Zen and the Art of Bike Racing – Relax, Focus and Enjoy the Contradictions

By Head Coach Scott Saifer

This article was originally published in ROAD Magazine in May 2009.

What takes place… is believed in only after it has been accomplished. There will be great progress and success. Advantage will come from being firm and correct. In that case occasion for repentance will disappear. – from I Ching, translated by William Legge

Coaches often talk about training and racing in mechanical terms, treating the body as a machine to be tuned. We talk about adjusting body composition as if it were a matter of twisting a dial to the desired percentage, or bringing on a peak as if that meant winding up the timer and waiting for the bell to ring. We talk about being a more aggressive rider as if one can simply decide to do that. That approach ignores the importance of the mind in bike racing so better coaches consider sports psychology and emotions. We talk about adjusting levels or arousal, developing confidence, overcoming fear, and discovering motivation. Even that approach is incomplete. There’s a limit to the success and satisfaction one can find just by twisting the knobs of training, nutrition, tactics and psychology.

Personal philosophy and attitude dramatically affect satisfaction and success in bike racing as in life. At the heart of bike racing is a collection of contradictions. Those who can accept the contradictions far out-perform those who fight them. Bike racers seek victory, but cannot will it into existence. They seek fitness, but cannot create it. Bike racers must train and race very hard, but must minimize effort most of the time to succeed. The rider who can relax while excited has an advantage, as does a rider who wants victory with all his being, yet can take defeat without being angry or losing motivation. All a rider can do is behave correctly to prepare for fitness or victory and then wait for it to arrive. No matter how much the rider controls, ultimately, attitude and the universe of which we are all a part determine success.

Bike racers must be controlling, detail-oriented planners, thinking about what to eat and when, how to train and taper and what tactics to use, but they still don’t control the outcome. Racers can do all these things well and still win some races and lose others. The outcome depends on many variables, from wind and weather to the behavior of dozens of other riders and the presence or absence of a few grains of sand. The most successful riders are the ones who obsessively create the right conditions for success, but are also mellow. The rider who cannot accept reality wastes vital energy fighting what cannot be changed. The rider who sees and accepts the universe as it is now can then work to change it.

Who does not Lose, Wins

There are many ways to lose a bike race. One can arrive at the race tired or not allow enough warm-up time, train too much or too little, eat inadequately or infrequently leading to a bonk, or be inattentive and crash. One can sprint too early or wear oneself out in doomed breakaways. The successful racer learns to avoid these errors. The racer who makes fewest errors does not necessarily win, but does improve the chance for a win and decreases reasons for repentance. The successful racer does not create victory, but does create a situation in which victory is possible. The racer desires and seeks victory, but ultimately can win only when fate complies.

Who does not fight the “Is” can mold the “Will Be”

Pain is inevitable, but suffering is not. Suffering comes from desire to avoid pain. Accepting pain ends suffering. When one hurts and focuses on the hurt, one resides in a world of hurt. Quitting is the only way to surely stop the pain in a bike race. The rider who makes the choice to stop the pain, loses. The rider who chooses recovery as the current goal when there is work that must be done to keep moving towards victory, loses. Pain is a given. The individual who focuses on the unpleasantness of the pain is not focusing on more important things. When one accepts the pain, it becomes but one small part of the beautiful tableau that is a bike race.

Challenges and difficulties are unavoidable. If one obsesses on the unfairness or the size of the obstacle, one is sidetracked from the pursuit of victory. One can fight what is, but not change it. When one accepts the current situation but commits to making the future different, then one makes progress. If a sprinter trades pulls with aerobically stronger riders, he or she will sooner or later be dropped. The will to hold on will not change that. Accepting the reality that one is weaker and sitting out of the rotation, even if that means being yelled at, can bring a very different outcome as the others wear down relatively quickly, leveling the playing field. The non-sprinter who expects a miracle and gets drawn along until a sprint has no chance, but if the non-sprinter can recognize what is going on, he or she can change it. When one recognizes and accepts what is now, one can begin to favorably shape what will be.

