Joe Racer Vs. The Bad Guys
Many bike racers with the talent to be super heroes have terrible enemies in the peloton who repeatedly thwart their ambitions. In a bike race, the good guy doesn’t always win. If the good guy has to waste energy dealing with an enemy while his competitor rides unencumbered, the good guy probably can’t win. When I was racing there was one rider who hated me so much that he would chase me, dragging the pack along, even when that could not possibly help his chances in the race. Eventually he got over it or gave up. Many riders are not as lucky as I was. They cannot lose their nemeses.
Some unfortunate racers manage to make themselves physiologically among the strongest in their fields by good training, lucky choice of parents, and good recovery behaviors, but rarely finish anywhere near their physical potential. These riders can go to the front at will, who take killer pulls and always finish with the group, but not on the podium. They can destroy all comers on training rides, but never show well in races. In some cases it’s just bad tactics or incredibly consistent bad luck, but in many others the reason that these riders can’t finish consistent with their apparent physical talent is that they have maniacal enemies that stealthfully follow them everywhere, thwarting their every move.
I’m not talking about paranoia here. Many riders cannot escape from the ones who are ruining their chances in races because they sabotage themselves. It’s as if these riders have two personalities: one who wants to win and a conjoined evil twin who wants to prevent that same victory. The evil twins have many sabotage strategies that they invoke against the would-be super-heroes residing in the same bodies. Here are the profiles of some of the more notorious villains. Do you recognize any of them?
This bad boy or girl has the strength to win but uses it up “testing the legs”. He or she goes off the front or takes strong pulls to see how the legs feel, ignoring the fact that the test is using up the matches that will be needed later. This villain is known for mid-race monologues. “Oh yeah, I’m strong today! Oh yeah. My training is working! Oh yeah. I’m off the front. Oh yeah. You think you can keep up with me? bwahahaha!” After the race, the Tester can tell everyone that he or she felt good for a while but didn’t quite have it at the finish. Well duh! This rider doesn’t have it at the finish because he or she left it on the course earlier.
When Tester threatens sabotage, remember the best defense: Patience. The only test that matters is the one where one must make or respond to a tactical maneuver. Riders have won while feeling awful, and lost while feeling great. It doesn’t matter how good or bad one feels, only whether one can make the crucial move at the crucial moment.
The Arsonist is the Tester’s more insane younger sibling. He or she attacks left right and center, throwing matches all over the field until they are used up. The arsonist is part of many failed breaks, but rarely the later successful ones. He or she says things like, “I broke away X-times but no one wanted to work with me so I sat up”. The Arsonist is often an incurable reprobate, undermining the same rider again and again. The best the Arsonist can hope for is to be picked up by a team that needs his or her aggression to soften the field early in races.
Cycling is a team sport and riders who can work together do better than riders who go solo, but team tactics generally only make sense if the team works for one of its stronger riders. When the strongest rider has misplaced maternal feelings and works as a domestique for his or her weaker teammates, dragging dropped riders back into the field or leading out a poor sprinter for instance, it should be no surprise when the victim of Team Player finishes where a domestique should; in the back of the field or off the back.
Neutralize Team Player by formalizing potential team tactics. Arrange to have the weaker riders support the stronger on the team at least some of the time. Other times the stronger rider can help the weaker develop. If the strong work for the weak every time, the team comes up empty-handed every time.
Macho Man insists on doing his or her “fair share of the work” in the field or in a break while others sit on. This character is such an idiot that I won’t even elaborate on how he causes problems or how to cure them.
There’s a saying that “insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results”. That’s as true in bike racing as it is in life. Nut Case is actually a whole family of goofballs. Riders who have the talent to win a bike race one way (climbing or sprinting for instance) who insist on racing another way that is not consistent with their abilities will not win. The rider with poor acceleration but who still tries to sprint off wheels late in a sprint, will lose. Nut Case may be heard mumbling, “this week I’m going to try harder. This week I’m going to win,” week after week. Sorry Nut Case. If you don’t have the talent to win a particular way, you need to find a different way to win.
There are a few generous racers who will sacrifice themselves to stretch out the pack when it is bunching up and getting dangerous. We should be grateful that these riders are willing to play that role in lower category races, but when an individual rider lets the Rescue Ranger take control of his or her mind and body, he or she needs to accept at the same time that he or she is no longer trying to win the race. Rescue Ranger is riding like a domestique and should expect to finish like one, only without the thanks of non-existent teammates.
There are plenty of riders who are strong enough to finish with the field or even on the podium but never do because they let Chicken Man mind-control them. When Chicken Man is in charge, his victims ride off to the side or back of the pack to avoid being endangered by squirrelly riders. The rider who lets Chicken Man take over often feels a good decision has been made, a decision that will help preserve skin, bones and Lycra. The problem of course is that when two riders have equal ability and one drafts while the other plays it safe, the drafter finishes in front of the safe rider. In fact a weaker drafter can win while a stronger safety-oriented rider goes off the back. This is not to say that every rider should adopt a “no fear” attitude. Rather each rider needs to develop the skills necessary to safely negotiate the pack and keep Chicken Man at bay.
Mr. Nice Guy
Winning bike races means making (or allowing) other people to lose them. It means taking advantage, hurting others, making people feel stupid and causing them to be disappointed. It sometimes means making them take responsibility for themselves. Mr. Nice Guy doesn’t want anyone else to feel shame or suffer or get hurt. He’s unwilling to do what is needed to succeed in bike racing and won’t be succeeding until he gets over himself. Mr. Nice Guy will do better after realizing that most of the riders in the field are going to be humiliated whether he wins or not, and that he has as much right as anyone to be on the podium.
The Drunken Master
The rider who does everything right on race day but downs several beers in a sitting, eats poorly or stays up all night on other days is not going to race as well as his more monkish counterparts. The rider who is overly tempted by the demons in beer, blue eyes or jelly doughnuts increases the challenge to be overcome on race day. Serious bike racers must be serious 24×7, or close to it.
Neutralizing the Bad Guys
It is okay to make errors in preparation or in bike races themselves, once per type of error. If one learns an important lesson in each race and applies it in all future races, success will come soon enough, but when an internal bad guy makes one consistently throw away chances of winning by wasting energy on other goals, no amount of training will make him or her strong enough to win. The internal bad guy must be neutralized before success can be achieved. Riders have many reasons for keeping their own enemies with them when they race. Sports psychologists give these reasons names like “fear of failure”, “fear of success”, or “low self-efficacy”. No matter what the origin of the competitively ineffective behavior, the first step to correcting it is recognizing what one is doing and why. For some riders, the other-than-competitive priority may be more important than winning. That is a decision that should be made consciously and owned up to. A racer who is really not trying to win will save himself and his friends a lot of confusion by stating the true goals clearly.
When any of the above “Bad Guys” are controlling a rider in a race, that rider has basically no chance. A rider who wants to win but who is committing self-sabotage must make defeat of his or her internal enemy a top priority. The defeat must be total. So long as one is engaged in the battle with self-sabotaging behavior, one is not adequately focused on winning. Defeating the internal enemy may require extensive introspection and commitment to a better way, or it may mean working with a sports psychologist or a coach trained in sports psychology. One way or another, a racer who hopes to win must make winning the one goal: not helping others, not being nice, not being safe, not showing off, not winning in a particular way… just winning.