What Does It Take To Be A Successful Racer?
I was thinking back to mentoring an Early Bird Racing Series event this winter with many new racers taking the time to learn how to ride in a pack and stay safe in a mass start bike race. After a 75 minute skills clinic, there is a practice race followed by a debrief - my favorite part of the day. The buzz and excitement in the air is special to be a part of and I also noticed that no one is talking about Heart Rate, Power, Functional Threshold Power (FTP) or any other metric that modern cycling technology provides us. I find this very refreshing and it led me to thinking about what I believe it takes to be a successful racer. Don't get me wrong, I love the data and use it extensively as a coach, but also believe many athletes focus too much on the numbers and not enough on other essential parts.
So what does it take other than fitness/power to perform? I believe it takes preparation, confidence, excellent pack riding skills, determination and perspective. These are hard to quantify and often overlooked, but rest assured the successful racers all take advantage of these.
Let's start with preparation other than training. Questions I would ask myself are: Is my bike working properly? Do I need more durable or new tires? Easier gearing for hills? Who is racing and how will they likely race for their best odds of success? Who might show up 'day of'? What are my best odds of success on this course? How has this race played out in the past? Where will the wind likely be coming from? Weather? What teams are represented? How much food will I need in my pockets? Is there neutral feed? A little research and prep will give you a lot of information to be prepared for race day and I am always surprised at how many racers train for hours and know every power number, but are not fully prepared on race day.
Confidence is easier said than done. I believe controlling what we can control can help an athlete to feel confident. You have done the training, prepared properly and now the fun part is race day. Our confidence can get challenged many times in an hour long bike race and I would bet that many stone faced racers are fighting their own inner dialogue if you are. Stay positive and build yourself up - 'I am going to make this selection' or 'stay in contact over this hill'. I believe confidence comes from success as well, so set attainable process goals in your race to build on. I still do this in every race since I know I cannot control the outcome - just too many variables and that is why I love road racing. I like process goals as I know I can accomplish them and that leads to confidence regardless of the result in the race. Process goals can be simple, such as, arriving to the race 1.5 hours early if you tend to run late, starting on the front of the staging area, moving up to the front and drifting to the back of the peloton within the middle of the group, attacking or trying a breakaway, or sitting in the whole race in hopes of a bunch sprint and not chasing a single move. I think this will lead to better success in racing in the long run and help with confidence as you tick off each goal and then can start to set loftier ones.
Skills are often overlooked in the modern era of power meters and intervals. The athletes I work with know that we need to bypass the local group ride at times to get focused work in to be best prepared for race day. With all things, there is a balance though and we need to learn to ride with others and this takes practice. It is our responsibility to the group or race to be a safe rider if we are going to join in. Many newer racers have the bike with power meter, know all the terms, Strava KOMs, get very strong and then show up to group rides or races without any preparation for riding with others. I believe it is essential to learn to ride in groups with experienced riders that take the time to mentor new riders as well as join in on skills clinics in your area. The cycling community is full of people that give back and enjoy helping others. Not only is it fun to learn pack skills, but it will keep you safe and lead to better race results. Sure, the most successful racers are often quite strong, but I believe the consistent ones have the best skills to save energy and anticipate better than others. I often hear racers criticizing others sketchy riding when a crash happens. I believe we can avoid most of these bad situations by developing our own skills rather than focusing on others lack of. Part of pack skills is identifying riders and situations to avoid. Skills practice is not only for beginners. We all need to keep them sharp and practice.
Determination is another trait of the successful racer. Athletes often hear me talk about cycling as the hardest sport I have ever participated in. Hands down. The amount of suffering and discomfort that is needed to succeed is intimidating and awesome. I believe we can will ourselves to do great things if we are determined. I'd bet if you are reading this that you have done intervals and have felt that you were going to crack, but when you get to the last 30 seconds, you can hit it again and there is this reserve that was not there a few seconds earlier. Our brains hold us back to protect us, so it is good to listen to that, but we can generally push a tad bit more if we need to and if we tell ourselves we are going to do it. I have entered many sprint finishes completely redlined for over a minute before the sprint and there is always that little bit I need and I believe it is because I am determined to try and give it my all. I can hold my head high if I tried and came up short, but it is a long drive home if I did not give it my all.
Perspective might be the most important trait to be successful in endurance sports. I once heard another coach say we all get 3 great days in training or racing. I think this is true and can only remember 2 so far myself. I have felt unstoppable and amazing twice in 10 years. Most days are quite hard and racing can be very frustrating as we learn the nuances of saving energy and timing. I have raced very well coached juniors in the Cat 3 and 4 ranks and they take it to everyone and can leave you scratching your head at how this 90 pound ripper lit up the race and won. I have also encountered triathletes and collegiate riders in the lower categories that are quite experienced and dominate as they quickly move up through the categories. Bike racing is hard and we might get dropped on a course that suits us because we were out of position or did not pace our efforts well. Inexperienced racers usually look to fitness as the culprit and it may be, but more times than not, it is positioning, timing and skills. It is very complicated and takes many of us 3-6+ years to start to figure things out and also develop the physical traits needed to succeed at the higher levels. I think the successful racers embrace the process and keep perspective. Things are never as good as they seem and never as bad. When things go well, analyze what led to that and when things go wrong, do the same. 50 racers line up and only 1 can win - the odds of winning are very low and we will lose many more times than we win - especially as we learn to race. Keep perspective and have fun - we are riding bikes and I bet you learn something every race that will make you better for the next one.