Bluffing. The longer you ride, the better you get at it. Cycling is a physically tough sport and many of us are competitive people (even if you’re just competitive with yourself). And whether it’s on a group ride or in a race, we don’t like to let our friends or competitors know when we’re suffering. So we learn to hide those tell-tale signs of the pain in our legs, the burning in our lungs, and the stress-induced haze that clouds clear thinking. When we’re suffering like a dog to hold the wheel in front of us on a long climb, we learn to wear a mask. We bluff.
One of the ways you can tell that someone’s relatively new to cycling is that their suffering is written all over their face. And their pedaling style. But as the years build up in the legs, there’s a certain mask that one gets good at wearing. The longer one rides, the more familiar one becomes with suffering. The ability to bluff with style and grace is simply a result of a familiarity with suffering.
Some are masters of the bluff. I have a friend that I race and do group rides with – I swear he has the same face and pedaling style whether he’s on the limit or just spinning. He’s been racing for many years and has perfected the art of the bluff. For veteran riders like him, you might not even be able to tell that they’re suffering right up until the absolute crack.
But there’s also another type of bluff. When the legs are going good and you’ve found your form, it’s usually wise not to reveal it until the exact moment you need it. If you listen to the idle chatter at the start line before a race, you will undoubtedly hear some rider modestly claim that they haven’t been training all that much. They’ll complain about work getting in the way of training or talk about family commitments over the past few weeks. And then they’ll go out and crush it. This kind of understatement is all over cycling. It’s part of the vernacular of our sport. It’s kind of an unwritten rule that you must understate your training and then, when possible, over-deliver on a good result. When you’ve been training A LOT, how often have you understated the amount of training you’ve been getting in? Think about how odd it would sound if you said to the rider next to you at the start line of your next race, “You know, I’ve been training SO much and my legs feel SO good – I’m going to crush it today. Seriously, just try to hang on when I attack.” That kind of honesty sounds downright weird in cycling, right?
The Pro’s are Pro at more than just turning the pedals. They’re also Pro at this second type of bluffing. It’s not often that we witness a rider laying all his cards out on the table in the build-up to a major race. They might say something like, “My training is on schedule,” or “The numbers are up,” or “The sensations are good,” but it’s rare to hear a rider make a major claim about how good they’re going. Understate and over-deliver. That’s how it works.
This is why I was surprised to read when Chris Horner stated he was in “exceptional form” leading up to this week’s Tour of California. But I shouldn’t be surprised, really. This is Chris Horner. The guy’s made a career out of being honest and telling it like it is. We’ve heard Horner’s refreshing honesty over the years – whether it’s dissecting negative tactics, revealing a pre-race strategy, or owning up to a mistake. Refreshing in a sport that’s all but perfected the art of the bluff.
In a recent Velonews article by Neal Rogers, Horner stated that he might just be in the best form of his 20 year career. He even goes so far as to predict that he or teammate Levi Leipheimer will take the overall victory!
“I think I’m in exceptional form,” Horner said. “Depending on how the tactics play out, if it turns out that I have to work for Levi, and if our team can do solid work, I think we’ll go 1-2 on GC.”
Horner’s not bluffing. He seems to be getting better with age. At 39, he’s still throwing down with riders almost half his age. He took last year’s Tour of the Basque Country and finished fourth in last year’s Tour of California. When asked about his predictions for this year’s TOC, Horner said,
“I think if you look at the riders, there are really only a few riders who can win — Levi, myself, and Schleck, if he’s on form…”
The Tour of California’s start was hampered yesterday with bad weather up at the Lake but hopefully things will settle down today and the race will get underway. If you want to read one of the most refreshingly honest rider interviews in a long time, head over to Velonews to read more of Horner’s insights on this year’s TOC.