Great Legs Need A Great Mind
By Chris Lyman
“The mental preparation for racing is just as important as physical,” said Team Jamis-Hagens Berman pro Philip Mooney, when asked about great race game. That Dr. Phil, always with the profound statements. Those in the sport for a while are slowly nodding to what Phil’s getting at: winning is more than just pedaling as hard as possible, and often because of race IQ.
Race IQ: the bane of existence of those who don’t have it, but for certain something we all want; the experience, instinct, smarts and cunning key to being first across the line. Volumes can be written about race scenarios and tactics. And while I’m certainly no expert (especially when my biggest wins were against the clock) fortunately I have email address of a few pro and amateur pedalers (the latter since that’s what most of us are). Here’s what they had to offer.
“Racing is all about patience, you need to wait for the right time to strike and then do it definitively,” suggested Ben Jacques-Maynes. Very few have the ability to bludgeon a field with brute force at will, making smarts, timing and cunning invaluable skills.
Echoing the timing sentiment is 15-time Masters National Champion Kevin Metcalfe: “If you’re hurting so is everybody; when you go it will deflate them. They don’t know that you’re hurting as much as they are.” In other words, when everyone is wandering around the pain cave, forget how much it burns, dial it up and slam the door.
While it’s nice to dish it out as Kevin noted, we can only do so much, and as cycling sage Harry Callahan said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Finding those limits on race day—or having someone show you—can make for an unpleasant Saturday morning. That’s why double Masters National Champion Jason Walker incorporates practice into training. “I do some group rides and local races to play with different scenarios. They help me know my capabilities for when it really counts.”
Those possessing high race IQ also have a sense of not only their limits but also competitor’s. On lap one of a flat, windy road race, Kevin, one other teammate and I put the field in the gutter on a long section of crosswind nastiness. Just after a guy rolled up and shared his feelings: “You’re all legs and no brains, Lyman.” At face value he was right: we didn’t get clear or even split the field with that effort. What he didn’t know was we were warming up to do the same thing in the same spot on every lap, until I did end up getting away in a two-man break to the line. We were diesels in a sprinter’s race, and had a good idea of where the door was.
Speaking of breaks, we masters hacks often find ourselves off the front with a handful of others, feeling like a rabbit being chased by a hound. It’s easy to fall prey to doing too much, and coming away empty-handed. But the rider with it knows better: “Race the race…not the people,’ suggested Thomas Craven, Chief Sports Director, Hincapie Sportswear Development Cycling Team. “You don’t need to ride as hard as you can in the break, ride as hard as you need to so you can win the race.” Back to that windy road race, I finished second that day when my break-mate jumped as a momentarily glanced back in an Uran-esque fumble.
Ok, so you come up short like I did—it happens more than we’d like. After a hard-fought race it’s common practice to reflect back and think about what we should or shouldn’t have done: That missed opportunity. Realizing you should have opened the sprint on left side instead of right. Getting “Boonened” by being out of position when the move you knew was going to happen happened. <Insert your own example here.> A good exercise to be sure, but it’s important to take something from the experience and move on.
Finding ourselves in a similar situation in a different race with that history knocking around our noggin can be vexing. There’s no time mid-race for over-analyzing or endless repays in an attempt to foresee what’s going to occur; filing lessons away yet having a short memory of our botched effort is crucial as a high-level athlete. USA Cycling Junior National Program Director William Innes said it best: “I think the most important lesson that I learned and now teach, is that you should always race forward. After trusting your race instincts, racing forward becomes much easier. Passiveness and complacency are rarely rewarded. And, a rider that can think the clearest while their heart rate is the highest will most likely prevail.”
Last but not least, we should remember why we drag ourselves out of bed at 0-dark-thirty and onto the bike to begin with. Three-time Junior National Champion Jack Maddux aptly summed it up: “Always have fun, no matter how hard or serious it is, you have to find a way to keep the fun involved. And race hard, of course.”
What can you do improve your race IQ? For starters:
- Know what you can do by practicing race scenarios in drop-rides and local races
- Pick the right moment to make a move. Be patient until it’s time not to be
- Know your competitors strengths & weaknesses as it relates to the day’s parcours
- Race forward, especially when the race is hard or selective
- Take notes, with a mental highlighter or otherwise, on successes and failures. Learn from them
- Keep perspective and have fun – most of us are living “glory days”
Want to add any if your own?