Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Highs and Lows

I'm convinced that it is true that 70% of competition, particularly bicycle racing, is mental. Realistically, that is probably a bit overstated and makes some general assumptions about base fitness level and all, but when all else is close to equal, the mental quotient is huge. Having a good day on the bike versus having a bad day on the bike often relies heavily on the state of mind and attitude in which you approach the event. There is no surer way to guarantee that you are going to lose a race than to think that you can't win in the first place.

I've enjoyed some great results and a number of really good years in a row. This is let me to enter almost any race I've done under the assumption that I was going to come out on top, or at least if not on top in certain races, in the hunt. That seems to have changed a bit this year and what had become an incredibly consistent streak of good fortune turned inconsistent. Wins became elusive. My confidence slipped. And slipped. And slipped. Soon the attitude changed and soon I was questioning my ability, not believing in what I could do in the first place.

Part of this was pure and simple burnout. This year marked the longest consistent "in competition" phase ever, directly following last year which was nearly the same.  Our first race this year was a fat bike race in January. CX ended mid December so there was very little break at all. We continued right into early spring gravel racing and then to MTB, road, more gravel and full on CX. Last year we did CX right through until the Master's World Championships on February 1st. Then a quick change of training to get ready for the early spring road racing, and MTB and the full on CX. Basically, it has been two full years now of pretty much constant competition with big targeted events like Master's CX Worlds and two separate MTB National Championship events, one each year. This doesn't even touch on the full Root66 MTB and Verge and SSCX series last year, as well as full Verge, SSCX and failed bid at the New England Elite BAR series this season. Needless to say, it has been a busy couple of years.

This year I viewed the CX season as a way to salvage what had been a pretty mediocre MTB showing. Yes, there were some highs but there were also some lows, none more so than Nationals. Don't get me wrong, the season started with some incredible, beyond expectation results first at the fat bike race and then at VOMAR and the Rasputitsa. In between though saw a complete breakdown at Battenkill. The early season MTB was also troubled as was the early road racing. Eventually MTB improved but not before more setbacks. However, fitness was on schedule for the state and then Regional Championships as well as Nationals but a moment of inattentiveness and a simple crash threw a wrench into that. Later this summer, the gravel races I'd targeted also became disappointments, first with the VOGP just crushing me and then double flatting at the Dirty 40. The latter was very disappointing as I was in good shape when the first flat occurred and I am optimistic that I could have gone the distance. Through all of this, there was also the team turmoil that was transpiring. Internally, there was dissension and power struggle as well as complete lack of cohesion. Everyone liked the idea of being on a team but nobody actually wanted to be part of a team. We had a team of dissimilar individuals, most of whom wanted to do their own thing.

Now on to CX and the season started off with a great day at Quad CX, doing the elite race and getting 2nd and then the SSCX race for the win. This set the stage for me doing the elite 1/2/3 races at the BAR Series events, which often were also SSCX series events, meaning I did a lot of back to back racing. I was also racing the Verge series for master's and my performance there was not outstanding. A couple of months in, all of this doubling up was taking a huge toll on me, both physically and mentally. I couldn't recover from the three races I was often doing in a weekend, throughout the course of the week. Performance started to fade as did my luck, and my morale. At Canton for instance, I was having a pretty good race in a tough field when I broke my chain half way through the final lap.

Even single-speed races, which I'd had incredible luck with in past years, became struggles. Part of this is attributable to an increase in competition but part was also just me. Part was luck as well though as I had more mechanical issues this year than I have had in a long time. To throw fuel on the fire, I'd missed taking over the Verge series lead on day one at Northampton because I gave up in the sprint finish. I barely claimed the vacant leader's spot the second day by default, leaving me less than proud of the achievement. I'm the type of person that doesn't feel right or take pride in any achievement that I didn't rightly earn. I think this is part of why cheating at anything competitive in which the prize is simply honor is such a mystery to me. You're not fooling yourself and who the heck else matters?

