Saturday, April 11, 2009

Racing - Killer Instinct (Or Not)

It seems that I mentally and physically peak for Bethel each year. Part of it is intentional - I don't go to California to get sick, although it seems like that sometimes. Part of it is definitely not intentional - the absolute exhaustion I feel after the Series ends typically keeps me off my bike for more than a few days. This year it took me 5 days to get back on the bike, and the bike itself has been neglected for the last six week.

The reality is that doing well at Bethel has been sort of a self-expectation.

I want to win it one more time.

A friend and I had a conversation about this topic in a round about way. He lamented his now-missing "killer instinct", the one that lets you hold your ground, that momentarily lets you let go of any fear or doubt in your mind, the thing that lets you pull moves that, frankly, scare you if you watched someone else do the same thing. He felt like he had it before, 10 or 15 years ago, but in the ensuing time off, somehow this instinct became diluted.

Talking to him, I realized something right away.

I don't have that killer instinct.

Okay, some of you may disagree, when I try and get through a little gap with 200 meters to go. Or if you watch my face contort in pain as I try and hang on for dear life at the back of the field.

But to me that's simply "trying". It's nothing special, it's how I've been brought up to approach whatever I do (although honestly, it's how I approach things that I want to do). It's what I do when I want to do a good job, or if I feel that things need to get done. I try hard when I help sweep the course, when I put together the registration stuff, even when I'm doing something as simple as putting away an Echo ProSweep gizmo (trying hard in the last case means putting it away so it doesn't fall over when the van goes around a corner, and so that the fuel doesn't leak out all over the place).

After I work hard at something, it feels good. A long time ago, in the Miami Vice slash Studio 54 days, I asked a friend of mine how cocaine made you feel. He thought about it for a moment, then looked at me.

"You know that feeling when you've just handed in a semester long paper? One that's like 20 pages long and you've slaved over it for the last week or two just to get done?"


"Well, that's what it feels like. You feel like you've just handed in that paper, that you're on top of the world. No more stress, no more tension. You just feel good."


Then he looked at me closely.

"I don't think you should try it. I think you'd have problems if you did."

I thought about it, and besides the fact that it costed a lot of money that I didn't have, I decided that I'd take his advice, simply because I knew that if I could get that feeling without having done any work, well, I'd probably have problems.

Anyway, when I race, I try hard. Sometimes, I have to confess, I give up pretty quickly, but it's not for a lack of trying. I'm a realist; I don't live in some la-la fantasy land. If I get dropped three laps into a thirty lap race, breathing so hard my lungs are trying to escape through my throat, I'm not going to time trial around the course behind the field, thinking that I'll get back in through some miracle consisting of worm holes and some other weird galactic phenomena.

I understand some of (most of?) my limitations on the bike, and I've been in places where such limitations (at least those that I've defined to be my limitations) ceased to exist. Since I never quite understood myself at that elevated level, attained when I lived and breathed bike racing, I don't really know quite how good I'd have gotten.

However, I do know that even at that heightened level, I never set the world on fire. At best I rode as a consistent Cat 3, perhaps as a severely modest, middling Cat 2. My successes were measured in whether or not I could see wind in a race, or if I had to hide from it until 150 meters to go.

This year I felt motivation the likes I haven't felt in a few years. I know I'm motivated when I feel scared in a race. Scared of not performing well. Scared of getting dropped. Scared of not following up on my friends' and teammates' hard work. I know that I want to do well because I ride scared - near the front, nervously tailing moves, peering ahead at any breakaway escaping down the road.

Fear manifests itself in different ways. A paralyzing, unproductive fear would put me five feet away from any rider in the field, destined to work harder than necessary, probably ending my race prematurely.

A good fear gets better results. I had three races this year where I raced scared, but in a good way. Once my fear of getting left behind translated to a field sprint win, a sprint that happened to win the race. In another, my "racing scared" race resulted in me getting second in the field sprint, third in the race, and, for all intents and purposes, tumbling down the overall. And my final "fear" race saw me patrol the front of a minuscule field until I exploded and went off the back - three laps into the race.

Normally I don't ride like that, scared of not performing. Normally I ride to satisfy my tactical logic, and there are two paths to my logic - racing for myself or racing for others.

If I'm racing for myself, I have certain goals. I know that, at this point, I can't follow breaks. Therefore I have to sit in, relying on others to keep the field together (intentionally or not). I try and do a good sprint, and I judge myself on how I raced versus what I thought was (or would have been) possible.

If I'm riding for someone else, I have other tactical priorities. It's much more important to help my designated leader (sometimes they don't even know that I'm working for them until I do something overt), whether it be sheltering him from the wind a bit, barking out some advice (usually along the lines of, "Get out of the wind!"), or even giving him a route to the front of the field.

Back in the day my motivation for racing, or at least for training, was to go as fast as I could, on descents and in sprints. Sure it was fun winning a sprint at SUNY Purchase, but sprinting really, really fast gave me more satisfaction.

I remember many SUNYs where I sprinted against a Cyclosport rider from NJ. He and I would duke it out, side by side, jumping away from our respective leadout men. As we coasted down to a normal speed, we'd be grinning and talking after the inevitable too-close-to-call, crazy-wild-bike-throw sprint.

"I think you won that one."
"No, I'm pretty sure you got me by a couple inches."

I'd ask him his max speed.
"Dag, me too."

I'd reveal a not-so-secret.
"I have to admit that I run an 12T."
"Me too!"

I'd then confess to my real secret.
"I also run a 54."
"I do too!"
"No way!"
"We need 55s!"
"No, 56s!"

We'd laugh and go at it again the next lap.

Was it about winning the sprint? No, it wasn't. Yeah, it was nice, but that wasn't the point. The point was to do a good sprint. I'll repeat that because it's important to me.

It was about doing a good sprint.

About finding that magical rhythm that let you turn over the pedals in an enormous gear, fast enough to break speed limits in pretty much any part of the town where I grew up.

That Cyclosport racer and I raced against ourselves as much as we raced against each other. I don't remember ever beating that guy in a real race, but out there, in a pure sprint environment, we could ply our trade with no distractions. No breaks, no blocking, just riding the field and then jumping away from it.

I typically criticize running because it's so dependent on fitness, and since I'm usually not fit, I run pretty poorly. Therefore it's kind of frustrating for me. Therefore I criticize it.

Cycling is gloriously different. With wind resistance a main factor in flatter races (virtually only factor), tactics becomes critical. Field positioning, decisions on when to move up or not, on which side to overlap wheels, everything counts tactically in a bike race.

And tactics, man, I love tactics. It can be chess or Go or CounterStrike or Total War: Rome or even karts; whatever the medium, the tactics fascinate me. Naturally, I try hard when I play in a tactical sandbox.

This, then, gives me a crucially different motivation in, say, bike racing, because winning doesn't drive me (if it did, I'd have quit a long time ago). My motivation comes not from wanting to win, but from wanting to ride a good race, from making the most of my somewhat limited riding strengths, from using tactics as best as possible to do as well as I can in a race.

I didn't realize this when I talked with my friend. I just knew that when he lamented his lack of the killer instinct, I knew that I lacked it too. That made me wonder what exactly drives me to race hard. It's a hard enough sport, so obviously I have to have some powerful motivation to have done it so long.

And other than cognitive dissonance, I couldn't think of any other reason why I race so hard. I just try to do my best, using my fascination with tactics and the whole "challenge oneself" thing to push when it gets hard.

Hopefully it isn't cognitive dissonance.

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