Unless your name is Peter Sagan or Eddy Mercx, you will lose 99.9% of the bike races that you start.  Failure in sport is inevitable, but it is also an important part of developing as an athlete and ultimately achieving your goals.  Read on to find out how failure fits in to your development as an athlete.

I have been dropped more times than I can count.  I have miss-timed dozens of sprints. I have flatted, crashed, cramped, or simply wasn’t fit enough in many of my A-priority races.  I could fill a book with all the mistakes that I have made while racing.  

It’s easy to look at the successes of high level athletes and obsess over how good they are, how high their FTP is, how perfectly they time their sprint, or how they never gave up despite the odds.  But we rarely think about what it took for them get to that level in the first place.

People rarely think about all the setbacks that a high level athlete has faced in the years leading up to a major result, after all, shouldn’t an athlete just forget about the bad days and move on?  While that is sometimes the case, I would argue that an athlete can always learn more from a botched race than from a win.  In fact, I would argue that overcoming regular failures is an essential component in developing into a well rounded, mentally strong athlete.  

Getting over a fear of failure is the first step in turning your mistakes into opportunities for growth.  Failure is essential for developing your mental and physical skill set as an athlete.  Think of your mental toughness as a trainable attribute, just like your endurance capacity or FTP.  Every time you push yourself to the edge mentally, you can increase your capacity for mental toughness.

“The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried” – Stephen McCranie. 

I have been teammates with dozens of professional level cyclists.  One thing that they all share in common is that they have failed hundreds of times within this sport. 

Professional athletes fail workouts regularly.  Professional athletes doubt themselves before, during, and after major events.  Professional athletes have days where they can barely get out the door to train. Professional athletes get nervous before key workouts.  Remember that failure is just a symptom of chronically pushing your limits.  

What to do when you fail:

As you know by now, eventually you will get dropped, make a tactical/nutritional mistake, suffer a poorly timed mechanical etc.  here are a few tips for dealing with, and moving past setbacks in racing:

Its OK to be emotional – It’s OK to have an emotional reaction after a race, after all, we put a lot of time, energy, and money into this sport.  Allow yourself to have an emotional reaction after a race, but put a time limit on yourself. Once you have cooled down mentally, it’s time to look back on your race.

Objectify your performance – Take a hard look at your performance and think about what you could have done better.  Step back and pretend that you are looking at another person’s performance, what did that person do well?  What did they do poorly? It’s extremely important to be objective and critical of yourself if you truly want to improve.  Focus on what you could have done better.  

Forget about the other riders in the race – Forget about the guy who wouldn’t pull through in the break, forget about the guy who chopped you in the last corner. Focus on the decisions that you made and ask yourself why you made them.  Ask yourself if the decisions that you made put you in a position to accomplish your goals for the day.

Don’t dwell on your mistakes – Once you have spent some time looking back on your race, it’s time to move on and spend your mental energy on the next goal.  Take the mistakes from the day and think about what you need to do to correct them next time.   Put whatever you have learned into your mental toolbox and move on.  Don’t spend any more time beating yourself up over your mistakes, it’s time to think about what you need to do to be successful at your next race.

Overcoming setbacks during your event

Overcoming setbacks during a race or target event is an essential skill.  Almost nothing goes according to plan in a bike race, so being mentally flexible is crucial for success.  A flat tire, mechanical, or poor physical sensations should not end your chances of achieving your goals.

  • Relax.  Take 5 seconds to take a deep breath and relax.  Whatever setback you are facing is rarely as big of a deal as you first think.
  • Focus.  What do you need to do next to overcome this obstacle? how do you need to adjust your plan for the day?  Think about the small steps that you need to take right now in order to move yourself closer to your goal.
  • Commit.  Stay committed to your original goals for the day, do not let anything prevent you from putting your best effort in to achieve your goal.  Do not give up on yourself.

Redlands

I wanted to share my personal story of my results at the 2018 Redlands Cycling Classic because I believe that these results were a culmination of dozens of failures and setbacks over the years.  They are a perfect example of how repeated setbacks can ultimately contribute to your skill set in a positive way.

