The race is won before it’s even begun.
But anything can happen they say,
and you must be ready to seize the opportunity.
If ten mountain bikers were to line up at the start of a thirty mile cross country race without having done any endurance, sprint, skills, or mental training, the one with the best fitness and general coordination would win. If ten racers executed the exact same training regimen there may be a different outcome based on cardiovascular and muscle adaptation. But, if these same racers were free to weight lift, ride long distances, do hill and sprint repeats, rehearse their technical skills, cross train, adjust their diets, recovery habits, and psychological practices as they pleased, then the top of the podium would be up for grabs. The best prepared rider (in all areas) would win the race.
However I would not say the race is “won or lost” before the start. So much can happen during a mountain bike race, even the most prepared rider isn’t immune. A race can be significantly impacted by muscle cramping, a flat tire, crashing, and getting ‘stuck’ behind slower riders. These events are hard to control. But perhaps the most damaging set back is a lack of mental toughness. You may be the most physically prepared rider of the day but what about your mental preparation? The reality is we are often our own worst enemy. The way we motivate and criticized ourselves is learned and practiced subconsciously. Self talk such as, “I’ll never catch her”, “This is too hard”, and “I’m no good on this type of terrain” have played through our heads so many times. However by incorporating mental training exercises into our regimen we can actually change the conversation in our head. Mental resolve can prevailed over physical strength.
There is another unexpected adversary; apathy. It seems strange, given you are doing something that you love and have worked hard to prepare for. The reality is that during a cross country race you may spend much of your time alone. I have been in races that require three laps of a 8-11 mile course, usually taking 2-3 hours to complete and apart from the initial sprint, I may only see 5 other riders the whole time. Riding casually on your own isn’t such a bad gig, but in a race being alone can really affect your ability to push yourself. Maintaining focus and intensity is a constant challenge. Catching a glimpse of a competitor can bring you right back into attack mode. Heck, even passing a clydesdale gets the adrenaline pumping.
On the flip side if you find yourself fighting tooth and nail with someone the greatest challenge is being able to keep your focus without pushing so hard you blow up. I’ve learned that racing at the height of your exertion level is a sure fire way to make mistakes and have a disappointing performance.
Racing teaches a lot about ourselves but the truth is, we know very little about our competitors. We may know a little bit about the people we ride with consistently, and if we really pay attention we can learn the weaknesses of our competitors. But there are a number of factors we can’t know about those lining up next to us. How did they sleep? Did they have a stressful week at work? Are they feeling apprehensious due to a recent crash? And of course, are they better prepared? Their weakness may show itself. Their legs may cramp, they may have a mechanical problem and this is when you must pounce. This is why we spend countless hours training. For when the door opens you must have the strength to push through it. The best prepared rider may be determinable on paper but anything can happen. Like they say in horse racing, that’s why we still run the races.
This post is more of a free flow of consciousness and probably seems all over the place. Please share your thoughts and experiences on preparedness versus the role of chance in head to head competition.