The cycle-ology of the Tour

In this online-only version of her 'News' article, our journalist Ella Rhodes investigates how psychology touches July's race - the participants, spectators and volunteers.

In July, the first stage of the gruelling Tour de France will begin in the UK for the first time since 2007. When the cyclists round the bend into the Champs-Élysées at the end of the month they will have raced over 21 stages and covered an astonishing total distance of around 3656 kilometres. As a sporting event the Tour presents an array of psychological challenges for its competitors, and there may be other factors at play amongst the crowd and volunteers.

Professor Marc Jones, a sport and exercise psychologist at Staffordshire University, said the Tour was a unique event for competitors for a variety of reasons. He said: ‘There has been quite a bit of research on psychological strategies employed during endurance events and whether athletes attend to their physical state or disassociate and distract from the symptoms. In general, elite athletes tend to attend to and monitor their physical state.’

In fact, cycling at this level may be largely about learning to embrace pain. Team Sky’s Michael Barry, in his book Le Métier, writes: ‘In my teens, I found the point where suffering on the bike became pleasure… To find the sublime there is a balance where elements of pain and passion become equal: on a bike, pedalling in the environment, a human being can find divinity.’

That almost mystical relationship with pain is perhaps left irrevocably changed by experience of debilitating or life threatening illness. Is it a coincidence that some of the favourites for this year’s race, and some notable names from the Tour’s past, have been through this? We asked Professor Stephen Joseph (University of Nottingham). He said: ‘Before his fall from grace Lance Armstrong was often held up as an example of post-traumatic growth – a man who overcame testicular cancer to go on to win the Tour de France. He may not be the poster boy any more for the subject, but nonetheless the idea that debilitating or life-threatening illness can be a springboard to greater achievement is borne out by research which shows that following adversity people report becoming more determined to succeed in life.’

There are also obvious short-cuts to grit and pain tolerance. In 1998 a German rider told Der Spiegel: ‘For as long as the Tour has existed, since 1903, its participants have been doping themselves. No dope, no hope.’ Indeed, research led by psychologist Dr Lisa Whitaker at Leeds Metropolitan University suggests that athletes are more likely to dope when suffering an injury, a dip in performance or when they believe others are doping and getting away with it. (For research on the role of self-identity in doping, see Box 1.)

Social psychologist Professor Steve Reicher (St Andrews University) says that beliefs about others play a major role in the Tour, particularly around tactics over the vital ‘breakaways’. ‘There is much opprobrium attached to “wheelsuckers” who sit in a break and refuse to take a turn at the front, where the going is more tough. The cost of this, on the whole, is that in time people will refuse to work with such people in a break. Sometimes, coordination is a matter of economic negotiation. For instance, in a multi-stage race, someone who is high up in the overall classification may agree to gift a fellow escapee the stage victory as long as they work together to gain time over all the other riders.’ (See Box 2 for more from Professor Reicher on the social psychology of the race).

Professor Jones also points to the unusual social dynamics of the Tour. ‘The cyclists race in teams but the glory goes to the winner (mostly). So you have to create a culture where other cyclists in the team have to race to get one man over the line first. Because the cyclists race and recover together for a long time, about three weeks, tensions arise and managing those tensions and creating a cohesive team with a clear identity matters.’

What of the spectators who swarm to watch the event in the UK and beyond? According to Dr Mark Uphill, a sport and exercise psychologist at the University of Canterbury, many could be inspired to take up cycling themselves. But how long do these phases of interest in a sport actually last?

Dr Uphill told us: ‘In an analysis of the Tour de France Grand Depart in London, Graham Berridge suggested that planning for a meaningful legacy beyond the immediate impact of an event could well be associated with sustained participation. However, simply hosting an event is unlikely to be enough. Engaging in physical activity is a complex process, and is influenced by many variables.’

In fact, could big elite events such as the Tour have a counterintuitive effect on participation? Dr Uphill added: ‘I’m not aware of any data that has tested the opposite hypothesis – whether individuals’ intention to exercise is reduced by exposure to images of successful athletes. But as Bloomfield suggested, “… so much adulation is centred on those who are physically gifted that many an average participant is discouraged through fear of embarrassment”.’

Unfortunately, Dr Uphill concludes that much of what we know about enhancing physical activity is in relation to short-term changes. ‘In a review of literature, Weed and colleagues observed that there is little reliable evidence of a sustained participation legacy for the Olympics. Moreover, generally of those people who initiate a planned programme of physical activity, about 50 per cent will drop out within six months. We need a better understanding of the social and psychological differences between those who continue, versus those who cease participating in physical activity, and more reliable longitudinal data collection.’

Another form of participation is volunteering. This year, 12,000 ‘Tour Makers’ will be helping out during the UK stages – from Leeds to Harrogate, York to Sheffield, and Cambridge to London. Dr Tom Farsides, a social psychologist at the University of Sussex, referred us to research into elevation by Jon Haidt and his followers, which he said ‘might suggest that the voluntariness of volunteers could raise both the prosociality and the mood of crowd members, in turn inspiring the riders. Similarly, the “positivity” of the volunteers’ behaviour, for example, the freely given support of others, might encourage the formation of a unified ingroup with an ingroup norm of being supportive and encouraging.’

