“It’s evident the art of losing’s not too hard to master though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” –Elizabeth Bishop
Everyone likes to win. But in cycling, what is winning, really? Is it getting on the podium in a lower category, or is it placing low in the next category up? At the end of the day, does it really matter?
I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions this season (mostly just, “Why do I do this?” when races get rough, which is, well, most races, most of the time). This season I’m trying something different, something that’s quite difficult for me: I’m trying to get better by losing. It’s not as counterintuitive as you might imagine.
In cycling, to steal from another poet, there are “two roads” (thank you, Frost!) that a cyclist comes to at some point in his or her career: to upgrade, or not to upgrade. That is the question.
It’s a hard question, because with that upgrade comes the nerve-wracking certainty that you will no longer be at the top of your field. But then again, can you really say that you are at the top if you don’t bother to race at the highest level possible? Some people are content to stay in their field, consistently in the top ten, consistently winning merch, or occasionally, some cash. And you know what? I get that. Then, there are the upgrade requesters, the ones who count their points and calculate what spot they need to be in if they’re to upgrade by the end of the weekend. And in the early part of this season, I was one of those overzealous counters.
I recently got my (hard-earned) upgrade to a Cat 2 in cyclocross, which meant a mad dash to get a UCI license in order to start racing in the “big leagues.” This is a tough call for women racers, since there are only two categories to race in, and oftentimes, someone at the top of the B field is still at the very bottom of the A field. But move up we must, and I moved on up.
So, enter Liz Bishop and her wonderful poem, “One Art.” Cyclists tend to be English majors or Engineers, and if you wanted an article about the science of the bottom bracket, you picked the wrong column. Give me a poem to analyze any day of the week. Anyway, Bishop’s poem popped into my head while driving home from a UCI race, my fourth ever, where again, I was fighting very hard to simply not be in last place, and not get lapped. This is no easy feat when racing against Great Britain’s National Champion, but even though I avoided the dreaded, “On your left,” shout from the leaders, I was feeling defeated. Two weeks before, I had been on the podium. Now, I was finishing my race after the podium for the race I was in was already over and finished.
It turns out, losing is an art in cycling. And apparently, I’m quite good at it.
When I started racing in the Elite Women’s race, I went through a massive period of self-doubt. The first couple of races were, in a word, brutal. It turns out racing in the Elite race is hard. Very hard. But I knew it would be, since I’d gone through a similar revelation after moving into the Cat 3’s on the road. Suddenly, your best isn’t as good as everyone else’s efforts, and you feel like you’re maybe not the racer you thought you were. Or at least, that’s how I felt.
Yep, it’s easy to lose. But what’s hard is mastering the art of being OK with it, and accepting that losing is better than winning, in some ways. I know that now I’m racing with the best, and starting out, I can’t expect to be on their level. But every race I do, I’m watching how they take corners, how they negotiate climbs, how they power through straightaways, and I’m trying to stay on their wheels for just a few seconds longer every time. Sure, I’m not winning, but I’m still giving 100% of my effort in every race.
To some extent, I guess I haven’t quite grasped the art of losing, because after the initial shock wore off, it doesn’t feel like I’m losing races, it feels like I’m learning from them, “and that has made all the difference.”
So whether you’re in the way back of your race, or the very front, race the race. Don’t sit up, sit back, or give up. Rather, race hard, finish hard, and be proud of your effort.
“I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”