We tend to think of cycling as brilliantly accessible. It takes us on adventures, provides the backbone of our social life and, if you commute by bike, saves thousands on motoring expenses. But cycling is not always as accessible as we like to think, and newcomers often feel shut out. From the obscure ‘rules’ that we only know exist when we’re mocked for having broken them, to the ‘secret squirrel’ developments in technology, to the multitude of acronyms and arcane language combining French, Italian and English words referencing a history that it takes years to learn. Hardly surprisingly, then, that none of us is immune from occasionally feeling like an outsider.
This has an impact, often a very painful one, which as a sports psychologist I encounter regularly in the people who call me for support. Typically they tell me they love cycling and believe they are competent riders, before adding a caveat: “But I’m not a real cyclist”. This inability to regard oneself as a ‘real cyclist’ is the result of impostor syndrome. By any objective measure, you’re a successful rider and part of the cycling community, but self-doubt persists and you constantly feel as though you’re about to be exposed as a fraud. If you feel this way, you are not alone – a meta-analysis involving 14,000 participants found as many as 82 per cent of cyclists have experienced these feelings.
“Impostor Syndrome can mean a rider under-performs and takes the safer option,” says Gary McKeegan, a physiologist and coach based in Northern Ireland. “They may avoid certain events or scenarios that they feel have the potential to expose them as impostors.” No one wins races sitting safely in the peloton – great riders need to be able to take risks. These riders also tend to attribute success to luck, and assume compliments they’re paid are mere politeness, while their achievements are chalked up as flukes. They feel constantly intimidated and insecure, in a permanent state of threat – and with such negative thoughts occupying their headspace, their riding is compromised and they’re liable to become mentally exhausted.
TAKE THE TEST
Do I have impostor syndrome?
How many of these do you identify with? If you answer yes to the majority of the statements below, you may be suffering from cycling impostor syndrome.
I rarely celebrate success because I don’t feel like I deserve it or have really earnt it.
I often use phrases like: ‘I just got lucky’ or ‘I only did well because no one decent showed up today.
I often bat away compliments. I often see myself just outside groups I am officially part of.
I’ll spend more time after a race or ride focusing on what went wrong rather than what went well.
Where does this impostor syndrome come from and how can we get a better handle on it? In this feature, I will examine four key causes and identify some tried and tested ways to boost cycling confidence so you can fully own your place in the sport.
Our rational brain tells us that anyone who rides a bike is self-evidently a cyclist. But being an athlete is so wrapped up in our own narrative about what that identity means that we can find ourselves not living up to a projected standard. These thoughts may be rooted in childhood, for example memories of school days when we weren’t as sporty as our classmates; for others, the insecurity relates to owning a bike that doesn’t live up to our mental image of a ‘real cyclist’; while others feel that they aren’t fast enough, disqualifying themselves on fitness grounds.
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