True Grit vs Pure Sacrifice
y legs are screaming, my lungs are on fire and my mind is racing . . . can I beat the peloton to the line and win the time bonus away from Eric Vanderaerden? It’s one kilometre to go on the first road stage of the 1986 Tour de France and I’m hanging on for dear life in the breakaway, pulling on the bars with everything I have left.
At the age of 25, I’d been bike-racing full time for 10 years. I’d already learned many lessons on how to maximize my potential as a cyclist. Efficiency, strategy, grit, perseverance, sacrifice . . . and I was drawing on ALL of them to stay strong all the way to the line.
Looking back, I often wonder where these skills came from. I certainly acquired aspects of these attributes as I raced as a junior and with the 7-Eleven and National teams, however, were these learned skills or inherent in my psyche? This is something that I’ve always wondered about.
Over the years, I’ve raced with and against many talented riders who were often stronger than me on any given day. I noticed that if I played it smart and used my energy wisely, I could often find a way to beat them. Even then, there were times in the race when it came down to “mano-a-mano,” where we each simply had to grind it out to see who could suffer the most and mentally “crack” the other guy.
On the topic of grit, I recently read an article written by Jared Smith, owner of Incite Marketing and an adventure-seeker who loves to ride and who recently trained with Navy SEALs in a five-day “sufferfest.” As part of Smith’s preparation, he interviewed Dean Golich with Carmichael Training Systems, who has years of research on the topic of “grit” under his belt. Here’s an excerpt from Smith’s article:
Golich, citing Angela Duckworth (whose studies have concluded that “single-mindedness” or “lifelong deliberate effort” results in “true grit,” which results in higher and greater achievement in any field), has concluded that personality traits can be a predictor of one’s ability to break through mental ceilings in performance. Using profiling tools, Duckworth has extrapolated the willingness of different athletes to push past their max efforts.
According to Duckworth, most athletes generally fall into one of two personality types: those with mental toughness, and those without. Those with it are able to doggedly and persistently pursue a course of action over and over and over again towards an end goal. Duckworth calls this personality’s tendency towards persistent practice and action “true grit – the role of deliberate practice in acquisition of expert performance.” People with true grit tend to be entrepreneurial, attracted to routine, high-achievers, so-called AAA’s who will continue down a path despite fear of and experience with multiple failures.
You can point them out in a room because they tend to lack empathy, they’re not warmhearted and they thrive on receiving (and giving) negative feedback. She puts them into a category of “fast learners.” Thick-skinned people who enjoy self-critique and who willingly accept negative feedback learn significantly faster than those who require a more diplomatic approach to learning (i.e. the “empathetic types”).
According to Golich, empathetic types, i.e. people who are good-natured, thrive on positive reinforcement, are willing to listen, are typically patient, and seek to learn multiple and diverse points of view, tend to perform worse on tests of mental toughness. However, they do play a major leadership role in high-performing teams (all high-performing teams require people who are intuitive to the emotional requirements of the group and who will often sacrifice themselves accordingly). The so-called “fast learners” tend to ignore their teammates’ signals of emotional overwhelm – often to the detriment of the team.
This is the dichotomy of bike racing . . . you need to be selfish in addition to being mentally and physically tough – “true grit.” Nothing can get in your way as you pursue your short- and long-term goals. At the same time, bike racing is a true team sport. Everything that a rider does is a calculated effort designed to benefit the team as a whole – “pure sacrifice.”
I believe that there are specific personality traits that are inherent in successful cyclists, some of which can be enhanced with repetitive training and some that are simply part of who we are. Think about where you fit into the Grit and Sacrifice spectrum and try to blend the two to be the best “Gritifice” team player you can be.
Alex Stieda at the Tour of Texas in 1988
(l-r) Kory Sinclair, Brian Green, Alex Stieda and Neil Davies at a 1979 race in Seattle