This is the first of a series of stories on women who embody the No Gods No Masters spirit, women who manage in one way or another to move forward regardless of the difficulties encountered on their way.
Some of you into Women’s WorldTour may know her already, but Valentina Scandolara is a real gem in the pro peloton. Not only she's a fantastic fighter with a huge heart, but she's also incredibly creative and nevertheless introspective.
Italian spirited with a rounded international mentality Valentina radiates an incredible positive & brilliant energy that sticks with you.
She's been part of many top teams among which are Cylance, Orica Green Edge or WM3 (now Waowdeals) and the Italian national team at the UCI World Championships.
Getting to know Valentina Scandolara better and interviewing her was an absolute pleasure, and she's gifted us with so many words of wisdom that i know you will appreciate and get inspired by. Enjoy it.
I was down with a fever, but i decided to finish it anyway
NGNM: When was the moment when you realized that your body wasn’t working as it should have? And how have you dealt with it initially?
Valentina: Well, for the past two years I’ve had many initial signs that something wasn’t working as it should have, went through two "major breakdowns”, but each time I got back with a training plan that ultimately was hard to follow (had to go back to racing too soon).
During the last Giro Rosa, I was down with a fever, but I decided to finish it anyway. I tried to quickly recover the following days to then take part in "La Course”, but I wasn’t still feeling well and once at home I physically crashed and couldn’t get out of bed for two weeks.
At that point I had no choice but to take a break from racing & investigate what was happening: I went and looked for an endocrinologist as after some researches I had a feeling there was something wrong with my adrenal glands. And I was right….
What really helped me, is my interest & enthusiasm
towards so many different things
NGNM: How or what helped you deal with taking a break from pro tour, and which were the psychological steps that helped you refrain from psychologically withdrawing?
V: Well to tell you the truth it wasn’t hard at all. Professional cycling is part of my life but isn’t my WHOLE life; I have so many interests and things I love to do which a pro-cyclist life refrains me from pursuing/doing.
Therefore I dove back into my studies (Psychology at Padova University) and when I could get my body out of bed I flew to Peru for a long-awaited solo adventure, and after that I spent the rest of my summer trekking around my beloved mountains, riding my motorcycle and "last but not least” spending time with my friends and family who I usually don’t get to see that often during the (cycling) season.
I think that what really helped me (then & in general), is my interest & enthusiasm towards so many different things that when I can’t do one (in this case cycling, which is so energy & time-consuming) I can quickly switch on to the others left aside and those hundreds others I constantly think about.
In essence, my curiosity and creative personality are my best antidotes to the "low lows" in my life, in general.
NGNM: Are there any similarities in the way you manage difficult times on the bike and these past few months?
V: Same as above
NGNM: When on your bike and you face instances of fatigue, do you have something like an ‘inner talk’ to take you through it? Or do you use any particular techniques like breathing or visualizations to overcome moments of crisis and not give up?
V: In those moments I don’t use any technique in particular, also because I’m in such a deep “flow-state” that I wouldn’t be able to use them rationally. That said, I regularly meditate and use self-hypnosis techniques when I don’t bike. They're basically about focusing my attention inward, releasing any concern or worry what might be coming from external sources that I can't control and re-connecting with myself. These and other practices are essential in my life in general, not just for cycling: I am not religious but I'm very spiritual, and I just need to regularly "recharge" and "re-balance".
NGNM: What is your morning routine that helps you set your day the best?
V: Urghhhh mornings! It’s been 27 years that i’ve tried understanding how mornings work! Scheduling my day ahead of time helps me a lot, i usually use to-do lists to wisely manage both energy and time.
I turned pro at merely 18yrs old and started immediately racing with the strongest women in the peloton
NGNM: Three difficulties that you’ve faced in your career that have offered an opportunity for something positive later on.
V: For the first years of my career, one of the most significant hurdles for me had been the lack of an Under 23 category.
I turned pro at merely 18 years old and started immediately racing with the strongest women in the peloton on courses that were entirely different in both length and elevation gain from what I was used to in my Junior days. This was something super hard to adjust to.