One cannot accept the current situation until and unless one can see it and one cannot see unless one is fully engaged in the moment with an open mind and open eyes, ready to ask, “What is going on here?” “What are those riders doing and why?” “What will happen if I do X, and what will happen if I don’t?” It’s impossible to really consider those sorts of questions if one is all fired up, excited, and super focused. It is impossible to make the physical efforts needed if one is not somewhat fired up, excited and focused. There is a balance. Inadequate excitement and one does not respond quickly and with commitment. Too much excitement and one doesn’t see important clues. Racing with inadequate focus is quite rare and very dangerous. Riders who become distracted crash and often take others out as well. Excessive focus can be equally dangerous. The rider who is totally involved with his pedal stroke or getting out of the wind doesn’t notice overlapping wheels or a break moving up on the outside. Fortunately excessive excitement is relatively easy to correct. A few deep breaths will usually do it.

A Hard Sport that favors “Lazy” People

Success in bike racing requires hard work, but it requires something akin to laziness most of the time. Yes, bike racers must train many hours, but what is the optimal way to spend off-bike time? A bit of stretching, massage, some weight lifting are all good but the most important thing is being lazy: lying around, eating and sleeping or resting, saving up energy for the next ride. In a race one has to push the pedals, sometimes hard, but the most successful racers are the ones who do the least possible work. Bike racing does not reward the hard workers unless they know when to do the hard work and avoid it as much as possible otherwise. When researchers hooked crit racers up with power meters and asked the simple question, “how does the average power during races of winners compare with that of the other riders?” they found that the winners have the lowest average power output over the whole race, and a very high output in the last few minutes and especially in the last few seconds. Winners are “lazy” and selfish riders. They’re the ones who always look for a way to get through the same bit of the race with less energy expenditure. They skip pulls and suck wheels all the time, unless pulling helps them personally. They are aware of and take advantage of wind direction and pack dynamics, and they ride the drops with elbows deeply bent anytime they can hear or feel the slightest wind.

Even in training, “laziness” pays off, if you call multi-hour rides at an easy pace laziness. The rider doing base training who pushes to boost average speed or average power on that ride, fails to progress. The one who just moseys along, doing what needs to be done to cover the distance but not digging for extra effort, gains speed and average power for future rides. Again the rider who seeks the goal does best by simply doing what needs to be done and allowing fitness to happen. Forcing it, or trying to force it, prevents success.

Who Slows Down, Rides Faster

Riding slowly and easily is often the best way to get faster. It is easy for riders to sound like they know something by saying “train slow to go slow”, but saying that simply shows ignorance of physiology. It would be more correct to say, “ride aerobically to develop efficiency and aerobic capacity”. In the case of learning to descend, or re-learning to descend after a crash, riding slow is essential because fear will prevent progress. Pushing the envelope while descending is a good way to practice being scared as one descends. Adopting a “no fear” attitude is a good way to get into a crash, justifying and reinforcing the fear. Getting out of the cycle of fear causing poor descending and poor descending causing fear is pretty simple though: The frightened brain is very poor at learning. Accepting that one is afraid and descending slowly enough to feel comfortable, in control, and not afraid allows the return of confidence and, eventually, speed, just as training at an aerobic pace lets one increase the aerobic pace.

Embrace the Contradictions

Riders often ask me what I think of novel foods, training methods or cross training modalities. My general response is that there is nothing magical. Success in bike racing requires lots of training and good nutrition and recovery. Yes, yoga, Pilates and plyometrics can add variety, and supplements may increase confidence, but ultimately they won’t substitute for many hours of bike time, a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains and a full night’s sleep every night. Racers are always looking for an edge. Successful riders take advantage of whatever they can learn about better training, nutrition, or recovery methods, but they also tend to be unusually good at accepting reality as it is presented, not fighting the universe but working with it. Recovery depends on the ability to relax, and even the most successful racers miss the podium in a lot of races for every race they win, so the ability to accept reality and the will to change it are equally essential. A rider in a constant state of rage is not relaxed, not recovering and not improving.

If a rider wants victory, he or she must accept defeat, learn from it and move on. A rider who wants to effortlessly pedal along at what are currently leg-breaking speeds must avoid overtraining by accepting how fast he or she can ride effortlessly today and doing that. To see all the meaningful clues in a bike race, one must not focus too closely on any one of them and one must not try so hard that one cannot maintain a broad focus. To win in this very hard sport, one must learn to be judiciously lazy. To make all this possible one must take some deep breaths and accept the contradictions at the heart of bike racing. Ommmm.

Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching try to help their clients develop a balanced and realistic approach to cycling and to their lives as they relate to cycling. For more information about working with us, please visit www.WenzelCoaching.com or call 503-233-4346.