The sport of cycling has enough quirks and intricacies to occupy athletes, coaches and fans for a lifetime. It is an easy sport to obsess about numbers, both physiologic: power, weight, heart rate; and mechanical: rolling resistance, tire pressure, gear ratios, wheel size, and so on. However, I find it interesting that all of this can be totally overshadowed by what is between a rider’s ears. A VO2 of 70 and a decked-out bike doesn’t guarantee podiums, and instead can easily overshadowed by a sub-par mentality.
Confidence is a huge part of riding and racing that can present a challenge to everyone across the experience curve. Coming from a running background with an aerobic engine but no bike handling skills, developing and maintaining confidence has been work in progress for years. It quickly became apparent that being confident on the bike is the product of both experience and mindset. Even after logging hours on the trails, some days I can regress to a newbie rider if my mind isn’t in the right place. More experience on the bike has made these fluctuations somewhat less dramatic but it has become obvious that confidence is something that needs to be deliberately prepared, just like bodies or bikes. This can be an exceptionally difficult thing to do, especially in a sport in which brakes and doubt have the potential to relegate you over the handlebars. However, training myself to recognize and tame thoughts that interfere with the task at hand has been an exceptionally useful and transferable skill.
As importance as confidence is, the confidence trap can also be dangerous on the other end of the spectrum. Confidence to the extreme can take the form of arrogance or recklessness. Even with optimal preparation, anything can happen in bike racing. Reminders of the fickle nature of the sport often surface during moments of over-confidence- pulling up before the finish line, riding outside your abilities and making mistakes, or underestimating others’ abilities before races. It never hurts to bring a dose of humility with every race and ride regardless of race resume.
Even in the absence of frank arrogance, there are a couple lessons in humility that we can all take from cycling. First is the acceptance that there are only a limited number of variables we can control. Optimal preparation and race execution can still be derailed by mechanicals and other racer’s mistakes. Second, even though the regulars on the podium may get a disproportional amount of attention, there are countless “races within the race” and untold stories that are even more impressive than clocking the fastest time. It can be easy to attribute podiums talent and hard work but it also takes an undeniable contribution of luck and privilege.
This delicate balance of confidence and humility is played out nearly exactly in medical training. Especially early in training, confidence is a difficult thing to cultivate with an experience base much smaller than the other members of the team. But we soon realize that the learning curve never actually ends and the best physicians continue to balance leadership with awareness of the limitations of their abilities and knowledge. Professional confidence will come with growing experience and knowledge base, but also needs to be deliberately developed, just like on the bike. Similarly, humility should be a constant companion with every encounter with patients and other members of the healthcare team. The consequences of neglecting this might not be as dramatic as an endo, but the impact can be much more significant.
Extrapolating life lessons from a sport seems a bit trivial but I’ve been reminded of these themes often in both cycling and medicine. Navigating the balance of humility and confidence in either sphere is exceptionally difficult and probably can never really be mastered. But I think this elusive task that is part of the intrigue of both cycling and medicine.