[Ed. Note: Periodically we have guest columnists here at In The Crosshairs. One of our favorites is Jay Morali, who last penned an article for us about this time last year. Jay returns with a column about the internal battle most of us find ourselves in each week on the cyclocross course. Simply put (and I’m paraphrasing Adam Myerson, here) the battle boils down to this: is the physical pain of trying to hang on to that wheel in front of you less or greater than the mental pain you will feel later if you let it go?]
“If you ain’t first, you’re last!”
Too often in life we subscribe to Will Ferrel’s lovable character’s motto from the movie Talledega Nights and we focus solely on the “winner” or “champion” and forget about the rest of the competitors. Look at the great Laurent Fignon, who just passed away. He will be remembered more for the one memorable race he lost instead of the many he won. And it’s not just on the professional level. Just last year I came home from a race after turning myself inside and out to come in second place. I get out of my car and my neighbor, who has no idea what a tubular tire is, asked me how the race went. I proudly told him I crossed the finish line a few seconds behind the winner to claim the second spot on the podium and his response was, “Great, first loser”.
If you race cross long enough and move through the various categories you will find yourself at some point in many different positions in the race. One year you might be fighting it out each week for a podium spot and the next just trying not to come in last. I am currently facing the latter. Last year, I was getting front row call-ups, winning holeshots and picking my own lines. Now, I am five rows back and “rubbin’ paint” as we fight to get past the prologue! (my second NASCAR reference. What do you expect from a Mississippi boy?) But as we all know, unless you are lucky enough to be leading a race, it doesn’t really matter where you are because one thing is always certain in cross: there is always someone in front of you to catch and pass. This is where most of us spend 100 percent of our race.
The purpose of this article is to look into the minds of a couple of the prominent racers across the Mid Atlantic and get a sense of what they are feeling during the “chase.” Do these guys hurt like we do out there? Do they have negative thoughts and consider packing it in? I think you will enjoy their insights and may even learn something from their experiences.
Wes Schempf, a fellow C3-Athletes Serving Athletes teammate, is considered one of the best in the area. He is a former overall MABRAcross and MAC Elite title winner. Wes has had a few memorable experiences racing against pro mountain biker Jeremiah Bishop. Wes explains what it is like for him to fight it out with the former U.S. Champion in MTB short track and marathon in a cyclocross race.
“As you mentioned, Bishop and I have had some experiences,” Wes told me. He explained that his battles with Jeremiah fall into a routine script. “I know that mental preparation is almost as important as physical preparation,” Schempf said. “For some reason, Bishop has a mental voodoo blocker on me. I just can’t seem to get around the fact that he consistently beats me. This has led to a negative feedback loop where if I know he’s racing then I start to think that I’m racing for second.”
Wes said that this “psychological beating” usually plays out in the race. “I was a little more prepared last season at the Hagerstown weekend races to suffer. My thought was that if I could stay in contact, or a couple bike lengths away, for most of the race that would be great. Unfortunately, his fearlessness gave him an edge on too many of the corners and I couldn’t stay in contact.”
Wes categorizes his thoughts of seeing Bishop take off as “oh boy this is going to hurt more … Yep it really hurts … must stop the hurting.” He adds that other times it is more like “okay, you know it’s gonna hurt … stay with it as long as you can and then a little more.” And once the elastic snaps, Wes says it’s almost a relief. “Generally, the effort to stay with him creates a gap that I can nurse home to the finish.”
Despite, or possibly because of, the psychological beating, sometimes it all goes right. “Winning Reston last year—beating Jeremiah for the first time—was phenomenal,” Wes told me. “At no point in the race was I worried about him and maybe that was the key. I was relieved to see that he wasn’t close and it also helped to know I had a teammate just behind me, too,” he recalled. “That day was when all the stars aligned and it was a perfect day. I was honestly more excited to win a UCI level event and the MAC overall than beating a specific person.”
Unlike Schempf, who has been at the top of the Mid-Atlantic pecking order for some time, Adam Driscoll is a racer that quickly went from the “Hunted” to the “Hunter” when he moved from the Killer Bs to the Elite race. The Adventures For The Cure rider, who is a Type 1 diabetic, says one huge difference from the B or 3/4 race to the Elite men is how one mistake can put you in “chase mode” immediately and practically cost you your race.
Adam told me that before a race he is telling himself that he needs to be at the front of the group so when a move is made he is ready to roll with it. “So the start of a race is very important for me as I am new to the elite group and cyclocross,” Adam explained. “When the gun goes off I feel like I don’t actually think again until I am alone and by myself.”
Driscoll said that in a group he is constantly just trying to hold the wheel of the leader and not make a mistake. But once the group begins to separate, “that is when my brain really starts to say you are tired and only go as fast as the guy behind you.” Because of this, Adam believes that that the key moment in the race is usually the third or fourth lap when the attacks really start to unfold. “I need to be ready as it will slow down once the group separates some. At least that’s what I try to tell myself to make it easier!”
Driscoll also said that last year at Tacchino the elastic broke and he found himself off the back of the front group. There was a group of seven and around the fourth lap several attacks kept firing and being the last one in the line seemed to affect him to the point that he could not respond anymore and started to fade. “That is where I play the mind games like can I go faster and catch back on or just go as fast as the guy behind me,” Adam explained. But during Tacchino, Driscoll’s blood sugar dropped below its normal level, which quickly drained his energy.
“After the race I try to think what I did wrong immediately and how I can improve at my next race,” Adam said. “For me to improve I need to be in the race making moves of my own, too. I also need to be well rested, which means less workouts during the week.”
It is clear from these great crossers that we can all take solace knowing that the pain we feel on the weekend when we come out to do battle in the dirt and mud is universal. The same can be said for the doubts and negative thoughts. We might not all get to step up on a podium but just remember, you are always seconds away from someone screaming words of encouragement or a photog snapping a picture of you with a snarl on your face that will be uploaded to the World Wide Web for everyone to see. And if your legs are screaming from lactic acid build-up and your mind is telling you to pull the ripcord, stay focused on the task at hand of chasing that person in front of you and take it all the way to the finish … even if it is for 47th place!
Jay Morali is a masters elite cyclocrosser who races for C3-Athletes serving Athletes.