Competing with competition: overcoming your worst enemy

My wife’s due date for the birth of our second kid is in just four months. No pressure on me, but I’m hoping to get up Teton Pass a few more times before that happens. I’m still trying to reconcile my "no goals, no competition" mindset with my "must get up Teton Pass in less than 40 minutes" obsession. They’re a bit incongruous, it seems, and the truth is that I don’t really have time to be "competitive" about anything right now.

But that gets me on a subject that’s been on my mind lately: The uselessness of intensity. I’m not talking about workout intensity; I’m talking about "attitude" or football player intensity. I used to be pretty intense about sports. I took them pretty seriously. I wasn’t afraid of a little contact, some growling, snarling and other generally inhuman behavior. So when I got into cycling, I started off looking pretty intense—gritting my teeth, being "mentally tough," gut-checking, and "releasing my anger" as I hammered out a sprint.

Then, a few time trials and disappointing races later, I realized something: that whole "mental toughness" schtick wasn’t helping. In fact, if anything, it was making me a much less pleasant person to be around during competition. After all, this is RACING we’re talking about. That element of going toe to toe with your competition is nonexistent.

So what’s the right approach? I’m sure it’s different for everyone, but here’s my take on the subject: In racing, it’s all about your preparation. Being more or less "fierce" on race day is meaningless. It’s what you put in during the weeks and months before the race that will make you faster or slower. So show up on race day and be happy with what you can put into it.

Now, granted, if you sabotage yourself with mechanical problems or a poor nutrition strategy on race day, that can ruin your day, but that’s the next important point: sometimes you have a rotten day. That’s the nature of racing. Sometimes your body is up; sometimes it’s down. Sometimes it’s down even when you really really need it to be up. If you race, you just have to accept that fact.

About competition: If there’s a race you feel some sort of inordinate pressure about—you feel like you have to beat someone or your self-esteem is riding on a certain result—you probably shouldn’t be doing that race. It’s a sign that you’ve already taken an unhealthy approach to it. Find something else you don’t have any expectations for and enter it. Racing is a privilege. Racing is fun. When it becomes stress instead of fun, you’re abusing the privilege.

Competition, in theory, should result in you reaching your best. When you race, you either go off the front, give your best and win, or you key off the guys in front of you and give your very best. It’s giving your all and seeing what you’re made of that makes it fun. Those moments where I’m saying to myself "I can get that guy ahead of me" are some of my favorite race memories. In races where I’ve gone in with this mindset I don’t find myself getting upset or frustrated when someone gets ahead of me. That’s racing. You smile and keep giving it your all.

After all, if you can’t "not win" once in a while, you’d better stick to racing losers.

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4 thoughts on “Competing with competition: overcoming your worst enemy

  1. Boz

    Good thougts – but to expand on them, certain sports require that intensity, football, hockey, and most contact sports. No relaxing when hard hitting is concerned. In football, lack of intensity leads to injury. But in cycling, since each race is different and usually longer, being relaxed but super allert is key. Look at how George Hincappie shut down all of the attacks on the last stage of the tour of california. His 3 break away partners all tried the various attack moves, and he crushed the out like a cigarette butt. It almost looked like he was toying with them. He was heads up all the way to the end, no pannick. Calm, allert, them put the pedal down for the win after the others spent alot of effort trying to get away. A work of art.

  2. Zed

    Cool. I actually really like watching breakaway stages—that whole "will they make it?" element really makes it interesting. And George is a pretty terrific breakaway artist.

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