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.