By: Ben Zawacki Feb 15

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The mental aspect of sport is often the determining factor between success and mediocrity. Great champions exude confidence, preparation and invincibility. With that in mind, it’s time to put on your game face and get ready for a season of racing.
I came across this video from one of boxing’s greats, Mike Tyson. It’s called A Lesson on Intimidation, and well worth a watch.

This clip resonated with me as it truly goes through all of the emotions that I experience before a race. The polarized fear and confidence play so strongly in one’s mind; it’s the most natural feeling for anyone, in any facet of life, at a high level. The way he speaks about fear is beautiful: he dreams of losing to the other person; he’s scared of losing to them. In cycling, it’s so easy to get caught up in how many watts so-and-so can put out for however long or how easily they won whatever random race. We build each other up in our minds and give excessive undue credit. In jest, mostly, my roommates and I like to say things like, “How’s it going to feel when you get to watch me win?” Clearly trying to show supremacy, but with a distinct note of fear and apprehension.

But the confidence is real. Every rider is far from pack-fill in their own mind. Whether or not we admit it, we think quite highly of ourselves. We all could be better, we have our excuses, but few people will acknowledge they have reached their pinnacle. Tyson speaks of supreme confidence and, justifiably or not, I know what he is saying. When I’m focused at a race, all I think about is how I’m going to win. I already feel victorious; I picture the win and it seems there is no other possible scenario. A substantial list of races I should have won plays like old game tape every time I look back on my seasons. I have every intention to fix those mere bobbles and have already planned my assault on bigger prizes.

Everything about this Tyson video perfectly portrays my feelings while watching it…till I take a step back and look at my surroundings. This is where the story becomes quite interesting. I’m watching the video on the computer of the very person whom I plan on piercing my figurative glove through. Another target of mine watches over our shoulders. Then I realize that within my world of domestic professional cycling, our fears and confidence have another layer: camaraderie, and even friendship. The casual reader should feel no different. How many friends have driven to a race, tried with all their might to destroy each other, and then driven home laughing about it? The majority of the time we are pals, but when the time comes, you want to inflict pain.

Cycling can be a very incestuous world. We like to mingle with others but very easily revert back into our cave. From a personal standpoint, I made my pilgrimage to Tucson to live with three other competitors. We live together. Can you imagine two boxers in that situation? The scale is far different, but regardless, we are in career competition. Two of the guys ride for different teams; every race I’m at this year my goal is to beat them and the other hundred or so guys who make up the parade of American cycling, most of whom I’m friendly with. Competition even exists between my teammate and I. We are both aiming for the same jersey to win the race, but both of us would like to be the designated rider inside that jersey. On a grander scale, we’re both getting slices from the limited salary budget, but even a cyclist will opt for the bigger slice of pie in this case.

So how does this duality thrive in elite cycling? Another example is in order, this one taken from the current book I’m reading chronicling the early astronauts. It was well before my time, but I imagine that the public viewed NASA in a similar way to how the average cyclist views the pro peloton: with a small amount of awe and admiration for the sense of dedication and drive, and maybe even a bit of envy.

The comparisons are quite simple to make between our lives and those of space-bound men of the sixties. Being on the fringe of general knowledge, both establishments thrive when a collective positive image is portrayed to the public. During official matters, cyclists and astronauts follow the same training of focusing on the good and avoiding the bad. What you don’t see is the frustrated teammate watching as others bask in the limelight. Nor did the astronauts speak about being passed on for a mission. In both cases, there are many workers standing behind the figureheads. Most everyone played a role, but few get the glory. A competitor might draw a good hand and win, everyone is told to smile on the podium, but that is no easy feat. Just as giving an interview as an astronaut must be difficult for someone with their first scheduled spaceflight nowhere in sight. Close, but no cigar.

The smiles may seem like a front, but that’s not true. People enter both institutions, cycling and NASA, from a sense of passion and want to build upon the foundation before them. The frustrations are in waiting for your opportunity, not in others having theirs. The competition is cutthroat no doubt, everyone wants to be the best and leave their mark, but losing a race to a friend must be similar to losing a seat on a rocket. Jealously will initially set in, but the bond that has formed over time allows one to transition into acceptance and even a state of contentment. Pleasure can be taken from the successes of others and that only drives the urge to better their feats.

We live together, train together, and enter the heat of battle against each other. It’s an odd mixture of feelings to have for a group of people; in my case, those feelings are both brotherhood, and contained animal-like rage against them. But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald pointed out, intelligence can be defined as having the ability to hold two opposing ideas and still function. I like to think of cyclists as intelligent athletes.


The Shootout

By: Ben Zawacki Jan 22

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5:50 am.

The alarm goes off and I jolt from my daze. It’s Saturday morning and I’m waking for the notorious group ride known as the Shootout. My sleep has been fleeting in anticipation of the early alarm—about three hours earlier than normal—but now that it’s time to rise, all I want is to close my eyes and roll back over, a typical perk of professional cycling.

