Bad Brains

Attitude is everything. It is entirely platitudinal, and so when someone says it out loud, I tend to cringe. But my reaction doesn’t make it any less true. In fact, the truth of it only increases as you get closer, really think about and weigh up your own behavior.

On a solo ride, especially in dire conditions, your ability to focus on the positive, to keep your inner bitch on lock down, is the difference between 10 miles and 30, or 30 and 60. It’s also the difference between being able to complete multiple bad weather, solo jaunts, and sitting on the couch, packing your face with gratuitous calories and diving directly into the cyclist’s shame spiral.

But that’s you wrestling with yourself.

On a group ride, or in a race, attitude becomes even more important. Other people are depending on you. The things you say to companions or teammates make a difference, not only in potential results, but in the willingness of your crew to hang out with you afterward.

And beyond how fast you go together, that latter part, that social element, is the most important, because it’s the one that has ramifications for every other aspect of your life.

Unless you’re the Unabomber, your life is a group ride. It’s got family, friends and co-workers on it. If your attitude sucks, and you get it all over everyone, chances are you’re not going to have a lot of those people, the most important people in your life, anxious to love and support you when you need it. You may be an island in your own mind, but there comes a time in everyone’s life when they need help. And help comes from people.

Positive mental attitude (PMA* ) is one of those things that has primary, secondary and tertiary benefits. When you’re alone, it makes everything you do easier. When you’re with a gro    up, it makes things easier for the whole group and reflexively for you. Further, the example you set influences what people do in groups you may not even be a part of. The converse is also true. The more negative shit you put out into the world, the worse off you are, the worse off we all are.

But so what? All of this is self-ev ident. Whatever bits of human wisdom persist long enough to become platitudes in the first place are perhaps, if not tautologically true, at least theoretically proven through the sheer weight of experience.

Here’s the thing though. Here is where we go beyond platitude and talk about the real challenge. As it turns out, the human brain is not equipped with a ‘good attitude’ switch. We can’t toggle it on when we need it. In fact, often when we need it most it is least accessible. It is this cruel reality that, I think, leads me to cringe whenever I hear “attitude is everything.”

For me, bad attitude is often born of automatic thinking, my unconscious mind with all its anger, pettiness, fear and insecurity spewing negativity into the mental stream. Negativity is like that drunk who won’t leave your party. You want him out desperately, but he bats down every logical entreaty with a laugh and a request for more chips. Oh, and he peed on the toilet seat. That’s what negativity does.

If you’re still with me, I should confess right now, that I don’t have a solution to this problem. There are a lot of days when an accurate mood ring would shine black, betraying me as a cynic, a skeptic, a practitioner of sarcasm and pessimism, a not-all-that-awesome guy to be around. To be sure, since my kids came along and taught me that I’m not the center of the universe, I have a lot more good days than I used to, but attitude is still, for me, a constant struggle.

The good news is that I have learned SOME things from that struggle.

The first one is that there probably isn’t a ‘solution’ as such to this problem, just as there isn’t a one-time ‘solution’ for fitness. It’s a thing you’ve got to work at all the time. Consistency is king (as long as we’re working the platitudes). So, despite the random epiphanies I have along the way, I am never going to just have a good attitude now and forever more. I am always going to have to work at it.

The second thing I have learned is that, just as with fitness, it gets easier the more you work. You make your greatest gains at the beginning, when the thoughts in your head are as toxic as New Jersey landfill, but, resolved to be a better human, you tamp them all down, plaster a smile, however fake, across your face and say something nice to someone.

What shocked me, the first time I attempted this daring maneuver, was that the people in my immediate vicinity all adopted the smiley-faced niceness and in short order we were all in a good mood. This isn’t science. Your results may vary.

Of course, this  approach also has a cutesy name, ‘fake it to make it.’ The idea is you adopt whatever attitude you’re trying to achieve by whatever means necessary, including simulation. You lie to yourself. As lies go, this is a good one, because if it works, it makes itself true.

Imagine yourself alone on the side of a hill in two feet of shoulder. It’s gray and rainy. The wind is blowing. You’re not in the red, but you’re pink as hell. Cars zip by, and even ten feet away their after draft leaves you feeling vulnerable. One approach might be to curse your luck, curse the weather, curse the paving crew who left you only this narrow sliver to toil away in, to curse all drivers everywhere for all time and the stupid jerk who invented the internal combustion engine.

