Sunday, February 01, 2015

Racing - Mental Freshness

1986, somehow made the GFox flyer.

2015 marks the beginning of my 33rd season of racing.

Now, I can't boast about my palmares like many other riders. I have zero national titles (in fact I never entered a National Championship race), I have never won a race between May and August, I've never won a one day race per se (like a once-a-year race), and I routinely get shelled by brand new, never-raced-in-my-life-before riders.

But I love to race. I just love it. I've loved it since I started racing, through all sorts of trials and tribulations. This January I did a couple 3+ hour rides and a whole slew of 2 hour rides.

On the trainer.

For me I enjoyed it, but others consider a 3 hour ride on a trainer torture.

Front row in the Tour de Michigan.

So what's the secret? Why am I not burnt out on racing?

It's hard to say but it's a number of things.

First off, I love to race.
Second, I have realistic expectations.
Third, I accept that there will be off years. Years, not weeks or days or months.
Fourth, I set some long term goals.
Fifth, I accept life events that are out of my control.
Sixth, I do no structured training.
Seventh, I reassess my own abilities and do occasional honest, no-BS self assessments.

I Love to Race

I love to race. I love the technical stuff (aero, fit, stuff like that), the tactics (drafting, cornering, permutations of drafting and multiple people around me), the fitness aspect of it (when to burn what matches I have and if I burn too many can I find another match somewhere?), and finally the human part of it (some of my most satisfying races have been so because either I worked for someone or someone worked for me).

I've stayed fresh racing for most/all those 30-odd years. I've never wanted to quit racing per se. I've had a number of years where I didn't want to promote races (I've promoted races since 1994, mainly the Bethel Spring Series), but I always, always, always wanted to race.

Marty, in the middle, just soloed to a win. I won the field sprint, Ed, to the left, got second in the sprint.

No team kit as we didn't hold a race the prior year.

I've said this before and I'll say it again. Let me do some base miles in the winter and then let me race 3-4 times a week for the summer. I'll be happy doing all my rides in races from March - September. For easier days I'd just sit in or drop off, harder days I'd attack and such, and on target days I'd try to do well.

Managing Expectations

A big part of my enthusiasm is understanding my limits or, in corporate terms, "managing expectations". I see a lot of riders quit when they hit their developmental plateau mainly because of a combination of genetics (most important), time, and focus. The rider can't accept that they're close to their genetic limits (or sometimes time limits etc) and they stop.

I understood my limitations long before powermeters existed. My best 40k TT was a 1:03:30, my fastest ever TT was a 25.5 mph 7 mile effort. In hills I get dropped by M50+ women who don't race but who are fit cyclists (M50+ is a polite way of saying "a 53 year old woman"). I did a 10k mile year early in my life and DNF 44 races or some stupid number that year. Decades ago I accepted my position as a weaker rider who could sprint and worked with that.

A newer racer asked me why I don't lose a bit more weight and do more hilly races. I asked him why he didn't lift more and make his 1000w peak a 1500w or 1800w peak. He said that was a bit ridiculous and then realized that he was asking me the same thing, albeit in a different manner.

I can't think of a better way to explain that than the following: if I was close to 0% body fat, with a lean body weight of about 130 lbs, my w/kg number would still be in the 3.6 w/kg range. This is at ZERO percent body fat, 40+ lbs lighter than I am now.

The reality is that I won't be a 4 or 5 w/kg rider, ever. Heck, even if I doped I wouldn't get very far. I understand and accept that. That other racer took some time to assimilate what I said, to accept that it's not realistic for me to try to become a 4 or 5 w/kg racer. Ironically he used to be an elite athlete in a different sport, looking like a sprinter, all muscular and stuff.

A different way of looking at it is to say that my FTP is so poor that even a 50% increase (talk about a lot of doping!) would only put me in middling Cat 2 or "a pretty strong Cat 3" territory.


Others also stop because they can't handle racing in a field, have a crash, and stop because they don't understand what happened in the crash. Without understanding why a crash happened (and potentially how to prevent it) it's very easy to become so neurotic about crashing that racing becomes impossible.

