roll up to a race with dirty anything…except perhaps thoughts.

  33. @michael

    Odd numbered cogs dictate that each time the chain goes over the teeth the wide and narrow plates of the chain alternate going over each individual tooth, creating more even wear.

    That sounds like genuine hocus-pocsu! THAT’s the kind of superstition I’m talking about, mate!

  34. @D-Man

    D-Man:

    Buck Rogers :
    I have heard stories of how Kelly would astain from “sexual relations” for up to 6 weeks prior to the Tour de France and, of course, the whole “no shaving the day of a race” thing.
    I think I would prefer to NOT miss those relations as opposed to maybe placing one or two spots higher on the GC!

    It’s true, women weaken legs.

    Obviously. But the right ones also strengthen the mind and heart, and I’ll take a strong mind over legs any day.

    @Oli Brooke-White

    Oli Brooke-White:

    frank:
    @Pedale.Forchetta

    One of my old friends cyclists (google: renzo zanazzi giro 47) when I was young once told me: clean bike, clean socks, clean legs and combed hair. That’s it :)

    Spectacular. Did he elaborate on what made those things indefensible if not some sort of superstition? Surely one can ride just as well in dirty socks?

    Because it’s not pro to roll up to a race with dirty anything…except perhaps thoughts.

    I see now I have a typo – I didn’t mean to say “indefensible” but intended to say “indispensable”. Either way, I think the cleanliness has more to do with morale than anything else, no?

  35. frank :
    @michael

    Odd numbered cogs dictate that each time the chain goes over the teeth the wide and narrow plates of the chain alternate going over each individual tooth, creating more even wear.

    That sounds like genuine hocus-pocsu! THAT’s the kind of superstition I’m talking about, mate!

    Very interesting! There is one gear combination (52×19) on my winter bike which, when selected, gives me the feeling that I have gained a slight boost in leg power. I don’t know why this should be – perhaps something to do with the chainline being perfect? Hey Frank, is there anything significant about the choice of a 14-tooth cog for the V-cog logo?

  36. Andy Hampsten quote: “For a mountain stage I would do 23, 21, 19, 17 etc. or 25, 23, 21, 19, 17. If there was something nuts in Italy like the Tre Cime Lavaredo or the Mortirolo then I would go to a 28. I never used even-numbered climbing cogs other than the 28. Never. Not that I am superstitious; I just hate how every time I looked at even numbers for climbing cogs my palms would get sweaty. Odd only.”

    @McTyke
    The 14 tooth was what our great Merckx used on his bike for the hour record.

  37. @frank
    It’s true though!

  38. @eightzero
    How about a local Seattle ride this Sunday, 8am at the Stupid Intersection by Gregg’s? Or email boss@topfunky.com and I can give you my phone number.

  39. @nvvelominati

    Andy Hampsten quote: “For a mountain stage I would do 23, 21, 19, 17 etc. or 25, 23, 21, 19, 17. If there was something nuts in Italy like the Tre Cime Lavaredo or the Mortirolo then I would go to a 28. I never used even-numbered climbing cogs other than the 28. Never. Not that I am superstitious; I just hate how every time I looked at even numbers for climbing cogs my palms would get sweaty. Odd only.”

    Sorry everyone, we just found the GREATEST.CYCLING.QUOTE.EVER.

  40. @frank,
    Booze and nonsense are my specialty. Especially if it’s a good scotch!

    @Cyclops,
    Us pianists are quirky bunch. In fact, I find it odd enough that there are other pianists that ride in groups simply because we get used to spending so much time alone in a practice room that being alone seems normal! I’m working on recording some of my repertoire and creating a personal website, so whenever I get everything up and running I’ll be sure to shoot a link your way!

    @Buck Rogers,
    I’m glad you enjoyed my scotch-fueled rambling! I can assure you that there’s more to come now that there’s snow on the ground!

  41. @frank
    Does this merit a new rule? We might need to refine the wording, but something to the effect of, If at all possible, climb in cogs with odd numbers of teeth?

  42. Placebo affect explains it all and although I know it, if I don’t wear my oakleys then I’m done for haha

  43. I just heard of a study that said placebos work even when the placeboees are aware they are being placeboed.

  44. Not as much a superstition as a scary example of how your head controls you much more than your legs…went for a post work ride on Wednesday & forgot to bring a drink, realised about half way out and as soon as I got to the climb I’ve been grappling with lately I knew I was in trouble.

    Cue 1/3 of the way up & and I’ve bailed it cos I was convinced I was dying, looked back over the heart rate for the lap when I got to the bottom & saw I was well within normal range the whole time. I’m convinced it was the lack of bottle that caused me to bottle it.

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