I am very big on mental preparation. Especially in this, my first season of serious racing, I have come away from every race having learned something. Obviously this is a good thing, but perhaps sometimes mental preparation can help you avoid those mistakes in the first place. Example: In the Rose Festival Criterium, I knew that the distance from the final corner to the finish was fairly long and had a slight headwind. Because of this, I should be able to start my sprint a little later. This is obvious, but also shows up in a lot of the normal “strategy and tactics” type of writing you find on the web. However, I didn’t take the time to lock this into my brain before the race. Thus on the final lap nerves and instinct kicked in and I went too early. With better mental preparation I might have avoided that mistake.
The importance of planning: So race day is here. You’ve put in your miles, you’ve done your intervals, you’ve eaten your breakfast and gotten in your warmup. You’re now lined up ready to race. Let’s go ahead and pretend that, like you, no one has put any serious thought into strategy and opponents. For simplicity sake, let’s also assume that everyone has raced the exact same races and thus has roughly equal experience. In this case, the race essentially comes down to who is the strongest. Unfortunately, if you’re racing with 20+ other people, your odds are fairly low. Even if you throw out that bottom 25% or so who is drastically underprepared, you’re still looking at 15+ people with a real solid chance of beating you.
Now there are two ways to deal with this. The first is, obviously, to train harder in the first place! This sounds great, and perhaps the endorphin-soaked fantasy of waking up early and putting in the extra intervals, then doing 100+ mile Z2 rides on the weekend is motivating. Even though it’s hard work, in our minds it’s so rewarding that we get excited about it. But of course, real life gets in the way. We get tired, our significant others want us home, school/work needs us in at a certain time. So while I, and everyone else who races, would love to simply be able to crush everyone else, the things you need to sacrifice in order to do so are many.
The second way to improve your odds is to plan extensively. I don’t have the extra 10 hours per week of riding in my legs/schedule, but I do have an extra hour or two to put into preparation. Since most people will at most spend 15-30 minutes checking out the course and weather online, I can easily triple-to-quadruple their time!
What you actually get from planning: In my next post I’ll write exactly what it is I do for mental preparation. For now, let me make some general remarks. In reading articles (like this one) about planning, the authors often neglect to explain in a convincing manner exactly how much this preparation will help. Instead they love to show pictures of photo finishes and exclaim that if the loser had just slightly better planning then they could have been the victor! For me personally, this is not motivating. When I do poorly in a race, I tend to think of things like getting dropped on that big hill, or being out-sprinted by that big guy with the massive thighs. How exactly is making sure my bike is squeaky-clean and my extra gel supposed to have helped with that? Indeed, eating one more bite of Clif bar or doing a warmup with three intervals instead of two probably wouldn’t have stopped me from getting dropped. I think once we’ve raced a few times, it’s easy to get 85% of the way there in terms of correct preparation.
In my mind, the thing then is to go backwards from the point at which you had a problem. Let me give you an example from my own experience. My first race this season was a 13 mile “road race” that was grouped into the A-group and B-group, self-selecting. The race was a very slow pace because the only well-represented team had already sent someone up the road, who was quickly out of sight. There was a strong cross/headwind in the second half, so position was important and limited. In order to maintain good position, I decided I would stay second or third wheel. This involved a fair amount of fighting, and even a coupe pseudo-sprints to move around to the other side of someone to gain better position. Indeed, I did maintain my sheltered position all the way until the end. Unfortunately I mistook a barn at 3 miles to go with the barn at .5 miles to go and shot off too early.
There are at least four mistakes here that better preparation could have fixed. The first is not noting that only one team was well-represented, and thus that they had great incentive to send someone off the front. The second is fighting for position so close to the front. The group in the second half of the race was about 10 guys, and there really was very little reason to be so close to the front for so long. It cost me extra energy (mental and physical) that I didn’t need to spend. The third is not knowing my course well enough and launching too early. The fourth is thinking that I could shoot off the front and gap everyone. Since the race was so slow, everyone still had energy.
Thus while I might have been tempted to just say “I lost because I mixed up the course-markers”, truly there are many places I could have improved. Even if I hadn’t launched at the wrong barn, it’s still very possible I would have gotten beat in a sprint. I might tell myself “I need to work on my sprinting,” but really I could have either conserved energy earlier and gone into the sprint with more power, or tried to go in the early 1-man break with the well-represented team and only needed to sprint one other person!