It's critical to learn and practice field/peloton skills, things like bumping and touching wheels and such. Without those drills there's a huge unknown area of riding that you can't possibly understand. If you practice bumping and touching wheels then those situations become a little less foreign.

It's like driving a car - if you never lose control of the car then you won't know what it's like to do so. I went to a parking lot in the snow to learn how to drive in the stuff, doing laps in a school parking lot for literally 2 or 3 hours one night. Fortunately everything went safely and it gave me a lot of time to learn. I did the same with my first girlfriend when I was helping her learn to drive. The first few times she let the car go it was a bit scary because she didn't have any of the right reactions in her head. After an hour or two of drills in a deserted, snow-covered parking lot (including a drive by and short conversation with a curious police officer), she was fine. She counter steered into skids, she could modulate the brake pedal much better (pre-ABS days), and she could pump the pedal if the tires locked under braking.

We were on the road, maybe a day later, when the tail end of the car went sideways while on a pretty busy road. My girlfriend immediately counter steered and regained control of the car. I was a bit freaked out but she'd handled it just fine. All the practice she'd just done came in handy and we continued on without a problem.

In bike racing I've had my share of crashes. It took until 2009 to break a bone, in a pretty hard shunt in a training race. Someone swerved across my front wheel so hard it was practically horizontal before I realized what was going on. I actually can't believe the rider could swerve so rapidly so far, it was that quick and violent.

Putting a good face on.

I understood what happened, I understood how I could have avoided it, and I've made some minor adjustments to how I race based on the crash.

However that was my first broken bone. Risk-wise I know that this kind of incident will virtually never happen. I accept that risk. The Missus trusts my judgment, both during races and in situations like this where I assess risk. Without her blessings, without a deep understanding of the risk assessment thought process, I'd have been a racing statistic as well.

Accepting Underperforming Seasons

Another aspect is my Zen approach to a season, if you will. After about 10 years of racing I got much more casual about writing off a season. I have an idea of how I'll go for the year based on March and April and if it's not that great then so be it, it's not a big deal. If the season doesn't start well I don't think it's worth it to train like mad to have a good August or whatever. I did that once or twice and the amount of work and sacrifice to have a few weeks of good racing just wasn't worth it.

In 2012 at Bethel in the last race I stopped after a couple laps to say hi to Junior.
Absolutely worth it.

If I'm underperforming (meaning any year except the ones where I've been on fire), I try to have fun with the racing, do what I can, and think about a better year in the future. In 2014 I barely trained and I had fun until I had 3 DNFs in a row in August. This year I'm almost as light as I was in my second best year 2010 and I have a lot of hours (for me) in Dec and Jan. I have no idea what my season will be like but I'll find out in March and take it from there.

Long Term Goals

I try to set realistic goals for myself. My last major goal thought was in 2010, when I simply wanted to see how I did. In 2011 I told myself no serious racing until 2017 when my racing age would be M50+, so I essentially wrote off 6 seasons immediately (because we wanted to start a family and I figured only when our kid went to kindergarten would I be able to train a bit). This year I hope to do okay, and if my first races go okay then I'll think about specific target races in the summer.

My long term goals include stuff like actually winning a summer race, something I've never done, or being in a break that makes it to the finish. I'd like to be able to pull. I'd like to be able to help teammates. I'd like to be part of some spectacular teamwork during a race.

Accept Life Events

One thing is my racing has gone up and down naturally with life events and I never really fought these ups and downs. When I was single/dating but otherwise not committed (no kids, no marriage, etc, although I did own a bike shop) I was racing tons, training tons, etc. All my money went into bikes. I had this reverse snob thing going where if a rider's car was worth more than the bike rack on top of it then they weren't as "hard core". I realize now that that's not necessarily true, but at the time I was driving a $1 car with a $500 roof rack and about a $1250 bike on said rack.

$1 car, $500 rack, $1250 bike.

