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 the mental components of cycling much less than the physical requirements.
The mental aspect of cycling can be divided into two categories: tactics and desire.
Take two riders with about the same level of fitness (i.e. they race in the same category). There are still several ways they can differ: One might be a great athlete. He or she might have great genetic potential and be close to maximizing their physical skills attained through a well-rounded physical training program.
But perhaps he or she is not a great competitor. They have a lot of strength, but attain no results. Rare individuals (Lance Armstrong and Greg LeMond are two examples) can be both superior competitors and superior athletes.
From my experience, a great competitor will usually beat a great athlete even when the great competitor is not as fit as the great athlete. As a result, improving cyclists want to spend time working on maximizing their physical potential and more importantly, learning how to become better competitors.
How can you get there? I know great athletes who never succeeded in bike racing. I know great competitors with limited physical gifts who were consistent winners.
They've succeeded by competing to win -- but it's easier said than done.
Perhaps the best example of a successful competitor is former 7-Eleven rider, Hall of Fame member and my good friend, Harvey Nitz. He was successful because whenever it seemed like he was "down and out" he found a way to win.
Nitz self-admittedly didn't have the greatest talent. But he had an overwhelming desire to win bike races. Nitz not only "lived and breathed" tactics, he focused on how to get the most out of his "limited" abilities.
Nitz's desire to win gave him the capacity to think clearly, and he did everything within the rules of the sport to cross the line first. Nitz once told he won only two races in which he didn't suffer mercilessly.
His work ethic exemplified the notion that winning can become a habit, just like losing.
Can the ability to win be learned or are you "born with it"? There's no easy answer. But I think the first thing to do is examine your goals in the sport. Learning to compete is something that needs to be a focus in races and training.
Many bike racers line up at the start of a race, yet they don't mentally give themselves a chance to win. They either don't expect to win or they tell themselves in advance it doesn't matter what happens in the race. However, if you want to win, it does matter why you're at the race. I think it's important to discuss the issue with friends and family or your coach.
Also helpful is to find opportunities to compete among competitive riders. Do not listen to negative riders. They'll tell you where you are most likely to fail during a race, how unsafe a race can be, and they'll blame other riders for their lack of success.
Instead, talk to the winners and observe how they succeed. You will find their focus is centered on success. If things don't go according to plan, they'll make corrections, move on and begin to focus on the next race.
Great competitors aren't just focused on a race day, either. Most of how they train and how they approach and respect the sport is focused on success. They know it's not one thing that makes a difference. Rather, it's 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 a way to get motivated and maintain that energy. The next time you are at a race, take a look at how many riders are really aggressive and how many just are just there. Who do you think has a better opportunity to win? In short, 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 a team. Know with whom you're racing with and against. Study the course in advance. Try to develop a strategy of attack. These and other tactics can greatly improve your chances of winning. Bike racing is just that: racing.
The goal is to cross the line first or have a teammate win. It's better to go fail trying than to finish knowing you had more physically and mentally to give.
A great competitor will be spent at the end of a race, and they will know they gave their all. Find a way to give your all, and you can win, too.
Bruce Hendler is a cycling coach and organizer of Northern California-based AthletiCamps, which provides scheduled and custom cycling training camps for all levels of cyclists and triathletes, including physiological testing (with former Mapei, Motorola and 7-Eleven team doctor Massimo Testa), coaching, nutrition, sports psychology and training.