Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Expectations and Perspective: the mental game of cycling.

Athletics is entirely mental. Every season of cycling has further reinforced this notion for me. I have also, throughout the years, found out the golden race ratio: for every one time you succeed in racing, there are fifty times you either mess up or get screwed over. To be able to survive the mental damage these odds inflict you must intentionally strengthen your perceptive and meticulously analyze your expectations.


Let me speak in concrete terms: two weekend ago in Portland I raced the Alpenrose Challenge, which is a premier National 3-day Track Race poised on the steep and bumpy concrete walls of the aging Alpenrose velodrome.

Throughout the course of the three day event the temperatures persistently rose to the high nineties. The relentless heat reflected off the white track heightened the intensity of the event, creating an atmosphere of survival and restlessness.

Friday morning I was running late. The pursuit, which is an individual time trail event for 4 kilometers, began at 10pm. I arrived at 1030pm, a half an hour fashionably late, due to a lapse in foresight about the pace my forty-year-old pick-up could maintain on the highway. Luckily, the race directors knew me well and allowed me to register late and slotted me in last to go. This meant I had to get ready and warmed up in about 40 minutes, about 2 hours less than I would comfortably have liked.

Over the past six months my training has been sporadic. College loans and the necessity of having a consistent income has put a damper on the nomadic freedom of an elite bike racer. The inconsistency in income most domestic "pro racers" have--which consist mostly of prize money, even for riders on established pro teams--was not going to cut it when it came to paying off my fru-fru humanitarian degrees.

Because of this inconsistency in training, and lack of time and money to race, I have had to shift my perspective on training. If I were to try and train as much as I did when I was racing full time, then I would end up a complete stressed out mess. So, to avoid this, I decided that my training would be purely for fun, and I would do it only when I felt like it. This alleviation of pressure allowed me to actually train more, since it was more of a hobby as opposed to 'homework.'

But, the lack of training regiment does have its downfalls: security. I had no idea what type of shape I was in. Over the years I have dominated the pursuit, and I did not want to embarrass myself now.

As I briefly warmed up I ignored the condition of my body and focused rather on my mindset. Half way through my warm-up an Australian Professional cyclist set a blistering time, nearly one second off the course record. His time was two seconds faster than my fastest time last year when I had won.

Initially I became downcast. There was no way I could beat that time, I said to myself, I am out of shape!

But then, I stopped the complaining thoughts and starting checking off the list of advantages I held: I knew the track better than anyone. No one has beaten me in a pursuit besides the alien genetic experiment also known as the Taylor Phinney trust fund.

So, I decided that no one else was going to beat me. And this meant today.

I was up in two heats. Usually in a pursuit you race with another person who starts on the opposite side of the track. Originally I was going to go solo, but a last minute change from the officials had me racing a heat earlier with a different rider. This would not have been an issue if the officials practiced standard protocol of having riders race with similar ability levels.

At the start line I knew I was going to pass the other rider in my heat quickly. What I did not realize was that I would pass him twice when I was on pace to beat the course record by over two seconds.

On the last lap, coming into the finish line, I had to pass the rider a second time, which caused me to have to accelerate over him on a 47 degree banked wall, which is the equivalent of having to sprint up a wall after holding near 600 watts for 4 minutes and change.

The clock stopped with me missing the record by 0.5 seconds and a bunch of money for breaking the record.

I was disspointed.

But why? I had won? Who cares if I missed the record?

I had two options: I could complain about missing the record. Or, I could look at the moment and say, "Damn Dan, you crushed this pursuit harder than you ever had and you aren't even training. Nice work!"

It was a tough decision, one that I could not make, so I, like a good human, decided to do both.


As an athlete it is so hard to ignore the negatives and only focus on the positives. So hard I would argue it could be impossible. We, as humans, learn from mistakes, and usually the important mistake--the ones that teach us the most--are the ones that are hardest to forget.


The next event was the Madison Race--a race consisting of two man teams racing together in a tactically mind boggling endurance event. The team of two racers literally grab hands at 30+ miles an hour and throw each other into the race amongst 30 other competitors.

The Madison is hands down my favorite race because of the tactics, speed, and adrenaline. Last year, my former Madison partner, Coach Adrian, and I dominated the National Madison circuit. Our season was cut short by him breaking his shoulder in a road race...

Since Adrian is racing on the road this year, I had Jamie as my Madison partner. He is strong as all hell, and we suit each other tactically. From the very beginning him and I were establishing ownership of the race. After the first sprint I attacked and punished the field.

The next lap, as I came sprinting into an exchange with Jamie, his wheel hopped up from a bump in the infamous Alpenrose track surface. When his wheel touched ground the force ripped off his tire, causing him to plough into me. The force of the impact swung my handle bars ninety degrees.

My wheel was now in a precarious position of having 190 pounds of me pushing into it the wrong way. The wheel decided to lose and literally, not figuratively, literally snapped in half, sending me flying over my bars, shoulder first, into concrete at 30 miles and hour.

My shoulder broke. And my bike was now 1500 dollars cheaper from all the damages. I had expected to go home with at least 500-800 bucks in prize money for two days of work, and instead I was in the hole big time. The head impact caused me to have long lapses of brain inactivity, also known as space-case-ness.

In these moments one single word crept to the forefront of my brain: QUIT. Yes, it is time to quit. The crashes, the money, the stress, the unavoidable golden ratio had me tired and worn out.


On the three hour (ahem, I mean four hour) drive back to Seattle I had a lot of time to think about how racing fits into my life. In less than a year I have gone from thinking unquestionably that I was going to be a lifetime pro cyclist, to deciding to race regionally for fun so I could pursue other artistic interest, to now thinking about giving up the sport entirely.

Something was not right. I had to figure out why there had been so many shifts. I knew there is something about the sports that keeps me coming back for more? For me, it is the feeling of pushing my bodies limitations. The competition is merely a way I can gauge how hard I have gone.


Thus, the story ends simply: Despite having a broken shoulder, the next weekend I went out to race the pursuit at the FSA Grand Prix, which is the Northwest's premier track race event. Because of my shoulder injury I could not race any of the mass start events, but the Pursuit is a solo event. Just me against the clock.

And I won. I was 8 seconds slower than my time last year. But, this did not matter. Beating my best time was not my expectation. I knew my body would be tired and worn from the crash. My only expectation was to win, and the reason I wanted to win was to prove to myself that I, despite the rough stretch of racing luck I have had, could still maintain a positive perspective, the perspective necessary to never give up.