If You Really Want to Race Bikes Fast, Train Your Heart

This year has been rough. Someone asked me what success would look like on the bike in 2021, and I said: “earn one upgrade point” (not that I need one anymore). 

I got one

Beyond that, I’ve stumbled from one failure to another with breathtaking enthusiasm. Sure, that’s harsh, but you’re not my therapist – yes, I rely on self-loathing for motivation. We all have our kink. 

So what are some of my failures?

  1. Pro Nationals Road race – I got caught up in a crash four miles in, got distanced from the peloton, and pulled after only three laps of the course. 
  2. Pueblo Classic Road race – I got dropped in the crosswinds because I decided to pee off the bike at a critical moment of the race.
  3. Pueblo Crit – 10 feet into the road race, my saddle bolt clamp slipped, and my seat went vertical.
  4. Unbound 200 – Before the race, I decided to use an untested spare tube kit strap on the back of my saddle. I didn’t make it more than four miles into the gravel section before the strap came undone, and my spare tube dropped into my rear rotor, forcing me to stop for an early 7 minute mechanical and lose a precious tube for no reason.
  5. SBT GRVL – I didn’t regrease or check my shifting before the race, and midway through, my shifting blew out of alignment, and I had to hold the shifter in place with my hand to keep it in the gear I wanted. 
  6. Also, SBT GRVL – I chose a tire that privileged speed over grip, and it meant that I spent most of the race feeling like I was surfing whenever I went through washed-out gravel downhills. 
  7. Koppenberg RR – I hadn’t changed out my racing tires since 2019, and 8 minutes before the race, I got a flat, changed it, and got to the start line just as the gun went off.
  8. February – Something mysterious happened to me – I woke up in the middle of the night and couldn’t go back to sleep. I couldn’t elevate my heart rate above tempo. My mood shifted. Why? I was chasing the blue line (always trying to increase my CTL in TrainingPeaks), so I ignored feelings of fatigue and got overtrained for about two months. 
  9. Zwifting – I hadn’t been outside on the bike in 90 days at one point last year. But who cared? Biking is all about numbers, right? And what’s more efficient than riding a bike indoors without stops for a good training effect? 
  10. Not measuring – the single most important thing I did when I upgraded to CAT 1 was managing my weight. My iron-clad rule was that I weighed myself every morning. I stopped doing that, and consequently, I never really got to race weight this year. 

…and I’m going to stop myself there. Did you think I was going to drag you through ALL the minutiae of my 2021 failures? 

What really killed my bike racing results in 2021 is that my heart just wasn’t in it.

All of the other failures and takeaways are real, and they count, but they’re small compared to the real rate-limiting factor – my heart.

Every year since I’ve started bike racing in 2012, I’ve pulled away from my house, running through a mental checklist of gear I may have forgotten which always ends with me looking at the rear-view mirror to see if I can see bikes on the bike rack.

When I look back, I see the bikes, but I also see small children madly waving at me, sometimes running down the road after the car. It took me a few times, but the physical description of what I see matches a metaphorical reality – the way I’m bike racing interferes with the quality of my relationship with my children.

The agonizing departures, the mid-trip U-turns, sometimes even consciously sabotaging a race here and there so I could come home early were all manifestations of subconscious disarray. Sure, part of me wanted to be at the bike race – I drove myself there after all. But ALL of me didn’t want to be at the bike race, at least not logistically complicated, week-long, hopelessly competitive national-level road races where the best result I could realistically hope for was finishing and saying, ‘Hey, you did a thing – not bad for Dad.’ Yay.

And what do I sacrifice for those muted thrills? A week away from life with my young kids. When I come back, they sound different, look bigger, do things they’ve never done before. All because “Dada really likes his bike.”

Hell no. I am reevaluating how I train and race bikes within the context of my life. That’s the brilliance of bike racing – there are many formats and ways to pursue bike racing in a way that doesn’t reliably result in a net loss.  

I’m raising this personal anecdote because it illustrates an important factor in performance for any bike racer – if you want to perform well, your heart needs to be into it. It’s not all about the watts you put out, your tactics, nutrition, etc. All of those things are necessary but not sufficient for peak performance.

If you want to fly, the reasons you bike race have to align with your values and produce a net benefit to your life. If they do, you’ll feel like the universe is pulling you upward, and progression is inevitable. If they don’t, you’ll feel like there’s always something holding you back. 

I say this now because most gravel racers are taking a season break, reviewing their season, and starting to plan for next year. In this process, it’s worth revisiting the question of why you’re bike racing and if it aligns with your life. 

Don’t laugh – just because you had an answer this year doesn’t mean the same answer is true now or next year. You’re changing, even if it doesn’t feel like it – if you’re reading this, you’re minimally alive, which means you’re aging.

Maybe your life hasn’t changed much, or maybe, like mine, it’s changed a lot in the last few years. We’ve all gone through a Pandemic where you couldn’t even bike race, and while it’s tempting to think you could make up for what you lost in 2020, you can’t. The time passed, and whether you realized it or not, you are not the same person who finished the 2019 season and started writing down your A races on cocktail napkins.

Maybe your old assumptions and values continue to serve you. But do they? Do you even know what they are? Are you getting what you want out of this sport? Is it making you feel alive? Is it lifting you up every day? Is it making your relationships better?

I know those are heavy questions, but I pose them to you because I want you to win your life. Here’s the thing, though – life is happening now, and it’s happening before you’re ready for it. Today counts, and so does tomorrow, and if you’re not getting what you want, why do you think the same approach will lead to a different outcome?

If the answer is ‘not really,’ think about how you could change your relationship to cycling so it would. Let’s make this concrete:

So here’s a tip, Matti – why don’t you stop leaving your family for long periods for events where you’re going to get your shit kicked in?

Huh. Problem solved.

I know that seemed so simple, but I had to ask myself the question. Most people don’t, and then, suddenly, they find themselves doing things they long ago abandoned, and they quit riding entirely.

If there’s unifying ethos to anything I stand for, it’s the belief that your best life is riding and competing on bikes. You can’t buy fitness; there’s more to life than screens; you should aspire to things that will humble you, competition makes you a better human, your body craves pain, real hunger is a baptism, and there is no rebirth without failure.

Bike racing can keep you there in many ways, but not if you don’t keep it in line with your life.

I’ve got to go – I’ve got a workout on tap. And though I’m getting older, I can still put 400 on the screen for a while if I have to. I know it won’t last. But I have a race on the books, a new approach, and above all, I don’t want to be anywhere but right here, pedal on the floor, throat scorched, pushing what I am up.

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