I have ridden that scenario, felt those feelings, and arrived home enraged. It didn’t work out well for anyone involved.

In that same scenario, you might also try to see that, of all the people on that hill at that moment, you alone are on a bicycle, testing yourself against gravity and the weather, that you will arrive home glistening in well-earned sweat, that you are busy living there in those two feet of spare pavement while everyone else gets wrapped around the axle of their daily lives. You’re the lucky one. Smile, but keep your head down. There’s work to do.

Many of us are trying to push our limits on the bike. We try to go farther or faster or better. And doing that absolutely requires the right attitude. It’s the mental game that coaches play. It’s the things we tell ourselves to push on. I suppose it’s possible to shame yourself into doing a ‘personal best’ on a climb or on a regular route, but does that seem like a viable long term strategy?

Padraig and I talk about this all the time. What we come back to over and over is that what works on the bike, works off of it, and vice-versa. Being nice, positive, honest and hard working endears you to the people in your life who are the most important. It also carries you up the hardest climbs, down the sketchiest descents and makes the last ten miles of a century all the more tolerable, even pleasurable. It makes me wonder about my training. Am I thinking too much about legs and my lungs, and not enough about the soft stuff between my ears?


* When I’m struggling I try to stick the Bad Brains song “Attitude” from their 1982 debut album in my head. They coined the acronym PMA for “positive mental attidude” in that song, and it makes an excellent mantra when you’re in the red.

Follow me on Twitter @thebicyclerobot.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International


  1. Michael

    …a positive attitude may not solve all of my problems today, but it will annoy enough people to make it worth the effort.

  2. Rick S.

    just the fact that you mentioned Bad Brains in your post will get me to comment. A cyclist with a good taste in music gets a thumbs up.

  3. Esteban Chavez

    Dig it. It goes both ways for me. Sometimes my nice, honest and hard working attitude needs its ass kicked by my drill it to win it no holds bar stand up for what you believe in and know you can do soul.

    Don’t care what they may say
    we got that attitude.
    Don’t care what they may do
    we got that attitude.
    Hey, we got that PMA

  4. naisan

    I’m giving myself a bit of license here, but in short “what you think can change how you feel.”

    It’s hard to change how you feel about something, but if you ignore that, then change what you’re thinking about, and what you’re comparing your current situation to, your feeling come around pretty quickly.

    This is why riding makes me a better person: when I ride I re-learn the truths of nature by matching myself it.

    1. Author

      @RPD – Here in MA, I think it’d be easier to describe traffic with something from the G.G. Allin oeuvre.

  5. gmknobl

    I agree but it is hard, very hard to pull this off. In the short term, I find it easy when some jerk driver does something horrible to pull the anger rope and get that instant rush of adrenaline. Into overdrive I go and for the next couple minutes Phillip Gilbert comes out and plays. If I catch the jerk I’ve put myself in danger. But if I use that wisely, use the anger in a positive way, I last longer and then feel giddily happy at the comparative wonder of cycling for a 200 lb guy I’ve just pulled off.

    Your article also makes me a bit sad. You see my dad, gone now nine years, use to tell me quite often “if you act happy, you’ll be happy.” He lived that all his life. I try it every now and then and hope to more. It almost always works when I do it. But it’s a habit you have to attempt more and more often. And yes, when I do act happy, I end up being happy and feeling better about myself. For cycling, I enjoy rides much more.

  6. ervgopwr

    Bad brains, bad brain chemistry. For me this is what I often try to remember, hapiness, positive attitude, they are really a complext set of chemicals and reactions in your brain. That’s why riding is so important in all our lives. It unleashes that positive chemical, seratonin, and coates us with that feeling of positive exertion.

    Robot, you always seem to have these days i’m sure, and then you follow up with an article reminding yourself of the good of the PMA and ridings role in that cycle. Good strategy.

    1. Author

      @ervgopwr – I think you’ve peeked behind the curtain here. As often as it seems like I’m writing to you, the reader, I’m mostly writing to me, to remind myself to try to be the person my kids think I am.

  7. A Stray Velo

    “As it turns out, the human brain is not equipped with a ‘good attitude’ switch. We can’t toggle it on when we need it.”

    I disagree. I think we have the ability to recognize that attitude is a switch that we can turn whenever we want to. We have the ability to be aware of how we feel and how we a choose to act on those feelings. We can accept situations for what they are and we can act on them positively or negatively.

