If you’re planning to race your first cross-country rally race, you already know which essentials you’ll need, how to prep your bike, and how to get in race shape. However, there’s one more aspect of rally racing that no one talks about: mental skills. A rally is a test of endurance both physically and psychologically, and the right mindset can help you get to that finish line just as much as a well-prepared bike and fitness routine.
So what can you expect from your first rally, and what mental skills and techniques will help you get through when the going gets tough?
First things first: what do you hope to achieve during your first rally race? For most rally first-timers, just finishing is already a huge accomplishment. If that’s your priority, then set the goal of finishing the rally – and stick to it. When you’re in the thick of it, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture: at the bivouac, you’ll be meeting new people, hanging out at the beer tent, and getting swept up in the chaos. During the race, adrenaline will kick in, and you’ll get carried away trying to chase faster riders or push your own edge beyond a dangerous limit.
Keeping a cool head is crucial during a rally race. It’s tough to ignore everything that’s going around you, whether at the bivouac or out on the special stages, but keep reminding yourself you’re here to finish. Don’t stay up late putting away beers and socializing: after the brief, have a cold one, by all means, but don’t linger and get to bed early so you’re properly rested and ready for the next day’s stage. Hangovers and exhaustion can cost you dearly in the long run – a few navigation mistakes, a few bad decisions on the tracks because you’re tired, and you’re out.
Equally, when you’re riding, focus on your own navigation and your own pace. Most of us want to chase after the faster riders, but think of it this way: is it worth pushing it over a more technical section, or are you better off going a little slower but safer? Crashing out because you went too fast on a section that needed more precision and attention can be the finish of your rally. Remember why you’re there, and ride your own ride.
Before you line up at that start line, have a little bit of a mental budget for what lies ahead. Some days, you’ll do well, and other days, you may fall back toward the end of the bpack, experience bike issues, or simply start feeling fatigue and physical pain adding up. A rally race is like a rollercoaster ride full of extreme ups and downs; you need to budget for those downs and keep going.
Sometimes, the temptation to give in may be overwhelming. When you’ve crashed for the fifth time and just can’t drag your bike out of a ditch, when you’re exhausted beyond what’s humanly possible and facing another hundred kilometers of a special stage, when the terrain gets so rough you feel like you can’t ride another meter, just stop, take a breather, and zoom in on the task at hand. Don’t think about the overall distance to the end of the special or the finish line; think about what you need to do now to get moving again. Tell yourself you’ll just ride another kilometer, get back into the saddle, and get going. Then, ride another kilometer. And another. Sometimes, this “one foot in front of the other” approach can drag you out of all sorts of dark scenarios.
This one is as unexpected as it is insidious, but rally blues is a real thing. Having raced a rally, you’ve just lived through some extreme challenges and extreme conditions; you’ve experienced so much in such a short amount of time, and you’ve realized just how strong the bivouac camaraderie is. You’ve felt so alive, and you’ve been so hellbent on crossing that finish line… but now what?
Lots of riders experience a low emotional dip post-rally. As you drive or ride away from the bivouac, back to your “normal” life, your job, your everyday routine back home, it’s completely normal to feel inexplicably sad. The rally experience is exhilarating in so many ways, and the “normal” world with its “normal” routines may start looking a tad bleak in comparison.
You’re not alone in this. Rally blues exist, and most riders experience it to one degree or another.
Registering for another rally, of course.