Noun 1. mental and emotional strength in facing difficulty, adversity, danger, or temptation courageously.
As a full-fledged cyclocross addict, it’s so tempting to try and romanticize amateur bike racing, and equally as tempting to minimize it. I’ll attempt to strike a reasonable balance here by articulating a lesson learned this past Sunday at Granogue – a lesson that has me pumped up, in spite of a somewhat disappointing final result. In the end, it’s just bikes, but damn. Working at something one loves to do, and getting something out of it – that’s a big part of the addiction.
I learned a few seasons ago that my head is what matters most. This may not be true for everyone, but I know my best racing results come when my head is right. Basic fitness has to be in place, but with all things considered, what’s going on between the ears on race day probably influences outcomes more than anything else.
Along with paying attention to how my mental and emotional state influences performance, I’ve also come to learn that it takes work and practice. Just as leg strength, watts, and bike handling skills don’t occur spontaneously, the ideal state of mental being on race day requires effort and diligence to find and keep. This brings me to Sunday at Granogue…
I rolled up to the race solo and was psyched to just have the planets align in a way that allowed me to do it. It was the first race of the year for me, and in spite of the fact that it’s not currently part of any race series, I was trying to be focused and have a good result. On the drive up, I passed some of the time trying to envision my reaction to some sort of adversity. It could be a rear flat tire, it could be a crash, it could be a poor start where I slip a pedal. While trying not to harp on those scenarios, I took myself through what I anticipated my emotional reaction would be, then I envisioned moving through that and getting back to the task at hand as quickly as possible. On the best days, these “mental reps” are unnecessary and everything goes really well. At Granogue, I think the practice came in handy.
In the Race – The Nitty Gritty
After a pretty good start and decent first lap, I settled into chase mode (somewhere in the top 10) going after a group of five that swarmed me after spending a little too much time in the “red zone”. Racing hard at my own pace, I took a turn poorly near the end of the second lap. It was a loose, bumpy downhill left-hander and my front wheel washed out due to too much speed, and probably a poor angle. The fall was heavy and my bike was pretty jacked up. The right (rear) shifter had clearly snapped most of the way through the middle of the body (under the brake hood) and was facing outward awkwardly. My rear brake was locked as a result of the cable being stretched by the broken lever, and my bars were at a 45 degree angle with the front wheel. Ugh.
My first immediate thought as I assessed myself and the bike was, “Ok, that race was fun, I’m done though.” I was pretty banged up and I had only pit wheels, no spare bike. I stepped away from traffic as riders had begun to stream past. I don’t know how many, but it felt like a bunch. I freed the back wheel by unhooking the straddle cable from the brake arm and straightened the bars, I saw that besides being unable to shift in the back (broken shifter) and not having a rear brake (now unhooked), everything else was working. At that moment, I realized I needed to pedal on, even if only for my own satisfaction. I drove to Delaware for this thing and I was not going to allow a DNF to appear next to my name as long as could pedal.
After a few seconds of soft-pedalling self-pity, I latched on to the next guy to pass me just before the paved finishing straight. Instantly the prior mental reps paid dividends. Focus shifted away from the pity and negative self-talk and moved toward competing again. I was going to pass this guy and keep going, in spite of the fact that I had what I thought was just one gear and one brake. Hammering up the first incline through a wooded section past the start/finish line, it became obvious I was over-geared. Although somewhat discouraged, I continued to press on with full effort and a bit of anger.
Coasting down an incline in the mid section of the course, I flicked at the rear shifter paddle just for kicks as it flopped around rolling over the bumps. I expected nothing. To my delight, the rear derailleur moved, and while it would only move up and down a couple of cogs, it was enough to breathe some extra life into my legs. The rest of the race was focused on execution and picking off the next guy, focusing on one micro-section of the course at a time. By sharpening focus and effort on the bite-sized goals like catching the next guy, smoothing a series of downhill turns with maximal flow, or drilling it with 1oo% effort up a climb before a brief rest section, I steadily gained ground.
I kind of wish I had access to lap times for this race. I usually don’t care, but I think my last two laps may have been the fastest. I passed a bunch of people, and the last lap felt especially fast. I had worked out some really fast lines through some bits that gave me trouble in the first two laps. I believe a big part of that was because I had to focus on not braking in the corners to avoid another front end wash-out.
While the end result was short of what I had set as my goal, I was extremely satisfied with the overall effort. And to properly put it all into perspective, I think the payoff was not rooted in the size or signficance of the adversity, but in the physical and mental effort it took to thrive (relatively) in spite of it. Yes, of course, it’s just people racing bikes in the grass with a few hundred other freaky, like-minded friends. But doing it – and doing it well – takes significant effort, skill, focus, and a healthy dose of fortitude.