There were years where things were tougher outside of cycling, like when my mom was sick and then passed on 3 years later. I started that period, 2000-2003, weighing about 155-160. I spent all my free time with my mom (my parents were living overseas when she was diagnosed so she moved in with me for 2+ years - I brought her to all her appointments etc for a while). Toward the end we had round the clock bedside time with her, taking shifts sitting next to her and talking or whatever, and I really didn't think about the bike much. When my mom died I was 215 lbs or so and rode maybe once every 3 weeks, still managing to place here and there (Cat 3 Crit Champ 2002) even though I had to size up my bike (to a size M Giant) so my legs wouldn't hit my gut as hard. I was so fat I didn't recognize myself in a picture from that era.

About 200-205 lbs in this picture, spring 2004.
Note the size M Giant - I had to use it to keep my gut from getting in my legs' way.

I had promised my mom to win the Bethel Spring Series and the Cat 3 Crit Championships just before she lost awareness of her surroundings. After she died I trained hard again, driven to do well. It took a couple years to win Bethel (two Series before I could win it, and then I barely managed), another year passed before I got the (2006) Cat 3 Crit gold medal, but I did it.

No Structured Training

I've gotten burnt out on training so I don't do structured training. The last time I did intervals with any regularity was probably 1990 or something, in school. Nowadays most of my attempts at intervals blow up after 20 or 30 seconds. I JRA when I train, do whatever I feel like, I motivate thinking about racing. I train only so I can race.

2010, best year since 1992. 155-158 lbs.
Photo John Specht

Readjust Based On Changes

Over the years I've lost a solid 20% of my top end speed in a sprint. I virtually never break 40 mph nowadays and often I'm sprinting at only 37-38 mph.

A good sprint toward the end of the SUNY Purchase Tuesday Night Sprints.

I remember being upset that I didn't break 44 mph in any of the 10 or so sprints I did that night. A fast sprint for me there (slight downhill, cross tailwind) was 46 mph, and there were a number of riders that were as fast as me.

For the past few years I've struggled to sprint well against the 3s but I can hold my own with the M45s. I'm starting to accept that and am starting to do more M45 races.
 For me this is huge, as I still don't think of myself as a Masters racer even though I'm closer to 50 years old than 40.

This clip was the Nutmeg State Games from 2014, same course as the above link from 2006. I missed the break (teammate and former M35 Canadian Cross champ in it - he won), I missed the chase (Frank McCormack, ex-pro, driving it), but I could handle the field sprint. This was the first Saturday of June. On the same course against the 3s I got something like 20th in the field sprint, and I was so far behind the winners I didn't even see what team they raced for.

In terms of training for the above race I actually did very little, due to life stuff. I rode 50 min in the week of June prior to the race. 8 hours in all of May. 7 hours in all of April. I knew I didn't have much training in my legs so I did what I could. I suffered here and there, I took joy every time I could make an effort without shelling myself, and getting to the field sprint was an unexpected bonus. Winning it was an absolute shock.

Goals for 2015

Right now my goals for 2015 are as follows:
1. Do reasonably well in the Cat 3-4 races in the Aetna Nutmeg Spring Series. And promote some good races in that Series since I'm the promoter.
2. Try to win a summer race. This is a forever repeating goal so it's automatically on the list.
3. Be strong enough to finish or partake in some of the races that I couldn't finish or partake in during the last few years. In 2013, for example, I was in at the end of the CCAP Kermis. In 2014 I got shelled a lap or so into the race.
4. Help others (teammates, friends) in races.

Danbury Crit, 1991? I got 4th, another summer race I didn't win.


Drew said...

Great post

F16F22 said...

Nice post Aki. I think this is the first time you've put all that in one concise spot, but everything you've written here comes through in your other posts, but you have to read them all! I was really down in the dumps and disappointed in myself after my first season of racing but after reading your blog from start to finish last winter you gave me much needed perspective and now I'm lining up for my third season of racing, even though I'll likely never win a race or even score enough points to upgrade to Cat 3. I'm perfectly fine with that and cannot wait for the season to begin.
For me, besides all of the reasons you cite, I think I've come to the conclusion that I'm one of those guys who races in order to have a reason to train. I like the idea of being "an athlete" again, like back in High School!

Good luck with all of the changes you're going through this year: life, promoting, racing etc.