I wasn’t at all ready for such a great shift forward, and it took me a few years before getting used to it. Looking back I have to admit that this has actually pushed me towards becoming more determined and resilient.
Another painful moment for me was when I had to deal with a lack of competence of a few Italian teams I was with. Utterly incompetent personnel, old-fashioned practices around nutrition and training, unpaid salaries (or unmet expense refunds)… in a nutshell unacceptable conditions for a world pro-team.
Luckily I then met Luisiana Pegoraro, the best DS I’ve ever had, and it’s thanks to her if I’ve grown as a person and an athlete, and I’ve then been noticed by international teams, starting from Orica.
This journey has led me to appreciate more my experience with “top” teams and to understand that a positive and motivated attitude helps you face and ultimately overcome difficulties in a much better and effective way. Not only that, it helps to gather more positive people around you (or "guides" you to more favorable environments) and that's paramount for success and fulfillment anywhere in life.
Lastly, these past two years haven’t been easy at all for me, as you can imagine. But again, while this experience has taught me to understand and appreciate other sides of my character, this extended break (from World Tour) has also offered so many new opportunities and experiences that I wouldn’t have had, had I still be racing. It's a constant work in progress to re-set my priorities and make changes.
In all honesty, I feel quite enriched by everything that’s happened to me recently. A positive and motivated attitude helps to gather more positive people around you.
NGNM: Your psychology studies are taking you through the beauty and complexity of the mind and human nature. What are three suggestions that you feel giving to amateur female cyclists today?
V: First of all, please focus solely on yourself and on what you need to do to get better or advance further: don’t look outside of yourself and take others as a comparison or unit measure, just deal with what you’re able to control personally.
It’s not worth spending precious energy on anything else.
Secondly, take care of your health and happiness: learn to listen to your body, your mind, and your emotions because they’re connected with each other. They know better than anyone else what should or shouldn’t be done.
Feed and train your body according to its needs and capabilities.
If you can, get a coach or someone with cycling experience who can help you, but please remember that you are ALWAYS the best coach for yourself.
If there’s something that doesn’t feel good or convinces you, talk about it with the right person and try to find a compromise, don’t force yourself (and don’t let anyone push you) through something that doesn’t feel right at that moment. Trust your instincts, they know better than books.
Trust your instincts, they know better than books.
You are ALWAYS the best coach for yourself
Lastly, “per aspera ad astra”: overnight success doesn’t exist, and when we see someone who’s better than us, we rarely take into consideration all that it took to get there, their hard times or those moments when they were close to quitting or when they were questioning the meaning of it all.
When we follow our “heroes” on social media we just see their filtered lives through polished images, full of sunshine, smiles and success: they don't post the dust, the (figurative) scars and tumbles they all more or less often have.
This’s actually an important issue for a healthy mindset today.
We should take a deep breath, pause and understand that others, just like us, struggle and fail, and the only difference between us and those who are “successful” (and let’s define what ‘success’ really means to begin with…) relies on how they react to their setbacks and failures.
When we see someone who’s better than us,
we rarely take into consideration all that it took to get there
I love and keep experiencing the astonishing validity of the Positive Psychology field's findings. And no, Positive Psychology is not that branch of Psychology that merely advises you to smile and always says that all is good just for the sake of it.
Our mental attitude reverberates incredibly on our energy, and therefore on the environment around us. We have an immense power to turn things around or make them better, and we do so by developing a “positive mindset”. We just need to become aware of this power we all have, and accept the responsibility for our life’s outcomes (or some of it) onto ourselves.
I think these three scenarios suit not only cycling, but they can be extended to our overall well being.
We have an immense power to turn things around
or make them better
NGNM: Two of your short & long term goals
V: Short-term: Graduate in Psychology and get back to my best shape for the World Tour. If my body doesn't go back to where it was, I'll take another direction in my life.
Long-term: Not only partake but be competitive at the next Olympic games and always learn and try to and possibly bring joy & smiles to the people I find on my way.