When I was falling in love with mountain bike racing as a teenager, I was so nervous in the final minutes before the start whistle. That countdown was charged with energy as we all stressed about the all-out sprint to get into the narrow singletrack trails.
This was a crucial part of the race. You have to clip into your pedals right away, put in a maximal effort, and manage to handle your bike through a pack of riders, all trying to get the same line as you. We were a bunch of amped-up juniors, all hoping to make it as pros, trying to prove ourselves on tough, rocky, rooty, muddy courses throughout New England and around the country.
As I matured, I started to notice that my best starts happened when I didn’t let the nervous energy of this pressure cooker affect me. Things went well when I wasn’t bothered by the intense techno music the announcer was playing, and on days that I didn’t look at the other riders who were quivering like race horses in the gate. Instead, I was cool, calm, and relaxed and got the holeshot.
And the days when I missed my pedal off the line or got too fired-up and overcooked the first corner? Usually those were the days when I sat on the start line with a head of steam, burning with energy and anticipation.
The Performance Chain is a Process
As I began to develop the Focus pillar of the FORM Method, I remembered my days as a junior mountain bike racer. I started to connect the dots between my state of mind and my performances. Sometimes they lined up perfectly, other times they were totally at odds with each other. And as I began coaching cyclists, I saw how some riders could check-in when they needed to and relax when the opportunity presented itself. They were being extremely efficient with their mental energy, which impacts their overall physical performance.
I realized that the fundamental issue was whether the mind was in control of the body’s actions, or if it was simply reacting to stressors like the sensations of a hard paceline effort, a steep climb, or start line nerves.
To help riders (myself included) put their minds in control of their bodies’ efforts, I developed the Performance Chain system. This aspect of the Focus pillar is more advanced than the Core Performance Qualities, Vision, or Black Line Clarity. I think of those three elements as the foundation of your house. When it is time to start building, that should be complete, solid, ready to anchor everything comes after. And that next step is the Performance Chain, which is your house’s framing.
The chain starts with a trigger, like an attack by one of your rivals, or a climb that rears up in front of you with 10 kilometers to go to the finish. When you are presented with a trigger, the Performance Chain allows you to match it with a cue that you have ready to go, something familiar that you’ve practiced. You are building a process that you memorize so that on command you can change your mental and emotional state in an instant. I’ve found in coaching and my own personal experiences that it can be very challenging to change your mental state with you are already in a heightened state of anxiety without a clear process. The cue is the imagery or the word that serves as a bridge between the trigger and the optimal mindset states. When you match the cue to the trigger, your mind drives your body to arrive at the right state for a situation. That could be a super-intense state, sprinting to the finish. Or it could be a mellow, smooth state that helps you relax and recover to save yourself for when it really counts. This is an advanced skill, but when you get it dialed in, the Performance Chain empowers you to look at what is happening in a race or ride and recognize that you have something for it.
Here’s how it works. You’ll be paying attention to your surroundings, the pace, the terrain, your body. Something changes – that’s the trigger. You decide to respond mentally to that trigger. Pick a cue to help guide you to the state of mind that aligns with the PTZ and tactic you need to be in to best respond to that trigger. Cues can be mental imagery, a phrase you repeat to yourself, or a physical change you make on the bike.
You sense an opportunity to attack
You see favorable terrain
Advantageous race scenario
Someone attacks the group
Pace is too hard on a climb
The ideal mental state to drive your body
On one hand, the triggers for this chain can vary wildly. They can also be debatable — usually in your own mind. How should you respond — or should you even respond? For instance, the kamikaze that attacks your group ride isn’t usually worth worrying about. On the other hand, the cues that you will use to respond to any given trigger are more specific. You’ll need to be disciplined to internalize the cues so you can fully use them to your advantage and arrive at the right state, but trust me, it is worth the effort.
