Pro Shop: Persistence and Perseverance
Have you ever wondered what mental attributes it takes to become a successful bike racer? In this month’s edition of the Pro Shop Toolbox, we ask first year European (and long-time US pro) Aaron Olson (Saunier-Duval Prodir) and current US National Time Trial champion Chris Baldwin (Toyota-United) what they believe separates the average performers from the racers that are truly successful.
Pez: Throughout your career, you have seen countless cyclists at all levels, from your early days of local racing to being at a high level of the sport. Can you identify the characteristics of a truly successful bike racer (what we would call a “winner”), versus the ones that try and just don’t make it? Is it attitude, work ethic, physiology?
Aaron: I believe there are many things that make up a successful person in general, which carries over into cycling as well. It is all of the things you mentioned: attitude, work ethic and physiology, with the number one reason being work ethic. Of course how you are built as a machine (i.e., physiology), is important, but maybe more important is your attitude. Really wanting something and going for it will take you much further than having superior physiology but not using it. I have seen many riders with great engines for cycling, built perfectly with enormous potential, but sometimes when it comes that easy, they end up dropping out of the sport. I think the main reason why we see riders who as juniors or U-23s, aren’t the best become successful riders, is purely from the will and desire to be the best. I really believe this can take you almost all the way! Along with that belief, it is also important to have the correct guidance with a credible coach. I use Dr. Massimo Testa.
Chris: That’s a complicated question. I believe the single most important characteristic of a professional rider, or someone who wants to be a professional, is perseverance. For most riders, getting to a top level is a very slow process. There are very few over-night success stories. Eventually, cycling, like life, is going to throw tough obstacles at you. It is necessary to overcome these and continue to be 100% dedicated to acheive your goals. Of course, there are always enormously talented riders who will rise to the top on genetic endowment alone.
Pez: Cycling is a brutal sport; period. It can be thankless, non-forgiving and not have much of a return on your “career investment.” It takes an enormous amount of work to get to the top. The journey to success is a roller coaster ride of emotions. How do you as an athlete, deal with the mental ups and downs and emotions of such a difficult sport? How did you keep your focus when times were tough?
Aaron: I agree that cycling is a brutal sport. Maybe that is some of the appeal. One thing is for certain, there is always a challenge ahead of you. No race is ever the same, and to make it to the pro level, or really any level, takes a lot of work, usually without pay. There can be many ups and downs along the way. I have had my fair share, and have been close to quitting in the past, but for me it was my girlfriend who really believed in me, and wouldn’t let me put the bike down. She saw me at my worst, not getting paid on teams, and riding poorly, when I had much more potential. While I think it is different for everyone, I believe you need good friends and family to help you make it through the inevitable tough times. I also believe that keeping focused on the future helps you make it through difficulties of the moment; when you work hard towards your goal, it’s that much sweeter when you succeed. Despite these difficulties, I love the sport, the traveling, the challenges to push myself mentally, and see how much I can get out of myself. Biking is a great sport, one of a kind, because ever day is different.
Chris: I think cycling is so difficult because, at least in my case, you have loads of let downs to get to the small nuggets of success. I think that acceptance of this fact helps cyclists continue moving forward when the chips are down. I now realize that not every planned peak or race goal is going to work out. But, sometimes the results come when you least expect them. As long as I feel successful at some point in the year, I consider it a good year. The scarcity of success makes it very sweet when it comes around. One of my favorite aspects of cycling is the sense of renewal, especially each off-season. Even at 30-years-old, I feel like a neo-pro every October. I take a rest and suddenly everything seems possible the next season. I begin to think about my training and how I will change things the next year and get reinvigorated.
1. Make no mistake about it. Every level up the ladder of success presents a challenge as it is harder and more competitive than the previous one. When you become successful at one level of bike racing, you move up to the next and the struggle starts all over again. The key is to expect a new level of difficulty and prepare mentally to deal with it. One common mistake a lot of cyclists make is thinking their style is more “suited” for longer races at the next level. Not only does the next level have longer distances, but it’s also much harder with more riders that are more motivated.
2. Work ethic, positive attitude, and perseverance. These are the common words used by both Aaron and Chris. A common myth is that successful athletes are just “born” with the talent needed to win. The truth is that successful athletes work harder and smarter than the next. I remember Chris Horner saying once as he headed out for another hour of training (after 5), that he does that extra hour, because he knows most of his competitors don’t.
3. Sacrifice and support. No matter what your level, a certain amount of sacrifice in other areas of your life will have to take place. This sacrifice will be unique to you and your goals. A good support structure of family, friends and a quality coach will help make the sacrifices more tolerable.
4. Bike racing can be a roller coaster of emotions. Training in general is an inexact science and trying to figure out a training and racing program that works for you can take a lot of time and experimentation. Expect that there will be good times and bad. Try to limit the highs and lows and use previous positive events to get though the difficult times. It could be a previous win or a build period that resulted in an increase in fitness.
5. It’s actually a good thing to struggle at times and not be that “super talent,” where the sport comes easily. While it helps to have good physiology, you will always compete against riders that may have a physiological edge on you. But that is the beauty of our sport as the most talented riders donЎ|t always win. It’s a combination of being strong, smart (learning true bike racing tactics) and having a work ethic and belief in yourself that will lead to success.
Both Aaron and Chris are great examples of regular (good) guys whom have worked hard to get to the level they are today. In 2006, both are up against another set of challenges that will test their perseverance and belief in themselves. Aaron will go against the best pros in the world in some of the more difficult races of the year in a totally new environment for him, namely, Europe. Chris is a member of a new US team that has a lot to prove and he also has to defend his US National TT championship, which is an enormous task. I have no doubt in my mind that because they have made it this far, they will continue to climb the ladder of success until they decide itЎ|s time to take on the next challenges of their lives away from cycling. Ride strong!
Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at www.athleticamps.com