Glorifying Defeat

In competition, it's okay to be beaten. It's not okay to be complacent about it.
In competition, it’s okay to be beaten. It’s not okay to be complacent about it.

We’ve all been beaten at one point or another. Be it through harder circumstances than we could bare, tougher competition, or even just bad luck. It happens. Sometimes we’re beaten, and other times we beat ourselves.

But watching my fellow cyclists, I’ve noticed a lot of us – myself most definitely included – are getting caught up in glorifying defeat.

In some cases, you should tout a defeat. “I was out-sprinted by an awesome rider, after a very hard-fought race,” is a good story, and a good defeat. And we must – MUST – be okay with losing if we’re going to race or do challenging tour rides that push us far beyond our limits. Let’s face it: in a race with 50 people, 94% of the field won’t be on the podium. Only three will make it. So unless you happen to be far stronger, more talented, or luckier than most riders and racers, odds are it’s not going to be you up there most of the time.

So yeah, we learn to lose. And yes, we learn to accept defeat. And yes, our loss might be the result of perfectly valid reasons. But before we get too comfortable with losing, we have to remember: that’s not why we took up the challenge.

It’s a fine line we walk as cyclists between accepting that we won’t always make our goals, and being completely dismayed by not making our goals. Neither option is right or wrong. Unfortunately, it’s turns out to be a lot easier to accept the reasons why our loss is okay and overlook the reasons why our loss might have been avoided.

I’ll use myself as an example, cause I’m as guilty of this (or moreso) as anyone. Racing with a team, I was assigned the task of disrupting the race – attacking, covering breaks, attacking again, slowing the pace, attacking yet again. Now, doing all of this in a race is a great way to burn yourself out. It takes a lot of energy to attack a fast peloton and cover breaks. And it is mentally draining to control the peloton’s pace and movement. So by accepting this task, I was pretty much guaranteeing I wouldn’t be on the podium.

NOTE: This is a part of racing. As noted above, not everyone gets to be on the podium. So when you race as a team, you try to win as a team by giving a member of your team the best chance at getting on the podium. That might mean sacrificing your chances, but next time others will sacrifice for you. That’s a big part of racing as a team – you all win or you all lose. But, I digress.

When this particular race was finished, I was nowhere near the podium. It was still a good race – high speeds, technical course, strong field. And I did my job – I attacked when I could, covered breaks when I could, attacked again – until I barely had anything left for the last few laps, drifting around at the back of the pack. And my team did well, with a podium finish.

So what was my perspective on the race afterwards? Well, at first I was pretty satisfied. I stuck to the plan, and I tore myself apart for my team. Given that, my result didn’t really matter, since it was anticipated.

However – and this is the part that I was only too ready to overlook – much of what I did had little effect on the outcome of the race. My attacks weren’t strong enough to make the field wear themselves out chasing me down. Others around me could have easily covered those breaks. And my teammate would most likely have been in the correct position for the finish without my efforts, since I was nowhere near him most of the race.

All told, I could have saved a lot of energy and had about the same effect on the outcome. So here I was, walking that fine line between accepting a good defeat, and rejecting a bad loss.

The thing I’ve found is that while we can’t beat ourselves up about every defeat, every loss, what we really have to do – and this is the hard part – is to maintain an objective point of view. Our subjective view says, “We did great, despite X, Y, and Z…,” but our objective point of view says, “This is what we did. Good or bad. Period.” We need to be careful not to glorify defeat, because by doing so, it’s harder to maintain objectivity. We need to understand what really happened throughout the event, not just from our own, personal viewpoint. And understanding what happened – how the event actually played out despite how we think it played out – is how we learn and get better.