The Re-Write

Filippo Pozatto and Alessandro Ballan have each gone to bed four times since the 2012 Tour of Flanders has ended. Both riders turned in exceptional performances, rides worth remembering. They did not, however, turn in wins, which in the high-stakes poker of professional cycling is what matters. For some sponsors second might as well be no-show.

As cycling fans, we are both aware that nothing can be substituted for a win and that the idea that second place is worthless is pure B.S. Some of the gutsiest rides ever delivered resulted in second step appearances at the podium. And TV time by our favorite rider is a not invaluable dividend for the sponsor. But sponsorship value for second and third isn’t the consideration at hand.

How many times have you lain in bed, waiting for sleep to steal your consciousness, and played back the day’s events? From bike races to conversations with co-workers and spouses, we have all done it countless times. How many times have you thought, “Ah but for that one detail, things might be different”?

There’s no way to total it, is there?

The desire to re-write the day seems to be a common element of the human condition. The simply ability to imagine a different outcome, a different reality, is enough to feed hopes in the most unrealistic of ways. Wishing it won’t make it so.

If I could ask but one question to Pozatto and Ballan it would be what they thought about as they drifted toward sleep. Not just Sunday, but each night this week. Did they spend those last moments thinking of how they might have played their hands differently?

My experience as a musician hurt me when I first began bike racing. I had plenty of nights lying in bed, ears ringing with long-dead guitar chords, where I tried to will errant notes, failed cues, broken sticks into submission. It never worked, and my ability to let go of those missed notes largely determined how quickly I drifted off. I remained convinced that the next time around I wouldn’t have the same problem, make the same mistake. They were, as baseball fans say, “unforced errors.” The problem was, I was largely right. At gigs mere nights later, I’d play a previously troublesome passage without a hitch. So when I began bike racing I soon discovered the urge to Monday morning quarterback my races while I waited for sleep to free me from myself.

But for reasons I can’t explain, I couldn’t let go of a failed performance, that belief that, “I could have gone just a little harder; I just didn’t will it hard enough.” The stakes in my races can’t begin to compare with what a victory in a Spring Classic can do for a life; nonetheless, I’d beat myself up, certain that in the same situation again I’d try harder—and succeed.

It was the heart rate monitor that showed me how wrong I was. I can remember thinking on more than one occasion that I should have been able to follow a move, hold an attack for longer, overtake someone in a sprint, whatever. I could have been trying to fly to the moon. The HRM always told me the same thing: That my account was more overdrawn than the Federal Government. Any thoughts of going harder were as fanciful as trying to win the lottery without buying a ticket.

Eventually those out-of-bounds numbers became an easily guessed confirmation for what my body knew better than my head. Still, that couldn’t stop me from second-guessing. Once I knew a thing or two about race tactics, I began to wonder if I hadn’t ridden conservatively enough during less consequential moments. Might I have played my hand differently? No matter what I learned, I found new ways to use my knowledge against myself, fresh ways to try to rewrite an outcome I wasn’t capable of delivering.

I learned, finally, that there was a solution to the second-guessing: Winning. It was as easy as finishing first.

What went through Pozatto’s head as he relaxed in bed Sunday night? Did he question when he started his sprint? How could he not? And what of Ballan? The guy rode with more balls than whole teams that day. Did he rue his flock of attacks? Which three would he have sacrificed just to put everything into one hail mary full of afterburners?

If only will could make it so.


Images: Photoreporter Sirotti

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  1. Champs

    Boonen covered the attacks, led out the sprint, and STILL managed to win. You can’t finesse a guy who’s holding a royal flush.

    Presumably, you brought your best game. All you can do is sleep, and dream for better cards the next time around.

  2. Robot

    Pozatto has said that he was in the red at the top of the last climb, though he looked pretty comfortable. Boonen was gapped. I think that was his last shot (or Ballans) to take the race.

    If I had any idea how to let go of the past, I’d travel around the country teaching people my mystical ways and reaping untold fortunes. Which I’d spend on bikes and remain relatively poor.

  3. scaredskinnydog

    One of the best parts of being a pro cyclist is you don’t usually have to wait long to redeem yourself,there’s always the next race. The worst part (especially for riders of Pozzato’s stature) is that everyone is constantly reminding you of the race’s you’d like to forget, ‘Hey Fillipo! What happened in Ronde?’.

  4. Tom

    If we don’t learn from history, we are doomed to repeat it.

    Project review/lessons learned is essential. Monday morning QBing is essential. The point to accept, though, is what your HRM told you. So, you change your training. You change strategy.

    You did everything you could. Sometimes you just get beat.

    And if you won, and you don’t review, you may not understand what went right for you, or wrong for the other guy, and you get beat the next time.

    I hope Boonen is truly cognizant of the fact that if Cancellara doesn’t crash out, he may have been sprinting for second best.

  5. grolby

    Tom, I don’t think that’s how Boonen thinks about it, and it would be a mistake if he did. There are a few riders who could have been first with Boonen sprinting for second best, if the race had unfolded in a different way. Why consider that? As it happened, Cancellara crashed out. Had he been there in the finale, it may well have been neither Boonen nor Cancellara taking the win. Why consider that? What does Tom Boonen possibly gain by thinking “If Cancellara had been there for the finale, maybe he would have beat me.” ? Maybe he would have. Maybe he wouldn’t have.

    Boonen has said (and a lot of top riders have said) that he is not concerned with what a different, specific rider is going to do on the day, that he isn’t worrying about how Cancellara might win the race. I think it’s smart to take him at his word. Yes, he knows who his principal rivals are, and he will certainly mark them, but Tom Boonen has a few particular ways in which he has to win races, and he has to ride to execute on his strengths, not on the strengths or weaknesses of another rider.

