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by Phil Wheeler

We all know at least one, in fact we probably all know several guys or ladies, who fit into this category…the head case.
Usually defined by good riding, good fitness, and persistently bad results, this racer can and will find any way to get in their own head and lose the race before it has begun. I should know, because I have done exactly that on many occasions. I also happen to hang out with a bunch of dudes that have probably all been tagged with this moniker at least once, and a couple who have made a career out of it. But 'headcasiness' is a symptom of exactly what I feel makes downhill racing a great sport, and that is its dynamic nature.

There are many ways to achieve success in downhill, with no set formula as to how to prepare for and execute a race run. A quick glance through the World Cup top 30 will illustrate my point. A sport in which a behemoth like Steve Peat, and a leprechaun like Danny Hart can both have a fighting chance on the same day is a good sport in my book. You can watch one rider effortlessly flow down the trail like Minnaar and another rider smash the course into submission like Kovarik, only to finish within a tenth of each other. Some like to get amped up, some like to exercise a steely focus, and some just like to have fun. In many racing sports the competitors, whether they be man or machine, are strikingly similar. Not so in downhill.

Infamous and self-proclaimed practice winner, John Kirkaldie, never quite seemed to have the race run we all knew he was capable of. In the end, he may not have won anything like a World Championship, but he sure won all of our hearts. Big Bear, 2004. gordophoto
It seems to me that there is no right or wrong way to execute your performance in downhill, just as long as it works for you. That sounds great and all, but it means that you are basically on your own in figuring out your proper racing head space and how to get yourself there. I have been there when the guy doing Jagermeister shots has beaten the guy warming up on a trainer before the run. That one is not for me… I hate Jagermeister. Come to think of it, it’s probably not for you either. But when you listen to most of the world’s best riders talk about their performances, it seems to me that the common theme is that mentality trumps everything else. Believe you are fast, and you will be fast. Believe your run is going well, and it will go well.

I generally don’t buy into any kind of power-of-positive-thinking hoopla, but in this case they seem to have a point. You’ve probably had a run where everything was going just fine, and then one mistake put you in bad head space and you butchered the remainder of the run from that point forward. Despite the relatively short duration of a downhill run, mental toughness seems to be just as key here as in endurance events. In downhill, that toughness is the ability to remain focused and unflappable despite mistakes, hair-raising moments, and anaerobic suffering. Shaking off crashes from practice is probably the hardest thing to manage in my book.

This guy may be currently disproving my hypothesis that there is no "right" way to do it. Gwinny seems to have it all figured out these days. Gwin with his practice bike, a few weeks before the World Cups and his winning ways took shape. -gordophoto
So what’s the answer? How do you become a mentally stalwart competitor? Well, first off, if you are asking me, you are asking the wrong guy. I’ll get back to you when I succeed at something. But I do think I can make a reasonable assessment that the answer is going to be different for everyone. That’s the adventure of having a racing career. It’s about finding your weaknesses, maximizing your strengths, battling your demons, stomaching your fear, and hopefully walking away with the feeling that you accomplished something along the way. You might even accidentally pick up a valuable life skill while you’re at it. If that doesn’t happen, at least you probably had a good time talking a lot of trash and hucking your meat down a few hills.

If you enjoy the Pack Phil series, view article #1 here.

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sspomer sspomer 6/15/2011 7:49 AM

5 comments newest first

Now that I'm old and don't care, it's easier to find race-day flow. I wish I felt this way when I was young and wanted it.

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I'll admit it, I'm a head case (used to be worse). Feel great during practice and then it's a whole different story during my race runs. I find myself breathing super hard when I'm barely exerting myself more than in practice. Luckily Mean Gene taught me the circus song...

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