By ALP athlete Kerry Marder
I love to ride bikes. But almost as much as I love to ride bikes, I love to watch people ride bikes. I watch You Tube videos of South American BMX street riding while I eat my breakfast cereal. I stay up all night to live-stream the World Cup downhill races in Europe. I think I replayed the Red Bull Rampage a dozen times last year. I live in a constant state of awe of the skill level of some of the amateurs and professionals alike out there. And, let’s face it, we all have a favorite pro bike racer. One that we secretly (or in my house, not so secretly) root for and follow. These days, for me, it’s cross country mountain bike racer Emily Batty. I mean, how does she manage to make it all look so easy and still have great hair?! Recently, I was watching highlights of the UCI Mountain Bike World Cup race in Albsdadt, Switzerland. There was a part of the course that had an A-line and a B-line, where the A-line was short and steep with a technical rock feature made super sketchy by the wet conditions and the B-line was substantially longer and gentler with no technical component. I watched as Emily crashed hard into the tape at the bottom of the rock drop on the A line while others navigated the B line without trouble. But, lap after lap, she came back to the A-line while others chose B. I was fascinated by what I was seeing- the bike handling and the speed and the conditions were mesmerizing. But I was even more captivated by that which I COULDN’T see - somewhere in Emily’s brain she compartmentalized her crash and kept coming back for more. This part of my brain, the one that tells you to shake it off and keep at it and try again and all the other things that Emily was somehow managing to do, is definitely underdeveloped in me, to say the very least.
The A-line / B-line choose-your-own-adventure race design is not new to me. There was a September cyclocross race this past year (Lucky Pie) where racers had to make a similar choice. A twisty and tight flat section through the grass or up and over a steep, loose, embankment. The steep hill was clearly the A-line, if executed. I had no fear of the A-line going into the pre-ride but then when I tried it, I ate it. The underdeveloped part of my brain that I wanted to rely on to put that fall into a box so that I could tackle it again in the race simply wasn’t up for the task. So on the first lap, I rode the B-line. And just like that, I was off the back. I watched my friends, who are no better or worse than I am, go for it. Some had to put a foot down but they all pulled away from me while I played it safe and watched from the unsatisfying comfort of the B-line. Somewhere towards the middle of the race I took that damned box with the big scary hill and the fall inside of it and sealed it up and drop-kicked it across my brain to a corner where I couldn’t peek in. And I went for that hill. And I still didn’t make it. I put a foot down but I didn’t fall. But I also didn’t die. My Garmin told me I would have time for one more lap and, thus, I would have one more decision to make: A-line or B-line. At the junction, the scary box with all my fears in it was still safely in the corner and I went for the A-line again. And this time I got it. By this point the photographer was gone and the winner was already sipping on her post-race libations, but something important happened in my brain that day and I had gained something far more useful than a pint glass or podium photo or even a top 10 finish.
When I look back on this race, this experience, and this past year of riding in general, I understand now why so much of my training has me off of my trainer and outside on trails that scare me. The A-line for me, I’ve learned, is never the trainer. Because, as much as I need to know that I can rely on my legs and lungs on race day (so, yes, those days where I am just getting buried by intervals on the trainer ARE important - thanks, coach), I also need to know that I can rely on my mind when race day rolls around. By training my brain, I can go into a race or a tough technical section or that scary A-line having the confidence to attack it and the tools to box it up and put it in the corner if it doesn’t go my way. I have learned the tools of positive self-talk, read some fantastic books about training the mind at my coach’s recommendation, and generally worked towards - and I continue to work towards - perfecting how to not let my inner critic (or chimp, as my coach calls it) sneak up and deflate me. Extraordinary performances, I have learned, are the product of both physical AND mental training. On the bike and in life, I’m working on always taking the A-line.