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