Todd knew I'd appreciate Bill Gifford's article, The Transcendent Pain, in the August 2012 issue of Bicycling Magazine, when he handed it to me through his backyard fence post-time-trial-debriefing. Earlier in the day Todd had maintained an average speed of more than 42kph over 40 kilometers at the Ontario Time Trial Championships. Todd always impresses us with his ability to wring every ounce of speed from the limited time he has to spend training. How does he do it? Muscle memory? Yes, current science suggests that the cellular structure of our muscles gained through training stays with us. Its permanent. So if you were great at something in the past, you can de-train, then bring it back. Todd was an excellent speed skater and road racer in his youth and young adult years.
This poses an interesting question about how athletes who have used performance enhancing drugs should be penalized. If benefits are retained from cheating, should cheaters be banned for life? Complex question. One for another time and place.
Todd's got the muscle memory, yes, but is that enough? It isn't. He, like many other athletes who perform at high levels, has a very strong 'mental game.' Way back in 1989, Charles Garfield published Peak Performance. In brief, the book explains that an athlete's psychological strength and skills are more important than their physical training when it comes to performing at the limit of their ability. In other words, a physically weaker athlete can outperform a stronger athlete by accessing the power of the mind.
Gifford's article in Bicycling highlights recent research on the physiology and neurology of pain and suffering. Whereas lactate threshold and VO2 max were and still are thought to be the limiters of athletic performance, some, like Garfield, argue that the mind is the governor, not the 'parts of the machine.' This view resonates with my experience as a cyclist. To a degree, mind trumps matter. Herein lies a paradox.
Todd might not be able to perform at his true potential because he is too nice. Lance might have been as dominant as he was because he was an asshole.
Self confidence it essential to excelling at the elite level. Lance was and continues to be very self confident. He might even selfbelieve beyond reason. That's a quote from Jens Voigt. This is what allowed Jens to win Stage 4 of this year's USA Pro Challenge in Colorado. He said 'shut up legs,' and rode to a solo victory. Jens is rare; he has massive selfbelief, but is also very humble and kind. This is why he is a hero to many, including me (even though I feel certain he has doped).
Todd is like Jens, but with less selfbelief. This is a personality trait, one that many consider endearing. Humble people are easy to like. With more selfbelief, Todd would be even faster. Because he is gritty, he takes the pain, chews it up, and swallows it. But he knows he has limits. If he forgets about those limits on his bike, his selfbelief can extend beyond reason, and he can ride outside himself. I've seen it.
Neil also has the ability to selfbelieve beyond reason. Leading up to this past April's Almonte Roubaix, Neil stated he would attempt a break after the first wooded sector. He'd have a long way to go, and it would hurt like hell. I told him he'd have to think a lot about what it would feel like, prepare himself emotionally for the suffering. That's what he did. Neil is very good at this. And he did it. He went with Osmond Bakker, atayed away for about 60km, then still pulled off 4th. This achievement was not exceptional to us, his team mates, because Neil won external goods; he didn't. The race is not on the radar anywhere else. Rather, we are proud of Neil because his was a triumph of spirit. It was inspiring.
The PHDs are saying 'you can always go harder...until you can't.' Its true. Racing presents the opportunity to test this theory. The most satisfying riding experiences are those that involve suffering and perseverance. It is cathartic. Dogged tenacity is what allows us to access the inner strength we all possess. In physiological terms, we have to get our brain to allow more than a limited portion of our legs' muscle fibers to fire. Really, that's what the science guys are saying: we literally are always holding back, unconsciously.
Resolve. Decide you will make the break, stick with the leaders on the climb, maintain that target speed, whatever. You are either in or you are out. Go all IN. Commit to the effort, know it will hurt. Accept it. Deal with it. It sounds utterly cocky, but this is what you have to believe: failure is not an option. Believe it and your brain will allow you to access more muscle; fight or flight. You will not die. You are not even close to dying. Unless you are on drugs. Then you might; R.I.P., Tom Simpson. Simpson literally rode himself to death.
Be cocky, believe you can do better. Then do better. If you try, if you truly try, you will find gratification in whatever you achieve. For in going all in, in truly allowing yourself to believe in yourself, you will perform at the best of your ability. There is nothing more we can ask of ourselves, and there are few things in life more rewarding. Embrace failure as part of the process.
When you get off your bike, don't be cocky. That's key.