There is a moment of truth in any race; in fact, it might be called the moment of truth because it is usually when the outcome is decided. The final attack, or the finishing straight, when you pull out into the wind and your brain sends a message to your legs: GO!
At this point, your legs always send back the same message: ‘No’. This is a truism in racing, a known known if you like. By the end of the race, your legs are always tired. Fresh legs are a myth. No matter if you spent the entire race on the front, or sitting in the pack; whether you were chasing down the attacks or following wheels, your legs are always tired. There is always pain. And the natural instinct of your legs is to reply in the negative when your brain asks them to sprint.
Which is why sprinting or attacking into the wind is as much of a mental game as it is a physical one. How badly do we want it?
In racing, we try to convince ourselves that this is not the case, that there are other things that we can do to go faster in the last few kilometres or two hundred metres of a race. Bike choice, wheel choice, how many psi are in the tyres, what tyres we’re using, how full our drink bottle is, how much work we did on the front, whether we should have chased down that break, how many gaps we closed, what we had for breakfast, how many miles we’ve ridden so far this year.
The cumulative percentage value of all these factors when it comes to that final attack is somewhere less than 1 percent. To think otherwise is simply delusional.
What matters is what your brain does when it gets the signal from your legs that they don’t want to work. They will be crying, we’re too tired, we’ve done too much work, we haven’t done enough mileage, the bike is too heavy, the wind is too strong, the other riders are stronger/fresher/faster. They will try to fool you. And you can either be fooled by your legs or tell them, Jens Voigt style, to shut up and start working.
Your brain therefore has to make a choice how it deals with the pain. It can take heed of the pain and abandon the sprint. Or it can ignore it, and tell your legs that no matter how much they complain they will work harder. And if you tell them to work harder, they will do it. They will work until the lactic acid eats aways the muscles and your tendons snap. They will do exactly what your brain tells them to do.
How badly do you want it?
Your author is not a sprinter. But there are races where he has sprinted with some semblance of speed past other riders simply because he wanted it badly enough. Because he wanted to ignore the pain and push himself a little bit more. Because for some insane reason, he wanted to.
But, this Sunday past, the first race of the season, when the legs said ‘no’, your author’s brain hesitated: ‘Are you sure? Maybe just a little?’ It was a chaotic sprint, a single lane with riders at various speeds strung out across the road. There was a gap, a slight nudge with another rider (apologies, good sir), and an opportunity. A chance to pull past another group, to place top 10 – or even top 5 – instead of top 15. Maybe.
But your author’s brain was still preoccupied with a question that had been dogging him all race: is it too soon to be sporting white bar tape? Does one have to wait until after Milan-San Remo or Paris-Roubaix? When? (Reader answers gratefully accepted.) He was distracted enough not to be focused down that narrow racing tunnel, when every synapse in the brain is firing in sync: GO!
So when he pulled over after the sprint, instead of his legs resembling disembodied sticks of concrete, and his lungs bursting out of his chest, wheezing with agony, all functions quickly returned to normal. The opportunity for a better result was there (maybe) but he didn’t want to try for it badly enough.
So the next time that your legs say ‘no’, what will you tell them?