Get into the right mental state
I have framed the states as four fundamental mindsets. I relate them to natural elements, things that everyone can visualize. We have all experienced them. It’s easy to tap into them when you’re caught up in the pandemonium of a bike race. The four mindsets are:
The goal of the Performance Chain system is to train your mind to shift between these four mindsets, depending on what is happening in the race. I’ll explain each mindset in more detail, but as you can tell, when you progress from Cloud all the way to Lightning, your mental intensity increases with each new mindset. The key is to only use Fire and Lightning when absolutely necessary. This allows you to save mental energy with Cloud or Water when the race situation is more relaxed.
As I hinted at in the beginning of this chapter, your mindset has to match what your body is doing, your exertion, your effort. However, the key to this system is that it is a one-way conversation. You are not letting your body tell your mind how to feel or think. You are using your mind to drive your body’s performance by establishing these mindsets, working off of cues, and communicating that to the rest of your systems to perform.
So, each mindset is directly linked to the Power Train Zones. People run into trouble when they’re in the wrong mindset for a given PTZ. They could be too wound-up and intense when they’re recovering on a downhill. Or, they could be too laid-back and relaxed when they need to deliver a race-winning attack. Here’s how the mindsets line up with the zones:
Cloud — Base zone
Water — Low Medium, Medium, and High Medium zones
Fire — Threshold zones
Lightning — Explosive zones
I know that this might seem a little bit too mystical to some of you. We’re just racing bikes, right? Shouldn’t it always be intense? Shouldn’t we always have our game faces on, burning with fire and throwing lightning-bolt attacks like Zeus? This is a common mistake I see many beginner and intermediate cyclists make. Like my example of teenager Tom, flying off the mountain bike start line with raw intensity, there are times when it pays to be relaxed and calm, to float like a cloud or flow like water. To prove that to you, I’m going to provide examples for each of the four mindsets from one race, a criterium. That’s right, even in one of the most intense, chaotic road race disciplines, there are appropriate times for each of the four mindsets.
Let’s get into the specifics of how each of these mindsets works, how you can use cues to arrive at the right mindset, and how it can drive your body’s performance on the bike.
The Cloud mindset is the most relaxed state of mind. It uses the least amount of energy. You are floating along with carefree ease. A cloud is practically effortless, not in a rush to get somewhere, supported by thin air, soft fluffy and light.
Don’t underestimate the Cloud, however. This is a critical mindset for recovery, to set you up for what will come next. In some cases that means it is a recovery mindset between hard intervals on a climb. If you fail to switch into Cloud mindset after your Garmin beeps at you, your interval didn’t really stop. You need to shift gears mentally to make the most of that recovery, to avoid the unnecessary mental stress that will drain your energy.
Cloud mindset is also important to employ in long, low-intensity rides. As I mentioned in the 10 Commandments, you need to go low before you can go high. That means that a base-intensity ride is driven by a Cloud mindset. Don’t think you can ride at that PTZ when you’re burning up inside with a Fire mindset. That’s why group rides are often a bad option for true base rides. Things get too intense and hard, pulling you away from the PTZ you need to ride in and influencing your mindset by introducing unproductive stress.
The Cloud mindset is so relaxed and soft that it seems wrong for a criterium, doesn’t it? Of course, you wouldn’t want to drive your body with the Cloud mindset on the final lap when it is time to sprint — that would be out of whack with the PTZ you need to produce. However, there are brief moments when a Cloud mindset provides a crucial opportunity to recover from a stressful moment, a chance to regroup and recover.
If you’re racing a hilly crit course, that could mean that you shift into cloud on the downhill section where you can coast. Unless you’re stuck racing a boring course in an office park with wide-open corners, Cloud mindset is also a great state for cornering. You enter the corner, stop pedaling, allow yourself a second or two of floating, easy respite, and then you shift back into a mindset that matches the race intensity.
In fact, some of the riders who have difficulty cornering well — whether that is in a crit or on a long mountain descent — aren’t shifting into a more relaxed mindset like Cloud. More than just recovery, Cloud can help you ride technical roads smoother and faster because it helps you relax mentally, and that translates to your body’s actions.
Mental: Imagine laying in a grassy park and looking up at a pure, white, fluffy cloud floating through the sky.
Verbal: "I am feeling free. I am feeling light.”
