Win or Go Blind Trying

You have to be tough to succeed as a bike racer. If you don’t like pain, this is not the sport for you. This doesn’t mean that bike racers deliberately seek pain, but simply that success frequently requires doing things that hurt. In some sports you win by doing something amazing that your competitors can’t match: Bowlers throw consecutive strikes; gymnasts execute flawless routines; golfers sink long putts. There may be pain involved, but it is not essential to the competition. Sometimes a bike race is won in an amazing way with a decisive move, but often one wins by making the other competitors lose, by showing them that they are inferior, by making them give up. That’s how you whittle down a breakaway group or get a gap on a long hill. It might be how you win a head to head sprint, where if you can convince a competitor, even for split second, that it is no longer worth trying to beat you, his hesitation gives you the win. Of course you have to do this without wasting so much energy that you become inferior yourself. If two riders are physically and tactically equal, the one less willing to give up will win. Attitude affects the outcome. The one who wants to win enough to go blind trying beats the otherwise equal rider who isn’t willing to suffer that much. The loser says that he started to see stars during the sprint and backed off. The winner says that his vision blacked out except for a small circle that stayed fixed on the finish line, and that he rode down that tunnel to glory. The habitual winner doesn’t think this is strange and might not even mention it.

(This discussion is not just metaphorical. During intense effort it is normal to only be able to focus on a narrow bit of the environment. When you make a hard effort with concentration you may not notice that you can’t see or hear what is happening nearby. If you are distracted for a moment though, you may try to see in the blacked-out zone. Then you’ll know something strange has happened. If you’ve never gotten tunnel vision during a bike race, you are either good at concentrated effort, or you’ve never gone really hard.)

Forget about it

What does it take to succeed at something hard and what can you do to improve your chances of success? The first and most important thing is simply to forget that it is hard. Mid-race recovery is an important part of bike racing, and there are opportunities for it, but when recovery becomes your priority, what you are actually thinking about, you are starting to lose. Bike racing requires hundreds of split second reaction: move up between two riders before the gap closes, cross a gap before it grows, jump on a train for a free ride to the front, switch to a better wheel in mid-sprint. Each of these can save some energy or make the difference between winning and losing. You must grab these opportunities in the fraction of a second they are available. If you hesitate or are distracted by pain or the need for recovery, you miss the opportunity and the race gets harder. If you are thinking about how hard you are riding or about how much or how soon you need recovery rather than the task at hand, you are not riding to win. Unless you are hugely physically superior to your competitors, winning requires that you be prepared mentally for opportunities as they arise.

Thoughts control actions

In my work with clients I often have athletes do various kinds of testing, such as strength testing in the gym or ramped effort tests on the bike. These tests measure one-rep max strength, maximum heart rate and other such things, but we get another piece of information even more important to rider success than these measures. Athletes divide into two categories on their emotional response to maximal tests. Some reach a point in the test where they decide for various reasons to stop. It hurts enough; they don’t think they can do any more; they are tired; or they don’t see the benefit to further effort. Others simply go until their bodies fail. In squatting, they push and push and push again until the bar fails to go up. During a bike test, they push until the pedals slow down even as the rider wills them to continue to turn. Is it any surprise that the athletes in the first group are mired in the beginner categories while those in the second group are or become elites? Phrased simply, losers decide when to stop trying; winners do what needs to be done.

Winners ponder their actions and develop strategies that play to their strengths, but when it comes to crunch time, they do what needs to be done, or destroy themselves trying. If one wonders at crunch time whether one can do what needs to be done, one is already pondering failure. Thinking about something is the first step towards making it real.

How, you might ask, can one not consider the possibility of failure? How can one become so mentally tough that one can win or go blind trying? A big reason that people back off just when they need to make the maximal effort is that pain and suffering make them afraid, which is almost as bad as being afraid of pain and suffering. Beginning riders who have not yet pushed to the absolute limit of their ability for speed or endurance only know that the harder they go, the more it hurts. They wonder about the upper limit of pain that they can take. They wonder if going hard is going to do long term damage. In a primordial way they wonder if hard effort might make them die. The experienced and successful racer knows that there is an upper limit to the amount of pain that can be generated so that the amount that can be withstood is not an issue.

Once one has made and recovered from enough painful, maximal efforts to understand that the body is not damaged by them, the pain of effort changes in a subtle but important way. For the beginner, the pain of effort is tinged with fear: Is this okay? Am I hurting myself? The desire to back off is a natural protective measure. The tough, experienced racer, knows that no permanent damage is being done. The element of fear disappears, and with it the desire to back off. Then another emotion can become dominant: the desire to defeat others. The pain is not really pain anymore but simply the wonderful feeling of going very, very hard.

How can one get to that mystical state where pain is no longer pain? There are two steps. The first is to suffer in training, not in stupid irrelevant ways like riding without water or sleeping on a bed of nails, but in ways that relate to bike racing. The second is to make truly maximal efforts with some regularity. I’m not advocating making every ride a suffer-fest, but including some suffering as part of your training. The appropriate kind of suffering depends on the time of the training season.

To prepare yourself mentally for the suffering of bike racing, do emotionally difficult training: Ride big gears up hill (after you’ve done your base miles and you have no knee troubles of course); ride early in the morning to prepare for the suffering of early starts, and in all sorts of weather (suitably dressed of course); seek out long stretches with strong headwinds; ride bumpy pavement. If you have a choice between the hard way and the easy way, go the hard way. One Cat-I rider of my acquaintance who has won a lot of races that he maybe should not have won based on body type is famous for knowing where all the dirt roads are in our mostly paved area, and for riding his road bike on them, including hilly ones, as part of many of is rides. Notice that I’m not talking here about exercises that blast your heart rate into the stratosphere, but rather things that are mentally challenging, things where you could at any moment make them easier or quit, but you choose not to.

A favorite physiological exercise at Wenzel Coaching also helps build toughness is the Big Gear Little Gear Ride. To do this, warm up generously and then continue at an Endurance pace (70-80% of your own measured Maximum Heart Rate). Follow a typical training route including whatever hills or headwinds you usually face, and staying seated the whole way. On level ground find the gears that make your cadence about 70 rpm and about 90 rpm. As you ride, switch back and forth every 10 minutes between these two gears, no matter where you are at the time. This means you may up-shift in the middle of steep hill or in the face of a headwind, or downshift on a descent or while flying with a tailwind. If you would have to spin over 110 rpm, you can coast. Other than that continue pedaling, alternating the two gears until you are 15 minutes from home. Then spin at a recovery pace for the remaining distance. If you do this on a hilly route, you won’t find a lot that is mentally hard by comparison in racing.
The only way I know to make the needed maximal efforts for the second stage of toughness development is in competition. At least among people who have the right mindset for racing, the desire to win and refusal to be beaten are much stronger motivators than any other reward. If after being dropped or losing a sprint, you wonder if you could have gone harder, you did not go hard enough. If you are recovered within a few seconds, you did not go hard enough. If you did not hurt, you did not go hard enough.

Are you tough enough for bike racing? If you are losing to riders with similar body types and similar training histories, this is a question to consider. If you ever find yourself giving up, you need to improve toughness. It’s a cliché, but winners don’t quit, and quitters don’t win. If toughness is a weak area for you, go do something difficult at least once a week.

(This article first appeared in ROAD Magazine in July, 2007)