I learned a lot from the sport of cycling but the greatest lesson didn’t come until after I stopped racing last August. It was actually in the team van on the way back from the 2010 Tour of Utah that it happened. I gained something that had eluded me for my entire 23-year racing career – I gained perspective.
There are people who define their lives by their successes and there are those who define themselves by their failures. It is almost a requirement as a competitive athlete that you look at yourself from a critical perspective. You constantly analyze your weaknesses and your mistakes so that you can learn from them. You can’t spend too much time dwelling on your successes for fear of becoming complacent or content.
Becoming content is the worst fear of a hard driven athlete.
The Park City Criterium on stage 5 was the ruin of many fine athletes that day. Instead of going into the details about the per lap elevation gain or the mile high start line, let’s just say that about half the field (the strongest international pro field I have ever matched up against), missed the time cut. A brutal and demoralizing way to finish up more than 2 decades of racing. The next day as I sat out the thrilling final stage up to the summit of Snowbird where thousands of fans lined the road, I had some time to think back over the ups and downs of my athletic journey.
I never had a lot of confidence in my sporting ability. In high school I considered myself to be an average soccer goalie. My first thought whenever I think back to that time in my life is the day that I let the ball roll between my legs and into the goal, not once but twice.
I considered myself to be an average wrestler. I was the captain of the team my junior year and I won a big tournament once but I was in a relatively non-competitive league. Before every match I was nervous enough to vomit if only I had anything left in my stomach after the weeks of my near starvation diet to make the 135 weight class (I was 6’).
As a junior cyclist, I was pretty average. I got dropped more than a few times and at Junior Nationals in 1992, up against the likes of a 17 year old yet heavily bearded George Hincapie, I was an insignificant speck of dust. I was on the podium once at the Pennsylvania State Championships and I did win a road race once but there wasn’t much of a field on either day.
When I began to race again in my 20s, it seemed that I had to work harder than anyone else just to get by. I struggled for a year as a cat 4, another year as a 3, several years as a 2, another few as a 1 and then only achieved my pro status by starting my own team and giving myself a contract.
So when it came to sports, I always thought of myself as a tourist. A dreamer who took his obsession just a little farther than most other people.
What was I doing devoting my entire life to the sport at the expense of a career and a stable home life when I knew I could never really be good enough to get to where I needed to be? I had a vague idea of who I wanted to be as a bike racer but mostly knew that I wasn’t there yet. I had a few fleeting moments of greatness but they were few and far between.
Is this starting to sound familiar to anyone?
I talked to my dad on the phone the day after the massacre in Park City, expressing my frustration with what at the moment seemed to be a disappointing finish to a disappointing career. I had worked so hard at this. I trained harder and longer than most of the guys I knew but also carefully and scientifically. I had covered all my bases perfecting my nutrition, tactics and psychology. Yet no matter what I did I was always held back by the limitations of my natural ability.
These thoughts were still going through my head around 3 am as we passed through Vegas on the way back to Los Angeles. In the back of the van, my 18 year old teammate Freddy Cruz, who had just signed a contract with the Chipotle Development team, slept soundly. My thoughts came back to my frustrating lack of natural sporting talent. Why was it so much harder for me than everyone else? Why are some riders able to move from cat 5 to cat 1 in barely a season yet it took me almost my entire life?
And that’s when the shift began. It finally sunk in that this ceiling of natural ability, something I had always written off as a B.S. excuse for poor performance, was a very real thing. The fact is that not everyone can ride in the Tour de France or hit against a Major League pitcher or perform a perfect dive in the Olympics. Just like not everyone can win a Scripts Spelling Bee or get a full scholarship to Harvard Law School. Just like not everyone can live to 110 or have children or see or walk or hear. We all have limitations but maybe how much we accomplish or how quickly we accomplish it is not the important thing. Maybe what is important is what we do with what we’ve got.
What we do with what we’ve got
And that’s all I want to say in this article. It’s very easy to look at what we don’t have and what others have so much of. It’s easy to look at how easy things seem to be for other people and how hard they are for you. And it’s easy to accept these thoughts and to use them as motivation. But it’s a negative motivation. It’s the motivation not to be bad instead of the motivation to be great.
These thoughts were still buzzing through my head when I got home. Was reaching your potential really the only thing that mattered and if so, had I reached mine? My first step as I prepared myself to enter the full time role of managing the Wonderful Pistachios Pro Cycling Team was to re-do my home office. I was committed to continuing to allow myself this feeling of satisfaction and I wanted to reinforce it with a 360 degree visual reminder of the things I had accomplished. So I pulled out my box of memorabilia.
On the wall I hung a poster from the 2001 Milk Ras, my first international UCI stage race, an 8-day race that as a recently upgraded Cat 2 I had absolutely no business being at but that I had finished nonetheless. I hung a poster from the 2002 Vuelta a Cuba a 13-day 15-stage race that I had finished as the top American. Posters went up from the Tour of Southland in New Zealand, the Vuelta a Sonora in Mexico and the Mondiale Ciclismo in Italy. Sorting through a large box of tangled medals I pulled out my 9 California State Champion medals and above my desk I stacked a pile of Ultimate Cyclist CDs with Levi Leipheimer, one of the greatest American cyclists, on the cover.
Finally there was the memorabilia from the 2010 Philadelphia International Cycling Championship, my crowning achievement and the impetus for my entire cycling career. Framed on the wall immediately next to my desk was an article from The Philadelphia Inquirer titled, ”A cyclist’s dream, a detour and finally destiny”.
My God, how I had moved mountains to make that happen.
I had never put all of this on the table at one time. Between each of these accomplishments there were many pack finishes, some crashes and more than a few time cuts. Did any of that mean a damn thing? Was I going to remember some random day that I had missed a bottle on the feed and dropped off the back with cramps or was I going to remember the day that I finished with Chris Horner at the top of Mount Bachelor at the Cascade Classic or the time I nearly made it over the climb in Cuba with Fillipo Pozzato? Seems like a no brainer now but it wasn’t so obvious then.
Someone might walk into my office and see all this self-glorification and accuse me of arrogance and I can accept that, but what this is about for me is a reminder to always see the positive with the negative and whenever possible to put more weight on the successes than on the failures.
And this is how I learned my greatest lesson from cycling only after I had gotten off the bike. I share it with you now with the hope that you can learn this lesson and to benefit from it while you are still turning circles with your legs.
I leave you with these parting words of wisdom.
Look at who you finished in front of, not just who finished in front of you.
Josh is the owner and manager of the Wonderful Pistachios Professional Cycling Team. Josh is also USCF Certified coach. For more information about his coaching services and any coaching questions you may have, check out his website at LiquidFitness.com. Also, follow Josh on Twitter for training tips and team updates. This is a great way to find out when we will be coming to your town so you can hit us up for some free pistachios. Mention PezCycling News when you see us and we’ll even crack them for you!