I posted this on The Church of the Big Ring site recently but the underlying thesis applies across the board, even to climbing, which is not so unique after all.
I read a comment about the Tour de France that got me thinking, "If Schleck had ridden believing he was the dominant rider, how might the race have played out?"
When I lined up for the Tour de Park City this year I was different. In 2008 I got dropped early and chased for 65 miles alone. I had the worst cramps I've ever experienced. It crushed me. I lasted longer in 2009, still got dropped on the big climb, chased well but lost a three-way sprint for 7th. Each year of racing experience made me fear the event less. I had enough good finishes under my belt this season that I believed I would be on the podium.
Performance differences are enormous depending on the condition of the mind before and during the effort: go in relaxed and certain, or go in apprehensive, with a nagging subconscious and see how each plays out. I have seen it over and over, especially in the context of endurance, where effort is long enough for introspective soul-searching and negotiation to occur. Even in our gym, in the context of strength and power I see what the mind's involvement can produce, both positive and negative. If you don't believe you can do it you can't. If you believe you can do it, and that belief is founded on actual experience, on truth, then you can. You cannot out-perform your self-image, unless pushed beyond it by something out of your control. Progress and overcoming can be driven by one or two acts: do the work, practice, pay attention, improve performance to the degree that self-image evolves, dragging performance with it, or take the headlong dive into a situation you may not be equal to and hope to God you are more capable than you believe.
The race unfolded like that same, tired story: 7-8 guys were willing to work on the front while the rest hid from the wind and let that work be done. When I found myself out front I smiled as I flashed back to the races where that (typical) human behavior pissed me off. This time though it didn't enrage me. Instead I recognized what was happening and I forgave. In a shorter race guys will hide out and save themselves for the sprint finish, which I think is pathetic but I accept it as a strategy. In a race of this grandeur though I think guys hide out because they are nervous or scared, and rightfully so. The subconscious tells them they're in for a really rough day so they try to spare themselves as much agony as possible. There may be a few who think that if they save themselves they might be able to race or to play a part when the main guys dig in and go. It is fantasy but it keeps them going, and it doesn't affect me. As The Reverend once told me, "they are behind for a reason."
As far as I could tell, the 40-man field hung together for the first half of the race but I wasn't looking back much. When the pre-climb climbing began 80-85 miles into it a few guys increased the tempo. Riders began dropping immediately. I stuck with the break and my legs were "there" whenever I needed them. That feedback reinforced my belief in myself. Within a relatively short distance six of us shelled the rest of the field. I knew it was the winning move and this time I was not surprised to be in it. I believed.
We were three climbers and three rouleurs. With 45-50 miles from Bald Mountain Pass to the finish we needed each other. The deal was struck and we stayed together on the climb. Even though it was the Masters 35B field it felt like real racing. The best climber could have dropped the rest of us at any time - he was that much better. But we would have caught him during the last third of the race if he attacked on the climb so he stuck with us. And we extended our lead.
On the descent one guy sat up ever so briefly to deal with some hip flexor cramps and we coasted away from him. At first it was a mere 30m gap but no matter how hard he pedaled he could not bridge it. It's amazing how selfless teamwork changes to cutthroat, selfish competition in a heartbeat, where truces are agreed to and broken according to conditions - and the proximity of the finish line. It was too bad to lose an ally and that maintaining the break had just become harder but it meant one less guy to worry about at the end. We dropped another guy about 25 miles from the finish. Suddenly - barring the unforeseen - the worst I could finish was 4th. In any prior season, or in any earlier race this year that realization would have buoyed me. But on the day fourth wasn't good enough for me. I vowed to be smart.
Every time I sensed a lull or a tiny bit of complacency I went to the the front and increased the pace. I pushed just hard enough that the cramps were twinges but not crippling. Something in me wanted to prove a point. I wanted to crush the smack-talkers and posers. I'd been on the receiving end of what we were dishing out and it didn't feel good. I wanted others to feel that pain. This feeling of competition is new to me. I never got it from climbing. There was certainly a hierarchy in alpine climbing and we all knew who had done what and how hard it had been. But conditions on a given peak or route differed from ascent to ascent, and according to the style used, so competitive comparisons were abstract. On the road, on the day, it is all the same and the results are printed in black and white. It may be good to receive ... but it feels WAY better to "give".
The late-race attacks began about three miles out, all nullified, painfully. We went four-up into a complex series of 90-degree corners and a very short sprint - all of us were surprised at how short it was, maybe 50 meters. Exiting the last corner I was second wheel and charging hard but the line came quicker than the guy ahead faded. I gave it everything I had, cramping badly while crossing the line.
It was a great day on the bike. A day when I never doubted myself, when I matched every acceleration, when there was no nagging voice telling me to save myself for later or counseling that I could not maintain the pace, that the suffering was not worth it. I've raced against those voices. I have lost to them. But today the positive voice was ascendant. I believed. And my belief was founded on earlier experience - at Elkhorn, at the Dead Dog Classic, on training rides with Josh - it wasn't hopeful, or hollow. It was truth.
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