The ride rolls out of a Starbucks adjacent to Arizona University in downtown Tucson. It’s a chilly thirty minute ride down from my apartment in the Catalina Foothills, but as any cyclist knows, adequate time must be allowed to fully prepare for a ride of such physical demand, and ego-driven importance. I choose 5:50 because it is a full ten minutes before my roommates will rise, and this will give me the necessary time to grab the best pans and start prepping my morning feast before the crowd fills our tight kitchen.

The conversation is an odd mix of rambling jokes and silence as we’re drunk with sleep but awakening to the aroma of coffee and the task of shoveling copious amounts of food into our not-yet-hungry stomachs. Our discussion will inevitably take a turn toward attire as we prep for the day ahead. Located in a desert, Tucson is surprisingly frigid in the morning but easily reaches the mid-seventies by noon. No matter which articles of clothing you’ve chosen, the first step out the door kicks you back. The sun has yet to rise and the first twenty minutes are a frosty experience; but then you’ll catch that first ray of sunlight and the change is startling.

The Starbucks is like all others, with a Santé Fe twist, and now with a heavy dash of European flair. Cyclists loiter around, some are pulling gear from cars; the brave roll in with winter gloves on and others take refuge inside, sipping their hot beverages.

The Shootout is quite similar to other large group rides in that there will be many riders sporting professional team kit. But here, when you’re inclined to ask that man drenched in BMC paraphernalia where he bought it, you come to the realization that it was earned. The little Garmin babies group together bantering about which one will be time trialing onto the ProTour team this year; it’s really quite amazing how many elite and professional riders come together for this unsanctioned Saturday morning ride. The locals are firing on all cylinders and praying for their chance to stick it to the out-of-towners. And then there are the newbies…

The ride rolls out promptly and more than a hundred riders slot onto tiny University Boulevard. Running parallel on both sides of the yellow line lay a pair of old train tracks waiting to grab the eager bikerist (that’s a few steps below the full-fledged cyclist), fidgeting around the edges of the mass. But make no mistake, nerves are present in all the riders, including the more experienced. It’s the early season and we’ve all been away from the peloton; while no one wants to have too much form now, pride often gets the better of us.

The ride rolls easily out of town, weaving through roundabouts and under I-10. Turning south the pace begins to lift as we hit Mission road. Riders are mixing about, catching up with familiar faces, and meeting new ones. The whole environment is jovial with few smiles giving away their true intent.
Around Ajo Way the imperceptible jockeying for position will begin, and by Irvington Road the shuffling has begun in earnest. The red light looms in the distance: Valencia Road, the cross street that marks the official start to the unofficial race. It feels like the group always catches this light and riders all try to slip their way forward. Some are tactful, gliding forward, others are more overt, simply riding around in the other lane.

The green flashes and suddenly the pace far exceeds everyone’s comfort level. At the front there’s an odd mix of riders rolling through and elevating the speed with others trying to stay in the action but out of the wind. No one wants to do too much work, but there’s an obligation to any rider strong enough to make their pull. This past week my single fleeting moment of leading the field required in excess of 500 watts.

Once you are convinced the leader is riding a motorcycle, the bridge comes into sight. I’m always relieved here, despite this being the most difficult part of the ride: I know it will ease up as we crest the rise. If you’ve made it this far, the rest is a relative breeze. What’s left of the group reevaluates their surroundings; deep breaths are had by all with the knowledge that the selection has been made. The next few miles pass by and the anticipation mounts as the final hill approaches. Mini lead-outs form as you ram into the base of the hill. The speed is on par with any NRC sprint, but here it’s more chaotic; the hill takes a little over a minute to climb if you do it well. But no one does. Riders jump left and right, take three to five hard strokes and they’re done, heads down and gasping for air. I’m convinced this is one of the most difficult finishes in all of cycling, classics be damned. No one is pipped at the line, no one soars across the imaginary line—the winner is the lonely rider who slogged their way the longest.

I’ve been that guy once. It was a strange satisfaction that I felt; I inched my way over the top and looked out upon desert. A few pats on the back and grunts of congratulations as others crawled over the top, but mostly just a mutual acknowledgment of the sufferings that we all just put ourselves through. The group accretes from behind and we roll lazily away. Some will veer right down Continental Road towards Madera Canyon, others will head back for town, but we can all be proud of our morning.

The group ride is a mysterious and beautiful thing. Clashes of personalities come together with different tasks at hand, but they are all symbiotically linked in this mass of bikes. Some come to meditate and have a mental break from the monotony of everyday life; others come to socialize, and yet others come to prove their superiority, and occasionally lack thereof. The beautiful organism that is a group ride welcomes all.