Physical: Deep inhalation through the nostrils.
Some of the most enjoyable parts of a ride often come when you are in the Water mindset. You are flowing. Things are smooth. Effort is low, but not quite as low as in Cloud mindset. That means you get to go a bit faster, but not to the point of it becoming painful or stressful.
In general, cycling is a sport that thrives on this flow. If you imagine how the peloton smoothly pinches through narrow roads and around corners, or how it builds speed on descents and carries it into flats or the next rolling climb, it is very fluid. That’s why, when you’re riding in a group during a race or on a ride, you should be in that Water mindset.
This state uses enough energy to keep you well-positioned, in the flow, and avoiding trouble. But it doesn’t unnecessarily stress your nervous system and keeps you in a lower PTZ which helps you conserve energy.
Instead, you remain in the fat-burning PTZ. Here, you set a fast pace in the medium zones, at a pace that is sustainable for hours on end. You can also shift into the Water mindset to recover from a hard, sustained effort. Like the Cloud mindset, Water is also great for long descents. It is great for those that have more corners, requiring flowing, smooth bike-handling. This expends a bit more mental energy, but the gains are worth it when you maintain or build momentum through those switchbacks and chicanes.
When it comes to our criterium example, as I hinted at, Water mindset is ideal for riding in a peloton. Unless you’re one of those riders who attacks from the gun and tries to lap the field, you’ll probably spend a lot of time sitting in the wheels during a criterium. It’s a lot easier to maintain your position and avoid wasteful braking when you are flowing with the bunch. This also lets you save energy for the race’s key moment when you’ll need to shift to another mindset and attack or sprint to win.
Mental Imagery: A swift, smooth river cutting through a valley, easily flowing around rocks, hills, and other obstacles.
Verbal: “I do not force my path.”
Physical: Relaxed hands.
PTZ: Low Medium, Medium, and High Medium
As we shift from Water to the Fire mindset, there is a big difference. Fire is always a destructive state, and the more you use it, the more you burn down as you go. Be careful because you cannot undo that damage. The intensity of this mindset demands more mental energy than the Cloud or Water mindsets. Fire mindset brings the heat. It can pay off big time, but it also commands a hefty price.
This intense, destructive mindset is key if you want a chance at winning. This mindset compels your body to dig into its Threshold PTZ, pushing at intensities that aren’t sustainable for more than an hour or so. When you’re on the attack, riding a time trial, or part of a breakaway move, Fire mindset is the tool you’ll use to drive your effort.
Experienced riders can shift between Fire and Water mindsets frequently throughout the course of a race, sometimes even during a paceline. They pull through with a Fire mindset then shift to a Water mindset to get a moment of rest before pulling through again. Beginners, or those who lack control of their mindsets, are often stuck in a Fire state for an entire race, which is really exhausting. You can be sure that when the key moment of a race comes along, they won’t have as many matches to burn if they’ve been stuck in Fire mindset for hours on end.
Mental Imagery: A hot, roaring fire burning through a forest, an unstoppable force that goes over any terrain.
Verbal: “I am invincible.”
Physical: Forceful exhalations
PTZ: Low Threshold, Threshold, and High Threshold
Think of a powerful thunderstorm you’ve seen, with wind, crashing thunder, a downpour, and bolts of lightning illuminating a dark night sky. Lightning is one of the most awe-inspiring forces of nature. It is fast, unexpected, and before you know it, it’s over.
Similarly, there aren’t that many occasions to switch into Lightning mindset and use your Explosive PTZ in most rides and races. You only harness this type of effort and state for key moments when you absolutely have to bridge a gap to a breakaway or launch a sprint to go for the win.
Like the Fire mindset, Lightning is all about intensity. For that reason, it’s not sustainable for long. It drains your mental energy quickly. I have seen some inexperienced riders who use Lightning mindsets and the corresponding efforts repeatedly while they ride in the peloton. They panic, try to move up as quickly as possible and find themselves mentally exhausted after just an hour of riding. You can only draw on the Lightning mindset so many times before those efforts are blunted. If you are sprinting and attacking just to sit in the bunch, you’ll lose the crucial, shocking high intensity that can win races.