This group identity could be crucial if disaster strikes – there have been seven occasions where spectators, officials or journalists were killed, including 20 fatalities in 1964 when a supply van hit a bridge in the Dordogne region. In the past the theory of diffusion of responsibility suggested that in such disasters, witnessed by large numbers of people, it would be unlikely that spectators would run to the aid of injured parties. That view is changing, as Dr John Drury (University of Sussex) explained. ‘Evidence shows that social identity interacts with group size – where people identify with each other they may be more, not less, likely to intervene in a large crowd.

‘The problem with the traditional “bystander” research is that it fails to distinguish between what Steve Reicher calls a physical crowd, where individuals are simply co-present, and a psychological crowd, where people share a social category membership. The behaviour of these two crowds is likely to be quite different. In some crowds, there is a strong sense of “we-ness” before an emergency. Others’ interests become our own, and we care about them. But we have found that often the emergency itself can create a sense of we-ness where previously people were simply in the same place and felt no psychological bonds with each other. So it is possible that an accident on the Tour de France could be construable as affecting both public and athletes together, in which case any prior divisions would become less salient.’

Like the race itself, this topic seems too big to cover in one stage. What about the psychology of hero worship; of how cyclists cope with rehabilitation from injury, or retirement from the sport; or the impact on perceptions of cyclists and their own behaviour in normal road use? Perhaps ‘cycle-ology’ has the staying power to last the course. Why not tweet us using #cycleology to share your own perspectives, or email us with your letters for publication.

- Ella Rhodes is The Psychologist's journalist. [email protected] 


In his recent review of the sports doping literature, Dr Mark H. Anshel, a professor of sport and exercise psychology at Middle Tennessee State University (USA), found that at the heart of this matter – an issue that will persist despite severe penalties for cheating – is the elite athlete’s self-identity and his or her need to be competitive and successful.

"Why else would drug-ingesting athletes take risks with their physical and mental health, violate their organization’s rules and policies, result in an enormous embarrassment, and lead to the possible termination of their sport career unless? What is the continued attraction of ingesting banned substances, and why is there continued interest by selected athletes in still continuing to overcome current drug test techniques.

An elite athlete’s self-identity – the ways in which the athlete defines and evaluates themselves as different from others – is so strongly fixed within the confines of sport. For the elite athletes, failing in sport is not an option. In the absence of integrity and strong external controls (e.g., testing, team and organization rules and policies, reminders from significant others such as coaches and sponsors), some athletes will do whatever it takes to win. It is similar to students who are willing to cheat on an exam if the result is likely to lead to a top grade; cheating becomes worth the risk of getting caught.

This is why the sport environment, especially at the elite level, requires a change in climate so that doping because so unacceptable, unsafe, punitive, and likely to lead to long-term exclusion that the risk of doping are simply untenable." 



Professor Steve Reicher (St Andrews University) said the nature of competitive cycling is that it is easier to cycle in a group than alone, he adds: ‘On the one hand, you obviously want to get ahead of your rivals, but on the other hand, once you go solo, ones rivals are better able to haul you back. Moreover, they will remain fresher and better able to leave you behind in turn.’

Professor Reicher also explained that there are many reasons why it is easier to ride faster while in groups, including air resistance. He said: ‘It is some 20-30% easier when cycling behind someone else than when being in front. So in a group, people relay each other, taking turns to take the lead and then to follow. Then, in a group, people are better able to pace each other and maintain an appropriate speed.

‘Finally, the presence of others can energise a rider to be able to exert and maintain a higher level of effort. The first study in social psychology, by Triplett in 1897, demonstrated this 'social facilitation' effect.’

One of the most critical tactics used in the tour is the breakaway. Professor Reicher said a critical determinant of whether a breakaway would succeed or fail was whether those in it work together and this doesn’t just depend on team membership.

He said: ‘If they do they might have a chance. If they don't they definitely won't. Sometimes, coordination draws on group membership. Most obviously, members of the same team will work together.’

Professor Reicher said it is rare for many members of a single team to be in any single breakaway so cyclists may draw on other categories, including nationality.

He said: ‘In 1987, Italian riders of different teams notoriously combined to stop Robert Millar winning the Giro d'Italia. It would have been the first victory by a British rider in any of the three major 'grand tours' in cycling.’

Leadership also comes into the equation, many great riders have gained as much by social influence as by physical presence.

Professor Reicher said: ‘Riders like Eddy Merckz and Bernard Hinault were known as 'the patron' - and if anyone crossed them by acting inappropriately (not working when they should), they would be ostracised and hence excluded from support.

‘There are pernicious examples of this. For instance, on stage 18 of the 2004 Tour de France, a rider called Filippo Simeoni was involved in a breakaway. Lance Armstrong, who hated Simeoni for testifying on Armstrong's involvement with drugs, personally led the whole of the rest of the riders up to the breakaway in order to make it fail. His message, very clearly, was 'people do what I say, and if they don't they will never get the support they need to win.

‘The interesting thing here is that no-one need necessarily like Armstrong or want to follow him themselves. But it is enough that they believe others will follow him to make them conform. In other words, especially when it comes to leadership, meta-perceptions (one's perceptions of others perceptions) may be more important than one's own perceptions.’



BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber