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You ARE a real cyclist – how to avoid imposter syndrome

In a sport hung up on rules and details, it’s easy to feel you’re falling short of the mark and failing to fit in. Dr Josephine Perry goes to work on imposter syndrome

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 cycling can be rather intimidating – and none of us is immune from occasionally feeling like an outsider. 

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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, but then add the caveat: “But I’m not a real cyclist”. This inability to regard oneself as a ‘real cyclist’ – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary – is the result of imposter 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.

“Imposter Syndrome can mean a rider underperforms 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 imposters.” 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. 

Where does this imposter 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.

Read the full feature in the April 29 issue of Cycling Weekly magazine, on sale in shops now and available to buy online. If you want great fitness features each week to help you improve your riding, why not take out a subscription? You’ll save on the cover price and have the magazine delivered direct to your door each week.

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