You know those days when it feels like you're flying? Stretches of your ride that are usually tough seem to come and go without fazing you. Head out for a local climb and you'll find yourself at the top before you even realize the hard part has started. Everything seems to click and on those days, it's easy to love what we do.
Take a ride like that, add a healthy dose of competition, and you’ve got a recipe for feeling great. When we hit up Mandeville on a recent Machines Ride, I had one of those rare moments. I PR’d the whole 5 mile climb and I was the first one to the top! Most of the women had dropped me before so passing them up felt like a mini-victory. Maybe it shouldn’t have felt so good, but it did.
Not only was I feeling happy and strong, but I was feeling confident, like maybe I’m getting good at this whole riding bikes thing. It felt like my training was finally paying off and I descended with a smile.
A week or so later I was still riding with rose-colored lenses in my Oakleys. Riding on confidence is like switching from 19 mm tires to 25s. Suddenly the pebbles in the road are a lot less noticeable. It’s smooth sailing.
Buoyed up by my new-found confidence cloud, I headed out to climb GMR with my partner, Alvin. I was looking forward to it! Glendora Mountain Road is one of the most beautiful rides and my favorite local climb. It has switchbacks, incredible views, yellow flowers in the springtime and a nice pitchy grade that naturally eases up at points to let you catch your breath.
The first half-mile is annoyingly steep and not that pretty. Overconfident and blissfully unaware of my impending doom, I zoomed up to the first switchback, riding side by side with Alvin. Then… you know where this story was going… it starts. My heartrate is through the roof and my saliva is getting out of control. Alvin is getting further and further away from me and I’m so mad! I was planning on keeping up with him for the first part of the climb at least, but there he went and I was struggling to keep him in my sights. I was planning on going down a few gears in the rear and chugging up with a steady pace that way, but instead I was already in my lightest gear and zig-zagging all over the road. I wanted to puke and stomp on all of the yellow flowers and throw a rock at Alvin’s figure getting smaller and smaller ahead of me.
I was fuming, but more than anger what I felt was doubt. Maybe I wasn’t as strong as I thought. I felt like I’d been running full speed ahead Wile E. Coyote style when suddenly the ground ran out. But why? Why should riding with an elite racer or a new rider have any bearing on how I feel about my own abilities?
It shouldn’t. But still, there is no greater tell in my mind of my own fitness than whether I am at the back or the front of the pack. My position among others is always the greatest blow or boost to my confidence.
As a result, I often find myself swinging unpredictably between two extremes: happy confidence and debilitating self-doubt. It’s no secret that when you’re feeling confident, riding bikes is fun. You seem to dance up hills, able to hold conversations and maybe even crack a joke or two on the way up the climb. But when you’re off the back? Bikes suck. The views are not as pretty and everyone suffering less than you becomes your secret enemy.
What I’ve realized is that confidence is definitely not a ride or die homie. He’s the first to dip when you drop off the back. There’s got to be something else then, right? Something to keep us coming back to train to get better and not quit when doubt creeps in. I’m not sure what that is – it might just be good old-fashioned stubbornness and refusal to take no for an answer – but I am sure that whatever it is for you, you need to find it. Because riding at the front of the pack never did anything for anyone but blow up their ego. You have to ride with people stronger than you to get stronger, and this is impossible if when you ride with people stronger than you, you suddenly feel dragged down by self-doubt and feeling like you don't deserve to be out there.
In setting out to write this piece I polled a few friends because obviously I haven’t got it all figured out. Thankfully, I’ve learned that I’m not alone. Many of us struggle with feeling confident in our own abilities, independent of our performance on a certain day and without comparing ourselves to those around us. It should be enough to try and continue to try, to stack up #marginalgains and even just to go ride when it feels like the last thing you want to do. But sometimes it’s tough for everyone.
Of all the different perspectives I heard, one of the best was (unsurprisingly) my mom’s. She related the question to the professional area. “Are you qualified for the job?” If so, it’s ok to feel confident. If not, “are you teachable?” If you know you can succeed with adequate training, you should feel confident too. In terms of bikes I’ll venture out on a limb and say we can all succeed with training. So if you can’t rely on confidence, that fickle friend, rely on your own determination to try.