    For me every morning when I get up I believe that the choice is mine to decide if it’s going to be a good day or bad day. Yes of course there are always things that are out of our grasp but how we confront and deal with these situations is also a choice.

    Take riding in bad weather for example. I have gotten caught in the rain plenty of times this winter. Yet not only was it the rain I was caught in but the dark, the cold and the wind as well. All of these times there was a choice to be pissed off about the situation or not. Although I never turned around once to head back home to warm shelter. I thought of it, sure. It’s not because I wanted to be able to call myself a “hardman” of cycling winter but rather that I wanted to be there. Whilst riding through the thick of the crap weather I was in I always thought to myself, why go home? Why is that better than the situation I am in now? It’s just water, it will dry. The wind will be at my back on the way home and tomorrow it will be light again.

    For me attitude is all choice. I don’t get it right everyday but I’d like to believe most days I do.

    1. Author

      @A Stray Velo – You and I agree completely. We may just have a different sense of the word “toggle.” That last sentence felt pretty ridiculous to type, BTW.

  8. RPD

    I drive into Watertown through Belmont on Trapello Rd. every day. And every day the road gets more and more chewed up. I also see all sorts of riders with lights (I get in by 6:45) and think to myself, that’s way too hardcore for me. Much like Minor Threat’s 1st show opening for Bad Brains. But at the same time, I envy the drive they have riding that road at that time of the morning, and that’s why I’ll live and die as a Cat 4.

    And while I agree with the G. G. Allin reference, Circle One also comes to mind. G. G. Allin was suicidal, but John Macies was homicidal.

  9. Robot

    @dkp_1998 – Tautological was the lay up. Platitudinal was the three-pointer. That shit’s not even a word. Made it up. A-thankyouvermuch….

  10. ds690

    Reading Robot’s articles is like finding a literary artist that is able to put my thoughts into writing in an eloquent way that makes people understand in a way that I never could.

  11. Graham I

    What I learned in parenting – that the child will pay no attention to what I say and will instead apply all of her focus to what I do – applies on the bike (on the hill….).

    I can’t fake it up the hill – I have to climb it. I will wrestle that inner bitch all the way up and be happy I did the work – after I’m at the top.

  12. Mike

    I used to be the guy who got P.O’d and showed it if a driver came into my space … sometime, several years back, and for some reason (probably prompted by a comment from my young daughter) I decided to try to be “kinder and gentler” in my response. Turns out being that way (e.g., waving instead of flipping the finger) is not only better for my own stress, but a lot more fun as the drivers (typically guys) slam on their brakes and get out yelling … leaving me to ask in a kind way “Are you OK?” and to see them fume when they are told I only waved. It gives me quite a chuckle. I will have to say, however, that the happy attitude is not well received in the groups with whom I ride … these guys are wound too tight for “fun.” Finally, after almost dying after being hit by a car last November, I am even more happy to be here and so looking forward to getting back into it as the temps rise. Going down to do the Blood, Sweat, and Gears ride in NC in June … who/what are we if we can’t find enjoyment in a little suffering on the bike with other like-minded people?! Cheers!

  13. Ron

    Nice one!

    I played other sports most of my life and even in college. I spend four years playing for a coach I didn’t agree with and didn’t get along with. I wanted to quit many, many times. But, a PMA and the commitment to my teammates made me stick it out. Years later, I only remember the good times.

    I don’t think I made any resolutions this year, aside from not letting crazy drivers get me down when I’m out cycling. While it seems like some people surely must hate folks on bikes and want to kill us, I’ve been doing my darndest to just ride aggressively defensive, put out good vibes (MOST drivers will wait and pass safely on a sharp corner if you signal to them to slow down and wait; the others can’t be helped) and be happy each time I get home safely.

    I actually watched “Step Into Liquid” last night. Seen it before, but the part where they are surfing the spot 100 miles out off the Mexico/CA coast and one guy mentions how many big things in the water might want to each them struck me as similar to dealing with crazy drivers. There are a lot out there who want to eat cyclists, but you can’t let that fear stop you. Gotta turn the cranks, maintain a PMA, and just keep on smiling.

    GREAT write-up and a ton to think about! I know my life on & off the bike is better when I just stay calm, crack a smile, and keep on rollin’!

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