Something happened on the run yesterday that really brought home to me how much cycling performance is ‘all in the mind’.
Let me set the scene – Since moving to France at the end of last March I often go on the Rochechouart club runs on a Saturday afternoon. I’ve got to know a lot of the riders and how they ride. Now, because the end of March is the start of the racing season, there are some riders who I know from racing that i’ve never seen on the club run. OK so far? Right, so as the 2008 racing looms nearer some Wednesday afternoon sessions have been organised to get base miles in. Brisk, progressive, but not fast. The first one was this Wednesday. The riders were – two racers (Maxime and Eric) one strong man from the Saturday club runs (Bernard), and me. Bernard is one of the strongest from the club runs, he loves to go on the front, and likes to dish it out, he climbs well and is ‘bunch engine strong’.
Here’s what happened – We set off, all seems well, banter and joviality as normal, no hint of any problem. The first few kms Maxime is on the front. We climb up toward Chassenon and down towards Chabanais. I roll through to take a turn on the front, and after a few more kms I move over to let someone else through. I don’t want to hog the show. When I roll around to the back Bernard waves me through to go in front of him. No problem, I’m thinking that he’s just saving himself until we get to the meat of the ride. However, as time goes on it becomes clear that he doesn’t want to go anywhere near the front. Unusual.
60kms later, and Bernard is starting to struggle, but he’s OK, and were not far from home. 10km from home the two racers Maxime and Eric peel off and head home leaving Bernard and me to ride the last few kms down to Rochechouart. At this point, to use the words of PG, Bernard ‘falls apart like a cheap watch’. Now he cannot even maintain an easy pace, and tells me to go ahead and leave him. I use his words on him saying “se necessaire pour le moral de la group arrive ensemble”, (it’s good for the moral of the group to finish the ride together). This is what we always do on a Saturday. He’s obviously blown, I slow down and try to get him chatting. The kms always seem to go be easier when chatting, even to a daft English bloke with a poor grasp of French. Bernard tells me that he didn’t know the ride was going to be so long, and so fast, that he hadn’t eaten enough, and only had one bottle!
Now here’s the thing – The ride had been no harder, faster, or further than some of the Saturday rides where Bernard had been strong. The big difference was that the racers were not there. Both Maxime and Eric are first category riders. I think, that in the company of the racers Bernards confidence in his ability deserted him. He’s easly strong enough to have coped with the ride and more. But today it really was like riding with a different man. Surely, it’s all in his mind.
He couldn’t have just been knackered could he, or getting sick?
I agree with what you are saying though. When I’m around fast people (e.g. Brit sportive) I back right off and then play catch up, rather than just trying to stick with the fast bunch. I guess there’s a certain amount of self-preservation with this (not wanting to blow early on a 200k ride) but I wonder how much of the backing off was just fear of fast people?
I agree with your conclusion Steve. Given that Bernard is a known entity and you’ve had plenty of opportunity to observe him, over that sort of distance I wouldn’t expect lack of food/hydration to play the part he claims. I know myself that lack of confidence eats up an enormous amount of energy – you get nervous about the company around you, your heart rate rises, and you just lose so much potential energy. Bernard probably also spent a lot of time concentrating on the group around him, rather than relaxing into the ride. I’ve had a similar experience on a number of rides and at the very least it makes the ride unenjoyable, and at worst demoralisation sets in – and it only needs a small lapse of concentration for the rest of the group to be surging ahead on climbs etc.
Interestingly enough, I had the reverse experience a couple of Sundays back. I was out by myself in the St Mathieu area and was caught up by 3 riders, one of whom I knew from Chalus. The other 2 were unknown entities and as we rode back through Vayres and Oradour they backed off whilst my friend, who is an exceptionally strong rider, rode with me. On the road between Oradour and Chalus he turned the squeeze on and we left the other two way behind. “Ils sont demoralisee” he proudly told me. To his credit he suggested that we should wait, and they soon caught up. I felt some discomfort about how this happened – but I guess we all have different objectives and therefore training needs. He clearly enjoyed a bit of a sprint with an “etranger” – and it was good practice for me as well. I’m not sure how his two friends felt about it though….