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Becoming a Competitive Cyclist and Racing to Win

by Bruce Hendler -

It seems that many current articles on bike training focus on the physical side of the sport. Riders of all levels are seeking that magic collection of workouts that will make them a fitter and stronger bike racer. This is both understandable and necessary, as being fit enough to compete in your category requires a solid training program tailored to your goals and abilities in order to improve your weaknesses. Although it is very important to work on the physical side of the sport, I maintain that the mental side of the sport is equally critical; unfortunately, most riders work on this issue much less than the physical. Lets separate mental into two distinctly different categories: tactics and desire. One could write a book about tactics and how they play a vital role in bike races. We'll leave that for another article (or five). This article will focus on the other mental aspect - the desire to compete in order to win.

Lets say we take two riders with about the same level of fitness. There are several ways that these two can differ: One can be a great athlete (i.e., someone with great genetic potential that has come close to maximizing his/her gift via training), but not a great competitor. One can be a great competitor and not a great athlete. Rare individuals (such as Armstrong or Lemond) can be super competitors AND super athletes.

My experience has demonstrated that a great competitor will usually beat a great athlete even when the great competitor is not quite as fit as the great athlete. Because of this reality, you want to spend your time working both on maximizing your physical potential (great athlete) and learning to be a great competitor. How can you get there? I know a lot of great athletes that never succeeded in bike racing. I know of great competitors with limited physical gifts that were consistent winners. They did this by competing to win. This concept is easier said than done, yet just talk to them about bike races and you will see what I mean. All their focus goes to the success of themselves or their team. The true competitors focus on what it takes to win and nothing will stop them from doing so. They have an exceptional desire to succeed and are able to sniff out the finish line. Of course they do not win all the time, but their positive focus allows them to be ahead of most riders most of the time, fighting for the highest result they can achieve.

Probably the best example of a true competitor is former 7-11 rider, Hall of Fame member and my good friend, Harvey Nitz. He was unbelievable. He seemed to always find a way to win, even when he was down and out. Here is a guy who admitted to not having the greatest talent in the world. But Harvey has an overwhelming desire to win bike races and because of that desire, will compete to the end of his days. Harvey not only lives and breaths tactics, but focused on how to get the most out of his limited abilities. Harveys desire to win gave him the capacity to think clearly and he did everything in his power to cross the line first (within the rules of course). He would suffer like no one else and dedicate all his efforts to be a winner. He once told me, amongst all his victories (and there were a lot of them), there were only two that didnt cause him to suffer mercilessly. He worked for ALL of his victories. Harvey exemplified the notion that winning can become a habit, just like losing.

Can this ability to win be learned or are you born with it? Well, there is no easy answer. I think the first thing to examine is your goals in the sport. Learning to compete is something that needs to be a focus in training races and rides. So many bike racers line up at the start of a race, yet deep down inside, they dont give themselves a chance to win. Either they dont expect to win (e.g. Im not good enough to beat that guy or gal) or they tell themselves in advance that it doesnt matter what happens in the race, they just want to be out there. Well, if you want to win, it does matter why youre there. I think its important to talk about this issue with your friends, family or coach. Also helpful is to find opportunities to hang out in truly competitive circles. Do not listen to negative riders! They will tell you where you are most likely to fail during a race, how unsafe a race can be, and blame other riders for their lack of success. Instead, talk to the winners to get a feeling of where they are coming from and what makes them tick! You will find that their focus is centered on success and when things dont go according to plan, they make corrections, move on and begin to focus on the next race.

Another thing you will notice about great competitors. Its not just race day when they are focused. Most of how they train, and how they approach and respect the sport is focused on success. They know that its not one thing that makes a difference, its a lot of the little things!

What can you do about improving your chances of winning on race day? The first step is to race aggressively. Find some way to get yourself fired up and maintain that energy. Next time you are at a race, take a look at how many riders are really aggressive and how many just sit there, doing nothing, being negative. Who has a better opportunity to win? The aggressive ones. When you are aggressive, good things happen! The second step is going to the start line with a plan, whether you are alone or part of team. Know who you are racing against, and with, learn the course in advance, and try to map out a strategy of attack. These and other tactics can greatly improve your chances of winning.

Bike racing is just that - racing, where the goal is to cross the line first or have a teammate do so. Its better to go down swinging, to leave it all on the road, than to finish the race and recognize that you had more to give, both physically and mentally. A true competitor will be spent at the end of a race, and will recognize that he gave it his all. Find a way to give your all, and you too can win.

Bruce Hendler created AthletiCamps to provide cycling specific coaching and training to athletes and cyclists of all levels. Find out more at


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