The importance of choosing your mistakes wisely
The hallmark of a mediocre endurance bike racer is that tactics rarely come into play. I know this from experience. I go as hard as I can at a rate that will get me to the finish with little to nothing left. I’m never “animating the race.” I’m not making decisions about whether to go off the front or stay with a group. I don’t have a reserve of power that gives me any options. If I ride at a pace that gives me those kinds of options, the race I’ll be animating will be for 50th place.
That’s been the story of my racing: I do the best I can and end up wherever I end up. But last weekend was a little different.
It was the first race of the Mississippi Gravel Cup near Oxford. I was competing with eight other guys in the 60+ age group of the 100-mile gravel race. I know: A nine-person field? Are you kidding? The 50-mile race had 28 guys just in the 60+ category, so the longer distance narrows the field a lot. And it was a cold, wet day. Most of the guys in our race had a legitimate shot at winning the age group.
So in planning my approach to the race, I borrowed a strategy from ultra-endurance cycling. It’s pretty simple: Minimize the time you’re stopped. Our race was two laps, so halfway through I would come past my car, which let me quickly switch out my two water bottles for fresh ones. My goal was to make that my only stop, and since it was about 40 degrees and virtually all of my fuel was in a drink mix in those bottles, I shouldn’t need to stop at the neutral aid station for extra water or food.
Early in the race, the lead group pulled away with a couple of the 60+ guys in it. I was in a small group with two others in the 60+, Robin and Jeff. About 20 miles in, my friend Merrill, also 60+, came roaring up to us.
He’d had a dead shifter battery less than a mile into the race and had to stop to replace it. Cycling commentator Phil Liggett talks about riders digging into their “suitcase of courage.” Merrill was digging into a suitcase full of anger. He told me to get on his wheel, but I knew there was no way I could hold his pace. I told him I was going to race my race.
At the first aid station, 28 miles in, Robin and Jeff stopped and I rode on. But they caught me a few miles later.
When we finished the first lap, I quickly switched bottles at the car and saw my teammate Brad, who helpfully cleaned my glasses. I got back on the road before Robin and Jeff did and didn’t see them again.
On the second lap, a group of three came up behind me including Stan, also 60+. He and Merrill had come through the first lap 7 minutes ahead of me, but Merrill got back on the road first, and I was back on the road before Stan. I rode with him, or in sight of him, for most of the lap, and I passed him with about five miles to go. He stayed on my wheel.
At the finish, there’s a 2.6 mile stretch of muddy trail that winds through the Ole Miss Field Station ponds, where they do aquatic research. With Stan on my wheel, I came up to a puddle all the way across the dirt road and had to choose which side to take. I went left and ended up at a full stop, my front wheel buried in several inches of muck. Stan rode by on the right and ended up two minutes ahead of me at the finish. He was third and I was fourth.
As I was thinking about the race and the lessons I took from it, I saw that a British author I follow namedpublished a piece that day outlining his nine “razors,” or principles that will get you to the right answer more often than not. I didn’t see them before the race, but three of his rules of thumb seemed very familiar given my experience during the race.
Stick to the plan. This is one I’ve learned the hard way by making bad choices during races. So when Merrill came past I knew that as tempting as that extra speed was, trying to follow him wasn’t going to fit with my plan.
Choose your mistakes. Leslie describes this as not completely eliminating errors (which is impossible) but “deciding on the general direction of your errors.” At first I thought that my real mistake was choosing the wrong side of the puddle. But I actually made a bigger mistake before that. That mistake was leading Stan into that section. I don’t know whether I could have stayed on his wheel through that muddy, twisty track, but I’d have been better off letting him go first. When I think of the general direction of errors in decisions like this, I’d prefer the mistake that leaves me with more options to overcome it if I’m wrong.
It’s better to do things than not do things. This is really a restatement of the ultra-endurance strategy. Keep moving. Of the top six guys in my category, only Merrill (who won the age group) had a faster second lap than me. I was a minute faster than Tim, who finished second, but he was much faster on the first lap. When I look back at the lap times and finish times of my main competitors, my average moving speed was slower than all of them.
The difference was the time stopped. Like progress in life, any speed is faster than zero.
The ride: Mississippi Gravel Cup Race #1
Leslie’s Razors: Nine Rules of Thumb for Life