    Anyway, having won, Boonen has the luxury of not rethinking his race – leave that to Pozzato and Ballan. They, perhaps, have something to worry about. Again, why does Boonen need to wonder what might have happened had Cancellara not crashed out? The health and fitness of the other riders isn’t relevant to Boonen’s.

  6. Robot

    Thing is, we don’t even see all the significant events in a race like this. My earlier comment highlighted a moment I thought Pozatto could have dropped Boonen, but his inability to do so might have been down to a moment, hours before, when he let himself stick out in the wind for ten minutes when he didn’t need to. Any of them might well be saying, “Ah, if I’d burned fewer matches in the first two hours, I’d have had more in the end.” We don’t usually see those two hours on TV, so hard to second guess effectively.

    I think Pozatto should rethink that fright wig hair cut, though.

  7. Adam

    Tom, “I hope Boonen is truly cognizant of the fact that if Cancellara doesn’t crash out, he may have been sprinting for second best.”
    I never understand statements like this, for starters, Boonen has six cobbled monuments to Cancellara’s three. Secondly, you talk about learning from history, but each have beat the other fair and square in past with the pendulum presently swinging towards Belgium – exhibit a:

    Great article. I wonder if Tour de France GC riders torture themselves more as they have 21 stages to reflect back on where they could have done things differently.

    1. Author

      Adam: If I may interject here, I think what Tom was referring to was the fact that Cancellara has multiple world championships in the ITT to his credit, not to mention an Olympic gold medal; in the last two seasons he has been the single most consistent performer in the Monuments. When Cancellara goes, there’s not munch anyone can do to stop him; the best anyone has been able to do is latch on. Boonen is having a fantastic season, but if you were to bet based on last season’s results, you’d be an idiot to bet on Boonen over Cancellara. Of course, that whole broken collarbone thingy makes this conversation academic at best.

  8. Tom

    I hear what you all are saying. My point is, Tom Boonen better be really pleased! That’s all. As for analyzing what you did to win, that’s always the best thing to do!

    I wonder, if he hadn’t played with drugs so much, if we’d be talking about Boonen as a GOAT candidate. Sure he had some bad luck but, a lot of it was self-inflicted.

  9. DavidA

    As I said in another post, Ballan and Pozatto died 6 times in the race and Boonen was able to die 7 times. At that level you give everything you’ve got to give….and whoever can stomp the 53×12 or 11 alittle harder in the last 150 meters is a hero…the others got 2nd and 3rd. Harsh…but so is the world of PRO cycling. That’s why its so savage, yet beautiful.

  10. naisan

    letting go of the past is easy:

    It is past.

    Let go.

    The learning will not leave you when the guilt disappears.

    We are taught (wrongly) they go together.

    They do not.

  11. CaptainH

    The aspect of the discussion that I think is being overlooked is not so much the tactics used that day but Tom Boonen’s secret sauce; namely, his recent spate of winning performances. Boonen came into the race having won some prestigious races in the early part of the season (and the confidence that comes with it). Both Ballan and Pozzatto are struggling to find the form that defined their earlier monument successes (RVV and MSR respectively). Quite succinctly; success begets success. We have seen this before (Cancellara’s and Gilbert’s streaks come to mind). Physiologically there might have been a few percentage point differences in their “max wattage” that day, but Boonen had them hands down on confidence. In short, Ballan and Pozzatto have forgotten how to win and that’s the difference. Add to that the support of Sylvain Chavanel et al on the Omega Pharma Quick Step team, the adoration and support of an entire country, a gorgeous day on home soil and you have the necessary ingredients for a dominant performance. IMHO.

  12. gmknobl

    Sports as metaphor for life. You try your best and hopefully learn by the end to live without regrets. It’s a very hard trick and one that in the wrong hands turns into having no consciousness of their actions. But for many, especially the introspective caring ones among us, it is hard, very hard, to learn not to act in a way we later regret in some fashion. Of course, it does not necessarily mean we did something wrong or immoral, but rather if we’d just done it differently then perhaps… But you cannot go through life like that, at least after you’ve learned to give it an honest shot and have done your best. Otherwise, you tear yourself apart. And that does no one any good.

    Nice article!

  13. J-Go

    padraig- you can’t really base future results on what a rider did the year before. Fitness is such a fleeeting thing, and a rider can fluctuate as much as 10-15 percent in peak fitness. if we were to go by last year’s results, Gilbert would have at least 4 wins right now rather than zero.

    1. Author

      J-Go: My point was that last year is a greater indicator of future performance than four years ago, which is why Boonen’s current form is such a pleasant surprise.

  14. Ron

    I’d like to second or third or fourth that it is completely ridiculous to suggest that Boonen should be wondering what might have happened if others had been in the race. What?!

    You ride the race on that day. What if Merckx had been in the race? What if it had been snowing? Blah blah blah. That’s crazy & pointless. You ride the race as it exists. These guys are too focussed on riding their best to sit around wondering how things might have gone differently with different conditions.

    Secondly, I hope I never again have to read any stupid comments about Boonen and drugs. He lost focus. It could have been with video games or food or women. A little cocaine. So what! What about all the pro athletes who’ve hindered their performance across a career with the bottle. A few nights of partying and fun – we are all allowed to make some mistakes.

    As if cocaine is some demon drug. Whatever. It makes me like Boonen more knowing that he’s human, got a little bit lost, and now has returned with a laser focus.

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