As you’d expect, the Lightning mindset is one of the key weapons used in our criterium example. It can fit into a variety of strategies, depending on how you want the race to play out. If you’re a pure sprinter, that Lightning mindset is probably saved until the very end when you’re sprinting to the line in the last 200 meters. If you need a breakaway for a chance at victory, you’re probably shifting into this state to attack the bunch on a short climb or as you exit a sharp, technical corner that forces everyone to brake and slow up. You could also cover attacks with an effort that is driven by a Lightning mindset.
Mental Imagery: With a flash of light, the lightning bolt streaks across the sky, destroying anything it touches and disappearing in an instant.
Verbal: "My intensity is explosive."
Physical: Lightning snap at the bottom of the pedal stroke with hip flexors pulling the foot back up.
PTZ: Nuclear, Long Surge, Short Surge, Maximum Explosive Strength
PROACTIVE OR REACTIVE
Generally speaking, I have found that there are two types of cyclists in terms of their mentalities: Some people are proactive and others are reactive. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. They are just different, and fortunately, the Performance Chain works in both cases.
The proactive riders I have worked with are usually very good at structured training. They thrive off of a calendar that schedules out every interval to the minute. They enjoy the progression of following workouts step by step through the weeks and months of a season. Sometimes they can be a bit too rigid, and if a plan doesn’t pan out in an unpredictable race, they might not be as flexible when it comes time to pivot and follow a new plan.
On the other hand, reactive riders love the surprises that come up in any given day of bike racing. They prefer to fill up their schedules with races and group rides. They are motivated to chase after their rivals’ attacks, follow their instincts to make the breakaways, or roll the dice in a field sprint. As you might guess, they are less motivated by structured training plans that keep them away from the races and group rides that they love.
Rider Types — Proactive or Reactive?
Your proactive or reactive nature often aligns with your rider type. We often see this kind of correlation:
Proactive: Climber, Classics TT
Reactive: Classics Sprinter, Puncheur
Again, don’t assume one of these types is better than the other. Instead, take a critical look at your own motivations and understand who you are as a rider. This self-awareness will help you work through your strengths and weaknesses to adapt the Performance Chain to your needs. I don’t want you to get stuck in the same pattern or habit that you always use for every race or ride. Ideally, you reach a point where you can use this mental tool in both a proactive and reactive way, no matter what your normal tendencies are. Whatever the trigger is, on any given day, you are equipped with a tool that can handle the situation.
Going back to our criterium example, the best rider will have a proactive approach planned out but will also be prepared to shift into a reactive Performance Chain if needed. Their initial plan could be to launch an attack after the first prime to initiate a breakaway. They shift between Water and Cloud mindsets during the early stages of the race to save mental energy and ride smoothly in the peloton. As the pace heats up in the prime lap, they shift into the Fire mindset to hold position and keep up with the bunch as the race gets strung out. Finally, after the prime sprint, they shift into Lightning mindset to drive a Short Surge effort, followed by Fire mindset in the High Threshold PTZ.
But wait, there’s a problem. No one else followed that attack. Now they are alone off the front, burning up in Fire mindset without any support to make the move stick. The peloton chases them down, and in a couple laps, the attack is over. Now it’s time to shift into reactive mode.
So, our rider returns to the peloton and returns to Cloud and Water mindsets for recovery and efficiency. Now they are on the lookout for promising attacks that they could follow. There are a few big teams in the race. Maybe a rider from one of those squads will make a move and their teammates will help block the chase in the bunch.
Sure enough, an attack goes away a few laps later, and our rider is well-positioned to seize the opportunity. They again use Lightning mindset, this time for a Long Surge effort to bridge up to the breakaway over the course of the next lap of racing. After the catch, they might sit in Water mindset for a minute to regroup and then it is full-on Fire mindset in threshold zones to help make the breakaway stick.
And when it does stick, the sprint finish will again demand that Lightning mindset to out-sprint the other breakaway riders to win the day.