Meaning "How did you do", not how did I (me, the writer) do.
All too often you'll start home after a race wondering if you did all you could do. I'm writing from a sprinter's point of view, so for me "doing all I can do" means if I sprinted well. Obviously if I win I did well, but my concern isn't as much with winning as it is with maximizing my available resources.
It's true that winning is great, and I speak as someone that doesn't win that often. Many riders don't realize that I've never (never!) won a Sunday race during the summer. In fact, in recent memory, I don't think I won a training race during the summer. Once May hits I have a zero hit rate for wins until September rolls around (and my first and last win in a September was, get this, in 1985, in my first Senior Men's Cat 4 race; until then I'd been racing only Juniors).
So, yes, wins are great.
But winning isn't everything.
I know, I know, get off that high horse. Seriously, though, winning isn't the end all. If I raced for wins, I'm sure I would have quit a long time ago. It took me three years for my first win, and until then I seriously had about zero chance of getting a top 3. Consider entering a race as a regular age racer (18+), and your competition includes a George Hincapie or a Frank McCormack. An honest, no BS assessment of the situation would conclude that, yeah, you have absolutely no chance of winning.
(And for the life of me I can't remember the movie where I got that "no BS assessment" quote from so, please, help me out.)
At any rate, racing for me is doing as well as I can. That means that first I want to be involved. Next I want to finish. Finally I think about a place. The last bit is obvious so I'll discuss the first two bit more in depth.
Involved means doing stuff like getting into a break so my teammates don't have to chase. Or pulling a teammate (or just the field in general so that a teammate can benefit).
Finishing is simple - I'd like to get to the finish of a race. Sometimes I can't get that involved because I'm too focused on finishing.
When I balance the two I realize that being involved (and consequently dropping out) is better than just plain old finishing (and not being involved at all). Consider a ProTour domestique in a one day race where he pulls like mad to keep a break within sight, drops out of the race after 150k at the front, then learns later that his team's sprinter won the day. That's better than sitting in, the long break making it, and the team's sprinter winning the field sprint for 5th.
This assumes that I'm in the race to race. Sometimes I'll enter a race more for training than racing - any time I race twice in a day the second race is for training. If I haven't been training much at home then races become training (and, honestly, for 2012, that'll be my modus operandi).
When training by racing it becomes important to finish the race. Getting in a few extra laps helps too - to wit, the last race I did I got shelled only a few laps in. Since I hadn't ridden much this whole year I kept going, by myself, until I got lapped by the field. Normally, for Cat 3s and above, I don't recommend this (if you can't stay in a race you probably have no business time trialing behind it), but when the race is the only hard ride you'll do in a month or two, then by all means go to it.
On a great day, when I'm racing to race, I may consider "deluxe" actions, like if I bridged to a break (i.e. did I make it or did I explode before I got there), or, perhaps, if I could stay on while we went up a big hill and get to the finish unexpectedly (like at the Whaling City Cyclone).
But all this is just a prelude, a long winded one.
When I finally sprint for the line, I often find it hard to judge if I left anything out on the course. I mean, okay, it's easy to say I sprinted well if I won the sprint, but did I sprint as well as I could have? Often not, and although winning one sprint without sprinting to my max may be nice, it hurts me when I need to really dig in a closer race and end up walking away disappointed.
If I sprint I want to sprint 100%. I don't want to just ride to the line, I want to have a perfectly timed sprint, one that empties the tank but lets me get to the line as fast as possible. Being first is nice, but knowing I did the best sprint possible is great too.
If I got beat while doing my best sprint then I can't complain about being beat. If I get beat because I had a crappy sprint... well, I'll be bad company on the way home.
My own tests on if I sprinted well...
1. If I finish close to the front, within a couple places of winning, or, if it's really tight, within 10 or 15 feet of the winner, I try and remember to see what happens after the sprint. I involuntarily coast, primarily due to throwing my bike at the line. Here's the test: If I coast past the winner in the next 50 meters I could have won. I should have gone earlier because I had more speed at the line.
2. If I finish close to the front (just like #1 above) but racer coast past me after the line, I've done the best sprint possible. I may have been slowing at the line but I got there before they did. This is satisfactory for me because I sprinted to the best of my ability, even if I didn't win.
3. If I am nowhere near the front, like more than 5-10 places or 20-30 feet from the front, then I really didn't belong in that sprint. With the new USAC points system in place, riders could chase points all over the place by sprinting in for a 10th or 15th or something. Honestly, though, if you're not in upgrade points range (top 6 in most crits), it's not worth sprinting. Fine, I understand sprinting for 10th if a 9 rider break has already won the race, but in a field sprint it's hard to justify sprinting for lower places, except in big money races (20 places typically).
I'm not saying I don't sprint from pretty far back because I have, and in the past few years I've done as well as getting second. I do disagree with sprinting for 50th place. If I'm 10th in a field sprint then either I blew in the sprint or I'm flying past people after a very late jump. But in general if I think I won't be around for the top 6 then I won't sprint. If I'm sprinting then I have something in the tank.
That's a final note. At the 2012 Mystic Velo Crit, M45+, I sat up in the last lap because I didn't trust my legs not to cramp in the sprint. Rather than contesting a sprint and risking a massive cramp, I sat up and played it safe. After the race I thought that maybe I should have done something, anything, but I don't regret sitting up. I've miscalculated my resilience or been surprised with a massive cramp and it's bad, bad news.
That day I deemed a partial success. I rode more that day than I have on any day in the prior month, both in time and miles. I time trialed a bit on my own and found that, yes, I stink at time trialing. I also realized that even with no miles on my legs I felt okay for shorter efforts (to wit: I had the fastest lap in the race where I got shelled). Endurance is a different matter.
Hopefully later this season I'll have one of those sprints where I'll be coasting after the line, no one ahead of me, then guys coast past. A good sprint, one that maximizes what ability I had that day, that hour.
One of those ideal sprints.