One Crash Changed It All

By: Ben Zawacki Jan 11

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One crash changed it all; It was supposed to set my life along the train tracks of normality. By no means was it life threatening, but it certainly pushed me in the direction of the average; the stage, event and timing all scripted the perfect tragedy. It was the last twenty minutes of the criterium finals at the national championships in Park City, Utah. I was a rather promising junior and in my final year, and I was postponing my high school senior exams in order to compete at that lofty venue. I was quite successful regionally, I had international experience, I was coached by professional national champion, Mark McCormack, and I was ready for my breakthrough on the national level. That morning I had won the first of two qualifier races, as the course was not able to contain all the hungry competitors at once. I won it in dramatic style no less, riding away solo to victory, a simple one-handed gesture was all that was needed upon crossing the finish line. I’d save the grandiose two-handed salute for the afternoon.

The finals approached and the weather was ominous. The race started quickly and the field disintegrated as the hill, wind, and speed all took their toll. I was alone, racing for the New England branch of Colavita’s amateur program. Kids riding for a team that would be later known as Garmin littered the field. As the race blasted on, the true competitors started to show. I remember it distinctly, there were seventeen of us left. Four riders, that would eventually go on to win the race, were just off the front. Another lone rider jumped, all the major teams were represented and this was my chance. We powered on together for a few laps, the rain starting to fall and the wind howling down on us. I could feel the win. After turn one there was a fast straight, dropping into an off-camber, ripping corner with the gusts sweeping across it. We were a handful of seconds down as I followed him into the curve. And then his wheel started to dance, a graceful dance, something comparable to the waltz. I watched as he eased himself onto the ground; we were traveling near forty miles per hour. I did what I could, I adjusted, I contorted, but there was no way around it, I too was going down.

But this is not a story about bike racing. I did crash. I did go to the hospital. I did get stiches. I did lose my best chance at being a national champion, and I did miss my chance at worlds. I was out for weeks. I had a few opportunities to follow the typical route to the pro’s. I was on a supposed development subdivision of a professional team that my coach rode for and was captain of; I had contacts that could put a word in with the national development team and possibly get me a ride at world’s. But this turning point, minor in the grand scheme, was likely to alter my life path permanently.

My sight, wavering between cycling and real life, found its mark. Unlike many of those other seventeen riders, it was time for me to accept that my horizon was filled with books, graduation, and eventually work. And yet here you are, reading a column written by me, and my only real qualification for this writing gig is that I am a professional cyclist.

This is a story of retrospection.

My path began traditionally. I played sports, had friends and a solid family life. But there are a few key factors that led me in the direction of cycling. The most key of those being that my father found cycling right around the time I was born. He fell in love with the beauty of it and quickly became immersed; racing every weekend and bringing me into the thriving local community of cyclists.

On a more subliminal level, I was an only child and my parents divorced while I was rather young. I became quite good at entertaining myself and have developed a strong individualistic attitude. Those feelings pushed me away from the typical ball sports. I had a difficult time buying into the notion of winning and losing as a team. I wanted the pressure to reside solely on my shoulders; I wanted to enjoy my own successes and failures. Not a healthy attitude, but one that developed early and fit well with junior racing.

I became known as the kid who rode bikes, and by high school that was my intended profession. I may not be the most naturally gifted individual, but it came easily to me, and I rode often, but rarely with the intensity, structure or duration of my peers. I was relaxed and easy going, a far cry from the obsessive junior riding thirty hour weeks. In hindsight, that was key to my cycling career.

There are countless young and gifted athletes who are pushed too hard and too early, and they quit. Many are the next big thing, but for one reason or another, they leave the sport. It’s said that to master anything, 10,000 hours are required. In cycling, that time is often spent alone in the solitary confinement of one’s mind. Try to force cycling too soon and it is inevitable that you will retreat.

And then I crashed. I salvaged the season, upgrading to category one and securing a spot on the enviable Fior Di Frutta team, but something was missing. With the memory of what could have been still prominent in my mind, I took my successes for granted. I didn’t appreciate the work required to make it at the next level. Looking back, this delay in my trajectory was essential. I wasn’t ready.

Next was a time of transition, the end of a chapter; graduation with pressure to go the mainstream way and pursue a college education. I was distracted from cycling in a constructive way. I raced at the elite level, but in reality was exploring many other facets of life: studying, celebrating, and being a newly-young and faux-independent adult. I made great friends and memories in those years.

And then I was ready. No crash, no life changing moment, I was simply ready. It was my senior year of college and I was ready to work. I had done a lot of growing up in the previous years, but this year I did a lot of maturing. I became focused. I walked around college on game days declining each beer shoved in my face; I masochistically pushed away the Halloween candy; I spent my nights reading and sleeping; I dipped below 150lbs, and I became the person I wanted to be. All the years of groundwork I had laid of training and living culminated perfectly into someone ready to take the next step, and at the perfect time. The chapter of college years was closed and the introduction of professional cycling was written.


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