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Cycling Wed: Failure of “mental” strategies…Beaten by a fairy

We all know that successful bike racers are mentally strong.

But what is unknown, and hotly debated, is the role of mental toughness in an athlete’s success. (Granted, we know it isn’t their predilection to drooling.)

So, is it 5% mental, 20% mental or even 50%?

In sports psychology, there are the traditionalists who say that visualization of success—thinking you can—improves performance.

On the other hand, there are the defensive pessimists who downplay their ability and lower expectations. The proponents of such negative thinking espouse that it can actually help one perform better.  (Plus, the NY Times says it’s so.)

To both of these camps, I say your theses are hogwash.  Successful bike racing is near zero-percent mental. Cycling success is about power output and endurance, period, end of story.

In cycling, like running, swimming or any other sport without a judge in a tuxedo, there is truth. The fastest, or the strongest almost always win.

And to the dreamers who think, if only they can will themselves through more pain and suffering, I have personal evidence that such thinking is pure folly.

This past Sunday, on Halloween, I raced cyclocross. Going against the normal serious tone, I succumbed to the wishes of family and friends, to embrace the whole costume thing. (For the record, the Halloween gene bypassed me.)  But then I thought..what better way to employ defensive pessimism than to dress-up in Fred Flinstone gear for an “elite” masters bike race.

Thinking even more, I came up with the idea that employing both mental strategies in the same race would surely help bolster the effects of any “mental” component. Namely, while racing (defensively pessimistically) as Fred Flinstone, I could simultaneously think positive…“I will drill these guys out in my costume.  Fred will take the holeshot, and then run off in the lead group,” I thought.

Sadly, both mental strategies failed miserably. Despite the costume and lofty visualizations, the race left me behind; not because Fred’s garb wasn’t aero, or moisture wicking, but rather, because his fitness is way off.  So bad, was Fred’s fitness, that he was felled by a fairy–a fast fairy, but a fairy nonetheless.

The message:

The obvious truth is that bike racing requires one to ride, to train, to be committed, and to be engaged.  It isn’t about thinking you are fast.

It is about:




Forget the dreamy visualizations.


P.S. Wilma did much better than Fred.

4 replies on “Cycling Wed: Failure of “mental” strategies…Beaten by a fairy”


That was an interesting and provocative post. I'm sure your going for the reaction, so I'll take the bait.

I an only a recreational road cyclist, but I do work hard to be a good runner. Among my 7 marathons, I've qualified and run Boston twice. I've also run my butt off on too many 5 and 10Ks to count. I tend to finish in the upper part of my age group, but would never expect to win anything competitive.

If my head is not in the game, I won't perform. It's as simple as that. When I'm in that dreary back side of a marathon when the demons come to visit, the only thing that keeps me on pace is mental toughness. Everything in my body tells me to stop and walk. Deals are struck. Post race explanations are drawn up. Explanations to the family are rehearsed. All this needs to be fought off to keep the legs moving. For me, at least, it takes everything I've got mentally to chase this away. I REALLY have to WANT IT or I'll slow down or stop.

The physical side is absolutely essential as well, but that just gets me to the starting line. After that, it's mostly mental.

When I'm racing, I'm generally competing only against myself and my goals. The race is about creating a sustained effort of which I can be proud. I'll agree, that no amount of mental toughness is going to overcome my physical limitations. Mental weakness on the other hand, will result in a bad race. I can't believe anyone would disagree with that.



It would be hard to deny that there's some mental-toughness aspect to racing. But to say that racing is "mostly mental" is wishful thinking at best. You race with your legs, heart, and lungs. Yes, the brain is in the equation but "mostly mental? Not a chance.

Chicken or egg? Sometime during my 30ish years of racing bikes, I figured out that I'm mentally tough as nails when I can put out my best watts. And there's no riddle to it. I know which comes first–the watts.

I guess it's possible that a person could be such a head case that they could f up good legs with a bad head. But no one is going to will (or Wilma) his or herself into good legs if they aren't there.

More important than mental toughness is knowledge of what's going to happen to you while racing. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses and those of your opponents.

For example, in cycling, if you are aware that you are a sprinter-type and poor climber, you will position yourself for a climb and dutifully suffer through it b/c you know that you can win in the end if you just get over the climb. That's knowledge, not toughness. And it provides an "edge," no more.



Jay and RDB,

Thanks for those thoughtful comments.

You are right Jay, I was trying to provoke–just a little.

Before I raced bikes, I was a runner too. Our half-marathon here in Louisville has a 5 mile straight-away section leading to the finish. Even though it was flat, it was horribly hard. I could run only the pace that my legs would go. At x min/mile pace my body and mind were fine, but at 15 seconds/mile faster, I was in lactate overload, and slowed, no matter what my mind wanted.

In fact, that painful stretch of road was a contributing factor in my decision to leave running and start cycling.

But I will spot you the notion that if one (unwisely) chooses to indulge in "ultra" endurance events (I won't call them races), the mental aspects required to overcome the inherent silliness of such events is certainly more.


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