A recent study shows that imagining success leads to failure, at least in certain tasks. Those who engage in "positive fantasies about the future" in their imaginations are more likely to put forth "poor achievement" in the real world. (The "positive fantasy" in the study is something like "looking hot in high heels," but the study itself is fairly sound in terms of setup).
American schoolchildren rank near the bottom of industrialized countries in math and science, but ourkids are "first in confidence" in their math and science abilities.(source)
American marriages are more likely to dissolve in divorce than marriages in other developed countries (4.5 per 1,000 people); yet, our belief in the sanctity of the marriage institution is higher than in other developed countries (source).
So now we ask our version of the WWJD question: What does this--this call to pessimism--mean for bike racers?
I'm convinced that very little separates pro cyclists from each other. It has to be fractions of percentage points, in terms of power and strength (despite Sean Yates' recent statement that Contador is "15% stronger" than the other contenders). That's because bike races are incredibly long affairs, and given enough time a 1% advantage is enormous--in a race 4 hours long, it becomes an almost one-minute advantage, and in a stage race, it becomes an one and a half hour advantage.
I think this is not as true for local cyclists, but I think it's true for most of us. Our power profiles are different in shape, but--and this is especially true in the elites--its our choices on the bike rather than that extra 5 watts that shows up in the BAR.
Bike riding--that's a test of endurance, but bike racing is, like chess, also about moves and choices.
DJ consistently places in the top five of local races because he's very good at positioning himself, and, of course, because he has a tremendous sprint. But mostly because he's confident and smart about his positioning.
But wait, doesn't confidence mean you engage in "positive fantasy"? I mean, what is confidence but believing in your ability?
Guys who win races always believe they deserve to win. Some (Cavendish, for example) even believe they deserve to win every race they enter. Lance Armstrong was nothing if not confident, obnoxiously so.
Guys who win races are committed to the notion of winning bike races, it seems. Often, this is delusional. Look at Hushovd, who finally won his first race of the season yesterday. He had been unhappy with Garmin, especially with Paris-Roubaix, even though his teammate won. He'd felt confident he could've beaten Cancellara--a result as likely as me beating Rugg in a mustache-growing contest.
Winning requires a kind of confidence, but it also requires clear-eyed realism. At Paris-Rouboux Vaughters, Hushovd's DS, clearly recognized Cancellara's superiority; it was realism that led him to order Hushovd to sit back. It was realism that led him to play the odds with Van Summeran. Because of realism, Garmin got the win at the world's biggest one-day race, albeit from a gangly beanpole with teeth made to chew cabbage, frighten children, and possibly suck chiggers from his girlfriend's cheek.
Most of us don't have DSs keeping us grounded in reality. We jump into breaks or out of them based on "positive fantasies" or because we've been engaged in "positive fantasies" before the race, and have no motivation to actualize our dreams.
I'm not trying to go all Marvin Zauderer on you. I'm just thinking about all the riders I know who are depressed because they're convinced they should be winning races. They've got the power data to win, but for some reason they're not.
Maybe they're not the strongest, and maybe they're making the right moves, but for others, I'm convinced, what's holding them back is a divorce from reality.
I'm not the strongest rider in terms of power, so I can't complain too much about my results, but I'm guilty of the same thing. This is my third year racing, and I don't have any results this year; it's hard in the elites. Still, I've had chances, and I've made mental mistakes.
The hard part about bike racing is accepting limitations. It's something runners don't have to do because there isn't drafting. You weren't first across the line because you were slower, not because you were daydreaming and missed the break. In cycling, with its sometimes magnificent complexity, we ride after a holy grail, a mysterious choice we make purely on instinct. It can be passive or active, violent or calm. It's always different, elusive, and beautiful. It's all the stuff of a positive fantasy--one we are, if we are to ever win, not entertain.