Passion and Cycling: An Interview with Melissa Sanborn

By Dr KC Wilder, Sports Psychologist

As a sport psychologist and researcher, I chose to interview racing cyclist and Wenzel Coach Melissa Sanborn of Vanderkitten Racing for this issue of the newsletter.  The article is simply a transcript with questions related to her passion, bicycle racing.  Melissa’s interview expresses her passion for bicycle racing that is part of her self-story and desire to solve the puzzle related to her performance in bicycle racing.  In that light, she is the story-teller.  I believe that you will read this story and be inspired yourself to achieve your goals in sport, and life.  Prominent researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1996) states, “the creative process begins with the sense that a puzzle or conflict needs to be solved.”  May you work towards solving your own puzzle by reading the candid responses by Melissa Sanborn.

Dr. K.C. Wilder:  What are some of the best parts of being a bicycle racer?  

Melissa Sanborn:  Winning.  And, the fitness that I gain.  The team tactics make it interesting.  The best part of bicycle racing is that it is so competitive. I feel healthy when I do it.  Honestly, I don’t know how much I really attribute team tactics as one of the best parts of being a bike racer. I know that it is something that I am good at and it gives me a sense of accomplishment when I am at my best.  

K.C.:  When you say, “competitive”, what does that mean?  

MS: Challenging.  I like the challenge… that I can achieve greatness when it sometimes seems improbable. I set a goal to do something, and I don’t like falling short.  Part of the competition is that it keeps making me stronger.  I think that I am competitive with myself.  There is some kind of inner competition happening.  

K.C.:  What’s it like living the lifestyle of a bicycle racer?  

MS:  It’s not glamorous.  It can be kind of exhausting.  Sometimes people like to talk about racing, and training, and sometimes that gets old.  People sometimes like to live vicariously through what I do.  I feel like I need to work on my patience.  My elevator speech.  How far do you ride?  Do you know Lance?  How far is a criterium?  It is not very lucrative in women’s racing.  I get some help with travel, but I am responsible for some of my travel expenses.  Winning races, and doing well at some races, you can pay yourself back a little bit.  I am pretty laid-back so I try to adapt to the situation that I am in.  It is frustrating to talk about bicycle racing all of the time.  It’s been a good opportunity for me to travel, and to see some neat things and meet some very wonderful people.  And, seeing some cool countryside.  It is like a job.  You go to a town, and do your job.  You do not do a lot of sightseeing.  It is kind of lonely sometimes.  I miss my family.  I do feel like I have bonded with some of the girls on the team, so it is nice that I have that to look forward to, and racing together.   

K.C.: What keeps you motivated on a daily basis?   

M.S.:  The life-style would change greatly if I was winning bike races.  What keeps me going is that someday I can achieve that.  I would like to race on a bigger pro team versus a “young” pro team.  That is what keeps me at it.  If you are going to ask me why I race.  That is probably why I race, because I still think that I can achieve those goals.  When I was working in sales I was very goal-oriented.  And, being goal oriented has transferred to sport.  I feel like I have gotten a late start in cycling.  I was 27 years old when I started racing bicycles.  Although, I don’t think that age has that much to do with it.  It is athleticism, willpower, drive, passion.  Really it is about the willpower to achieve those dreams.  I think that there is a lot of self-sabotage that happens in the sport.  I see it in my clients, and I see it in myself sometimes.  There are several racers that are good who are still in their 40’s.  I still think about the 2012, and 2016 Olympics.  I mostly take it year by year.  Last year was horrible because I was sick.  This year, I am healthy, and now I need to just get some results.  It is so important in racing not to let your mind wander.  And, to take risks.

K.C.: In Part I of this interview, you talked about getting past fear of failure in your racing. Can you tell me more about how you get past fear of failure in the middle of a race?

MS: It helps to get past fear of failure. The doing/doubting in the middle of the race is a sure way to lose. I think that you really have to, as Catherine Marsal says, “take responsibility for your actions.”

I am trying to have this tunnel vision. I am finding that towards the end of racing, sometimes it is not automated. I am trying to get to the point that I am not thinking at the end of the race, but just do.

K.C.: What are doing to help yourself to get to being automatic?

M.S.: Mental training. I dream about it. I daydream about it while I am riding. I imagine the finish, and practice seeing it. I ask anyone that I can about the course. “How do you win a sprint?”, is something that I have asked Petra Rossner. I am not afraid to ask her. Everyone says, just go. Don’t think about it. I think that you have to feel, rather than think. Maybe I just discovered something there. You have feel the time, as if it is a tiny little lull, or surge. But, there must be some point where everything is right. And, you instinctively know that it is right. Sometimes I will doubt myself, and I am trying to get away from that. You don’t want to be silly about it, and make the wrong move.

I should go into Sunday’s race knowing that I have the best fitness that I have ever had heading into Philly. I haven’t been sick this year like past years. My only nervous thought is that I have been going well for three months already that I wonder if I can still go well? And, you can. You can go well all year long. Look at some of the winning racers, they can do it. So if they can do it. I can too. And, I know that there is this whole up and down cycle. Every coach will tell you that you can only peak for a short period. I do believe that you should take your rest days seriously. Race hard, rest hard.

K.C.: Are rest days so important to you?

M.S.: The body can heal. The mind can heal. It is down time. It is like a leg massage on the bike. It is important for the body to regenerate especially after you have been racing. Especially after consecutive hard days, or leading up to a big race. I am always telling my athletes that resting can be more important than the training itself. One or two days easy.

I think back to my successes in big races, and they have all been achieved by just doing. Not looking at who is next to me. Just this tunnel vision. That it is just me. Like I am the only one in this race. Who cares about anyone else. Who cares if they don’t like me. I am not there for them. They may even start liking me more after I win bike races. I have tasted victory. I have tasted it before, and I feel that I will taste it again. I am trying to be more consistent. I have ridden a strong season so far. It was disappointing at South-East Crit Series. Right now, I am the 5th or 6th best finisher. I want to be on the podium, and not finish 4th or 5th or 6th. Kendra [Wenzel] has always told be that I am quick. She thinks that I am the fastest from A to B. I may not be the most powerful, or most savvy. But, the fastest.

K.C.: What do you believe that means if you can tap into that?

M.S.: If I can somehow tap into that, then I should be winning bike races. When I jump, I tend to open a pretty big gap, pretty quick. If I can take all of the tactics, and energy that I have used in the middle of a race, and apply it to the end of the race, when it is all strung out, then theoretically I should be winning. The team dynamic is really important. If you are a good sprinter, you need a good lead-out. That seems to be true, most of the time. There are some riders who can cherry pick off of other riders. Right now, Tibco has their lead-out down. Colavita are pretty strong. We are a young team, and we haven’t mastered our lead-out. It comes down to the last laps of the race, and most of my teammates are learning. They are representing the team by chasing down attacks, but they only have so many matches to burn, and usually they don’t have much for the finish. I think a lead-out would help me. The moral support of my teammates is awesome. When it was time for the sprint for Somerville it was all me. Getting 4th in Somerville was a minor success. I wish that could’ve been on the podium. It may be key to have my teammate do my thinking, and I won’t have to think as much. Just do.

Also, going back to practicing the finish, Kendra had suggested practicing on breathing, and relaxation. Relax your shoulders. And, that calms me down. Catherine has suggested that I have some sort of cue or vision that would help me focus. Visualizing myself on podium, perhaps? It is exhausting to remember all of these things. Some people, these things come very naturally. Some women get a lot of respect in the peloton too. There are some women that I have a hard time fighting for a wheel.

I think that I am getting a little more respect.