“I’m a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.”– Thomas Jefferson
Whether from your own mouth or from the mouth of others, it’s a story we’ve all heard before. The rider crosses the line, shakes a fist at the sky, and utters something along the lines of “I would have been in top-3/5/15/20 if I hadn’t had that flat/crash/poor start.” At the moment, I feel like I know that story all too well. After coming out of the gate with career best performances in just about every race I started, I ran into a few big race weekends where it seemed like each was ruined by some sort of mishap. A flat, loose bars, a crash, a poor start, someone crashing in front of me. It’s been frustrating and very tempting to try and protect my ego by chalking those result up to bad luck or fate.
And that’s easy to do! It’s easy to blame your failure or success on fate. Getting a flat? Unlucky. Missed a pedal on the start? Unlucky. Crashed? Unlucky. So often in my cycling career, I’ve been guilty of the same thing. Lately though, I’ve been thinking more about it, reading more about it, and talking to smart people more about it and coming to the realization that attributing success or failure to luck is to dismiss the role that your own preparation has in that success or failure.
Something that my former coach, Shaun Adamson, often told me comes to mind. If I escaped a crash unscathed or got a disappointing mechanical, I would either curse or praise luck and fate, but he would remind me that “you have to be good to be lucky.” And that’s just it. Luck isn’t some ethereal force influencing our success or failure, it’s simply a probabilities game. All cyclists get flat tires, crash, have poor starts, and break bike parts but the great cyclists, the Sven Nys’ of this world, seem to do this far less than other people. Why? It happens less to them because they put themselves in the positions where something could go wrong far less than your average cross racer. They hit fewer rocks, take better care of their bikes, remount more smoothly, and (usually) have more reliable more well-maintained equipment.
The perfect example of this is Peter Sagan’s attempt to bring home golden Mountain Bike glory at the Olympic Games. For a few fleeting moments, it looks as if he was going to do the impossible, come from a near last place start, and upset experienced veterans in the sport. But then he didn’t. Two flats and a very rough race later and Sagan could only think of what could have been. I think our gut reaction is to say “Oh, he’s so unlucky!”, but is he? Not to take away from Sagan’s incredible talent, but didn’t he flat because he wasn’t as smooth on the bike as the top riders, because he was forced to take poor lines to accommodate for his poor starting position, and because he likely didn’t have his tire pressures as dialed in as his competition? And that’s just it. Sagan’s race went south not because of luck, but because he was less prepared than his competition.
I’m far from having a robust philosophy on what it takes be a successful athlete, but if I’ve been learning anything this seasons it’s that owning and taking responsibility for your success and failure is hugely important. That doesn’t mean that things are going to go perfectly in every race: in such an unpredictable sport, almost no one has the perfect race. That said, recognizing that there is always room to improve the little things and being able to analyze what went wrong when flats, crashes, and mechanicals happen is a whole lot more empowering that shaking a fist at the sky and cursing your fate.