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One lap to go, Redlands Crit. Photo by: dmunsonphoto.com

The Redlands Cycling Classic is the biggest race in California aside from the Tour of California. The race is well attended by the U.S. professional teams and is very competitive.  In 2018, I won the Stage 4 Criterium, and was 3rd on the Stage 5 Sunset Road Race.  Sunset Road Race is one of the hardest days of racing in the country, and the Redlands crit is one of the fastest. It’s so easy to look at peak results in a vacuum, without considering what it took to reach those heights.  Here is some context of my racing history at Redlands:

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Redlands Crit, Scott Law in 2nd.  Photo by: dmunsonphoto.com

2013:

  • Beaumont RR: dropped last lap
  • Crit: 6th
  • Sunset RR: Dropped 3 laps in

2014:

  • Highland CR: Blew up last lap
  • Beaumont RR: Crashed, rode off the back for an hour
  • Crit: 18th 
  • Sunset RR: Cramped with 3 laps to go

2015:

  • Highland CR: Blew up in sprint
  • Yucaipa RR: Asthma problems, dropped and out of the race

2016:

  • Highland CR: Blew up with 2 to go  
  • Yucaipa RR: Flatted on last lap, rode alone and barely made time cut
  • Crit: Crashed out 

2017:

  • Yucaipa RR: Cramped at bottom of final climb 
  • Highland CR: Blew up in sprint
  • Crit: terrible legs, stuck at back of race, finished outside of top 100
  • Sunset RR: 7th (easily my best ride at Redlands to that point)

2018:

  • Yucaipa RR: Cramped on last lap, barely made time cut (I actually would have missed time cut by 40 seconds, but it was extended)
  • Highland CR: Blew up with 1 to go 
  • Crit: 1st Place
  • Sunset RR: 3rd Place 
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Sprint for 2nd place, Sunset RR. Photo by: dmunsonphoto.com

You will notice a pattern of failures and setbacks for my entire racing history at Redlands.  People ask what it takes to make it to the finishing circuits at Sunset RR, or what it takes to do well in the crit.  For me, it took years of screwing up at Redlands before I had the tools that I needed to be successful at the race. Here are some examples of what I learned from all of my failures at Redlands:

  • I learned that I need some racing in my legs before going to Redlands
  • I learned how to manage heat stress on hot days
  • I learned to have confidence in myself on the last day of the race regardless of how earlier stages went
  • I learned how much threshold I need to be capable of doing in training in order to make it on Sunset
  • I learned how to ride the crit smoothly and easily
  • I learned how to position for the first laps of Sunset
  • I learned how the last few laps of Sunset play out, and how to position for them and approach them
  • I learned how to approach the sprint at the end of Sunset
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James Piccoli riding the front during Sunset RR finishing circuits. Photo by: dmunsonphoto.com

Despite the repeated setbacks throughout my years at Redlands, I was usually able to take away something valuable from the race.  This year, I finally had all of the tools that I needed to be successful, good fitness, a wealth of experience at each stage, good team support, and confidence from earlier races.  

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75m to go, Redlands crit. Photo by: dmunsonphoto.com

It’s easy to look at any failure at a race as a complete waste, but if you step back and take a hard look at your performance, you can usually find something useful to take with you to your next race.  Being able to objectively analyze a bad performance and ultimately move past it is a very important skill to develop.  Every time I failed at Redlands, I learned a little bit more about myself and about the race.  Ultimately, the many lessons that I learned were essential to my later success at the race.

No excuses, play like a champion

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Sam Bassetti
Associate Coach
Data Driven Athlete

Written by Sam Bassetti

Sam has been racing at the Junior, U23, Elite and Professional levels in the U.S. and Internationally since 2009. Relying on his experience and his degree in Exercise Biology, he currently coaches and trains cyclists for Data Drive Athlete and the Team Swift Junior Development Team out of Santa Rosa, CA. He currently races at the professional level with the Elevate KHS Pro Cycling in the US and around the globe.