Going into last weekend after a very disappointing performance at Regionals, I had convinced myself that I was done and that it was time to pull the plug on a very frustrating season. Then it snowed and the incredibly good weather that had plagued me all season changed. This past weekend at Sterling I was somehow blessed with the conditions in which I have historically had the very best luck possible. The snow suits me. For some reason, I can go really fast in it. The slipperier and nastier it is, the better I seem to do. Maybe it was all the time I spent in the white stuff as a kid growing up in Northern VT. Heck, we rode our bikes in it even then. Maybe it is all the sand we practice religiously in each and every week during CX season. Frankly, I don't exactly know but I can't think of a snow race in which I haven't come out on top or very close to it.

The race Saturday worked out like a dream, pretty much perfect. I think part of the reason was that I got angry, at myself. I literally rode around gritting my teeth and swearing at myself to go harder, go cleaner and go faster. I got a gap and had the luxury of marking my pursuers and keeping pace with them. It's been a long time since I've had the fire burning down low, the competitive rage. I can't tell you how many times this season I've finished and apologized to Cathy for my performances, beaten not only physically but mentally. I'd simply given up, not believing that I could win. How far I'd come from believing that I was going to win every race I entered. Anyhow, finally felt good about the performance and about earning the race leaders jersey. It was also my first "W" in a very, very long time and the first all CX season in a geared race.

Sunday was more snowy weather though the temperature rose and conditions changed from frozen and slick to soft and mealy. Still, conditions that were much better for me than the incredible number of grass crits we'd been treated to thus far in the season. The start of the race was not as decisive for me as Saturday but within a lap I worked myself to where I needed to be. I never managed much of any gap but it proved to be enough. My luck and my attitude were changing.

So here we are. One more pair of series races to go. It's going to be a tough run but I certainly have more confidence now than a week ago. I'll see how CX practice goes this evening but I don't think that I will push it super hard. A really good performance Saturday is my target goal, which would take some pressure off for Sunday's race.

As for lessons learned, I think I'm back to swearing off the double header races. I do like the longer and consistently harder elite races though, at least at the smaller venues. I also adore the single-speed. That said, this year and all of the single-speed turmoil has left me jaded and reluctant to jump back into the races next year. At this point I'm thinking that I will try doing a full season of smaller venue elite racing on the SSCX bikes. Cathy did some this year as have I at a couple of events. In certain cases we are actually faster on the SSCX bikes. Plus, we get a shot at earning our entry fee back if we do well enough and there is a certain bit of notoriety to choosing to race the SSCX bike. I'm also going to avoid all together the events that do not fit my skillset and which just frustrate me. I learned that long ago in road and MTB and it is high time that I apply that same rule to CX.

Besides, less racing may make for better overall performances.

2 comments:

Fatmarc Vanderbacon said...

Mike,

that was an awesome write up. Thank you for sharing. I appreciated how you worked through the different mental stakes you were in.. As a mid pack guy, I have enjoyed watching your success this year- reading about motivational/team struggles were very interesting... As far as single speed goes, it would be sad to see you out of that game.. Don't let the bastards bring you down...

best to you.

respect
fm

mkr said...

Thanks Marc. Been a very up and down year for sure. The core of my dilemma stems from my personality. I'm very critical of myself and my performance. On one hand it is a great motivator as I don't wish to face the wrath of the voices in my head, so to speak. On the other hand, performance and achievement can easily become black and white where either you feel you did, or didn't meet expectation. Bottom line is we do it for fun and need to keep that perspective. It isn't life or death we are dealing with, though at times it may feel that way.

As for the SS, no way I will give it up. I train almost exclusively on the SSCX and SSMTB. I'm just thinking a change may be in order. I like the idea of the challenge of racing the elite races, at least at the small venues, on the SSCX. I get the longer race in, get to race my SSCX against excellent competition and if things go well, have a chance at earning my entry fee back. I really like doubling up but as I get older, I'm finding it quickly becomes too much to recover from. The timing is also usually such that the 1/2/3 - SSCX double is the most viable choice, which translates to 1:40 of CX racing in a row. That's like doing a really hard MTB race nearly twice a weekend, every weekend. Hadn't thought of it that way. No wonder I'm tired :)