by Caroline Nolan

Push harder. Dig deeper. Fight a little longer.

Every athlete has a mantra. These mantras are written on top tubes, posted on social media, and certain ones have become synonymous with famous cyclists. Jens Voight is well known for his shut up legs mantra allowing himself to push past the pain to achieve greatness.

Sophie de Boer maintains focus on her goal with the simple phrase fight for it written on her top tube.

Stephen Hyde has his little reminder, swing hard, handwritten on his handlebars because if you’re going to swing…

Many athletes use mantras for motivation. © Chris Merriam

Many athletes use mantras for motivation. © Chris Merriam

Everyone has a phrase to power them through intervals, competition, and bad days. These phrases, or mantras, are important for keeping things in perspective and allowing the mind to focus on accomplishing what, in that moment, may feel impossible.

Sometimes, the mantra of the day is taken from another athlete—maybe as a way to harness their energy into your own. And, other times, the mantra is made up on the spot to direct the mind to focus on the task at hand.

It can be ever-changing or it can be constant. It can be poetic or just a reminder to persevere. Whatever it is, it has the power to make us believe, and make us push our limits to fight to the finish, push past the pain and enjoy the process.

I haven’t quite figured out my go-to mantra. I bounce between a couple of mantras depending on the day and how I’m feeling. The theme is constant but the words change. Some days, thanks to my terrible hay fever and asthma, the mantra is simple:


One breath in, one breath out. I fixate on it—as, above all else, all I can hear is my rapid breathing as I gasp for air. My concern becomes less about my competition or my race and more about controlling my air intake, or lack thereof.

But the phrase also has another meaning besides the physical process of just pulling oxygen into my lungs and on to the rest of my body. It’s a reminder to calm down. Relax. Focus on my goal and stop panicking about things I can’t control.

One of Caroline Nolan's mantras is "breathe." © Chris Merriam

One of Caroline Nolan’s mantras is “breathe.” © Chris Merriam

The mental side of racing has just as big of a toll on how an athlete is handling the stress of the endeavor as the physical. Control the mind and you can control the body. If I can control my breathing, I can control my outcome and ensure my personal success.

Other days, my mantra becomes more poetic and metaphorical:

Bird by Bird

No, it’s not a tough, powerful-sounding mantra like many other cyclists boast. It has no relation to fighting or pushing past the pain. It’s soft, it’s soothing, it’s borrowed from a book.

Racing is overwhelming. The starts are frantic. The jockeying for positioning is chaotic. And the tone of a race is fast and furious. It’s easy to get caught in the commotion and let the nerves get the best of you.

Cyclocross starts are frantic, so keeping perspective is important. © Chris Merriam

Cyclocross starts are frantic, so keeping perspective is important. © Chris Merriam

I don’t need a mantra to remind me to race full speed ahead. That’s the whole point of racing at an elite level. If I didn’t have the drive, the motivation, the mental fortitude to go into the red every race, I wouldn’t be here. Instead, what I need, is a reminder to stay calm, take one thing at a time, and ride my own race.

Bird by Bird

Focus on one thing and then the next. Don’t get caught up in the mayhem and burn matches where it doesn’t make sense. Find the opportunities where I can be successful and ride how I want to ride. Don’t let others dictate my race. These are the reminders I need to push myself and do my best. Smooth is fast. Crashing is slow.

Last weekend at Charm City Cross was a good reminder of this.

For the first time this season, my legs felt strong and my confidence was high. But the grassy power course didn’t have as many technical features as I had hoped for. It was fun and it was fast, but it was not my ideal type of course.

I went in with high expectations and was immediately reminded that anything can happen in a race. A strange mechanical plagued each race, and I felt like I was struggling to stay between second and fourth positions. I could feel my confidence waning as I dropped back in the group and fought to chase back on.

I could have become flustered and crashed or self-sabotaged my races. Instead, I stayed patient. I gained time and positions where I knew I was stronger and took opportunities to recover. I maintained composure and ultimately finished on the podium both days.

Each race is different. From the athletes racing to the conditions and the flow of the course, every race presents its own unique challenges and opportunities. Some may suit one athlete better than another, but it’s how each athlete handles the course, the competition and the pressure that determine the success on the day.

The mantras are key to this success. They are the little reminders and the motivation to go for it and chase those dreams. My mantra is personal to me. It gives me drive and it gives me purpose. They are my little words to live by and my little words to ride by. What are yours?