Hey Kid! Wanna Get Lucky? – Defending Against Misfortune in Bike Racing

This article has been updated from an article previously published in ROAD Magazine.

Coaches often say that racing success requires genetic talent, hard work and luck. You get the talent from your parents and there’s not much you can do about it. You put in the hard work. You hope for the luck.

If you’ve been racing a few years, you’ve no doubt been the beneficiary of some spots of good luck: you happened to be up front when the field split, a team mate had a helmet to lend you the day you forgot yours, no one took your solo attack seriously, or you got bumped off the road somewhere with a rideable shoulder. One way or another, some bit of good fortune made it possible for you to compete or win, or at least to stay upright. We don’t usually think of the luck being something we control, which is tough because luck is as important as talent and hard work.

You’ve probably also been the victim of bad luck a few times: The bottle that bounced out of the cage, the flat tire just after the end of free laps, the crash you got caught behind, the cramps that hit in the sprint, the race start you missed, the chain that fell off at the bottom of the steep hill, the bonk that hit after you made the selection, sliding out on the last-turn sandy patch or any of dozens of other seemingly random attacks of Murphy’s law that precluded you from getting on the podium. No matter how well you trained or how strong you were, little things have come between you and the big prizes.

Is hope really your only tool for bringing good luck or avoiding bad luck? A racing buddy used to say, “Hope in one hand, scoop manure with the other and see which one fills up faster.” (This is not exactly what he said, but I’m not sure the editors would print the accurate quote.) Given how devastating little things can be, it’s horrible to think that misfortune is beyond your control and could hit you at any time. A bit of bad luck can make you pack-filler or a DNF in a race in which you could otherwise have collected prizes. If you rely on hope and nothing else to provide your luck, you’ll come up empty handed all too often. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Making Luck– Preparing for Opportunity

You can’t eliminate bad luck through hope or prayer but you can generate a lot of good luck and avoid a lot of misfortune by deliberate action. It has been said that luck is what happens when opportunity meets preparation. You can manufacture luck. Most riders are smart enough not to make the same mistake more than a few times. Unlucky riders are the ones who don’t recognize and avoid repeating the mistakes they’ve already made. Lucky riders avoid errors and are prepared to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Being prepared means doing your training, perfecting your bike handling and your sprint, taking care of nutrition, studying tactics, getting to racing weight and lots of other things that you can read about in this column or in coaching books. If you do these things you will be ready when your chance comes. You will have a chance to be lucky. Success also requires that you avoid bad luck.

Defend Yourself

Your first line of defense against misfortune in racing is a combination of observational skills, memory and sense of outrage. It also helps to be obsessive about your gear and your training. For instance, your bottle bounces out of its cage on a ride. You leave it or put it back in, ride off and forget about it. Guess what’s going to happen some day in a race? On the other hand, if you remember the bounced bottle and call it unacceptable, you are on your way to better bottle luck. If you adjust or replace the cage or get a bottle that fits better, you will not have bad bottle luck again.

If your chain falls off when you shift and you don’t do anything about it, what’s going to happen when you shift in a race? What if you take care of it before the race? Take a moment right now to think through your last few weeks of riding. Take note of anything that needs adjustment or tightening on your bike, your shoes or even the car you use to get to races. Be outraged and take care of the problem right away. By doing this you eliminate a whole category of possible bad-luck scenarios.

Learn from Mistakes

Your second line of defense against misfortune in racing is your ability to follow rules; not the racing rules but the rules of experience and common sense. Here’s a starter set of rules: Do not race on your training tires. Do not train on your racing tires. (That one’s for road cyclists. MTB and ‘cross riders can race and train on the same tires so long as they have plenty of tread left and are checked for thorns and other potential puncture-makers before each race.) Arrange a feed in a race long enough or warm enough to need more than two bottles. Do not hammer on training rides in the final few days before a race. Do keep your knees warm. When driving to a race, allow more time than you expect to need. Do bring your spare wheels to all races. Don’t ride new equipment in races no matter who gives it to you, even a sponsor. I or at least one of my clients have failed to place in a race for each of these reasons. For instance, I work with a very talented and hard working professional MTB racer. In two of his key races one year his sponsor gave him new prototype tires and a new prototype derailleur. In the first race some of the knobs tore off from the casing and left him with an irreparable blowout. In the other the derailleur body actually cracked in half under normal load — end of both races. If he had tested the tires and derailleurs for a few weeks before racing them, he’d probably have raced on dependable gear and at least finished both races.

By the time you’ve been racing a few years you’ll know dozens or hundreds of these rules. Take a moment right now to think of at least ten besides the ones I’ve listed. Do you follow them all the time? (If you are new to racing and can’t think of ten more rules or you don’t understand the reasons for the rules I’ve listed, get yourself an experienced rider or coach as a mentor.) When you accept and learn to follow the rules you know, you’ll avoid a whole second category of misfortune. The sooner you accept them, the sooner you start to manufacture your own luck. You can learn a lot by trial and error. You can learn a lot more a lot faster by riding with more experienced riders and working with a coach. Just being exposed to the right way to do things is not enough however. Attitude and respect count for a lot as well.

Many beginning riders have the mistaken impression that they are going to do things in a whole new way. They don’t need geeky Lycra shorts. They don’t need to eat or drink while riding. They can just ride hard all the time and then race. There’s a reason why finishing far in the back of the pack is referred to as “being schooled.” That’s where our beginning rider finds out how ignorant he or she is and how much there is to learn.

You Must Care!

Your third line of defense against misfortune is you attitude. This has several aspects. First, stuff matters. Hope is not enough. You have to do things deliberately to avoid bad luck and generate good luck. You have to care enough to take advantage of the information you have. If you don’t deal with possible sources of bad luck, you will have bad luck. If you don’t prepare to take advantage of opportunities, you’ll never have good luck. If you go to races with a buddy who is habitually late, you are going to be late for races. You have to train up to the point that you can keep up without much effort most of the time so that you can match attacks when they come. Otherwise you’ll never be lucky enough to be in the winning break.

There is a second vital aspect of attitude: Respect for your competitors. At least some of the riders you are trying to beat, and all the ones that matter, are talented and work hard. You are going to have to work hard both in training and in manufacturing luck if you hope to beat them.

A third vital aspect of attitude: respect for the way things are done. You may indeed be lucky enough to discover a new way to train that hasn’t been used before, and there’s even a very slim chance that it will be more effective than what other people are doing already. You may discover that you have a special ability that lets you use tactics that have never been used successfully before. Still, there’s probably a good reason that no one else is using your special training method or new tactic, so before you stake your reputation on your discovery, find out what successful riders before you have done. Do those things and then deviate for good reasons, not just because you don’t know the usual way of doing things.

Until the genetic engineers figure out a way to activate a dormant Superman or Wonder Woman gene, talent will still be beyond our control. With the right motivation though, both hard work and good or bad luck are at least partly under our control. Do your training. Be observant. Respect yourself and your goals enough to correct deficiencies in your equipment, your tactics and your preparation. Learn how successful racers live, eat, sleep and train. Learn and follow the rules of experience and common sense. Respect your competitors. Manufacture luck, by the truckload if possible. Pretty soon, you’ll find your hands full of prizes. You’ll find yourself getting lucky.