The are perhaps the three most dangerous phrases in the English language, as if used in the wrong context they can cause all manner of problems. Cycling is no different and cyclists (and coaches) are perhaps more susceptible to misusing these terms than people in other sports.
Why I hear you ask?
As a coach I often ask riders questions about how they went in a race. One of the things I am trying to ascertain at this point is what actions the rider took during the race as well as what other riders were doing. Basically I am sussing out what the rider did and, unless the rider won the event, I will usually ask what they think they should/could/would have done differently now that they can look back at the race. It’s this type of reflective use of these terms that is invaluable, in fact absolutely critical to the ongoing development and ultimate success of a cyclist. Learning what to do in different situations during a race prepares you for when they happen again, at which time your odds of make the right decision are greatly improved, and the more ‘right’ decisions you make in a race the better your chances are of achieving a top result, including a win.
So, if the use of these terms is critical to cycling success, why are they so dangerous?
Quite simply, they get used out of context and they provide false assurances of a riders ability. For example, rider X is a good all round rider, climbs well, has a good sprint and TT power, yet they have never won a race. Talking to rider X after a race you ask them how they went, the reply by saying, ‘Not too bad, I could have won it, I just missed the break when it went and the other guys in the pack wouldn’t chase. I probably should have tried to bridge across solo as I know I would have made it but I kept getting block in and couldn’t get out. So yeah, pretty happy knowing I could have won!’
What this example highlights is several things:
- This rider was not actually capable of winning as they lacked the skills necessary to get that type of result. Most notably the lack of ability to get out of a blocked situation or to spot a race winning break and do something about it at the right time.
- Delusion is the enemy of progress. Saying to yourself that you could have, or should have won means in your mind you don’t need to improve any more. It’s this mentality that’s most damaging. The best riders still look back at a race they won and think of things they could do better next time so that they further improve their chances in the next race. Remember, just because you won this race doesn’t mean you will win the next one.
- Action, or lack thereof. To win a bike race you absolutely must act. It’s surprising how many riders are just reactive and never initiate any moves during the race. Even their bunch positioning is reactive - they find themselves in the wind or at the back and then realise they must move up, rather than being conscious of their positioning and maintaining it throughout the event.
Now there are times that using these terms in this context is ok, for example I have had riders miss events due to administrative problems (e.g. a team entry wasn't submitted on time). In one particular case, a rider missed an even that they were well suited too. Their climb times were well under the benchmark times for this event and I after the race results came in I was confident that the rider could have, should have or would have won the event. But having said that, what benefit does making this type of statement provide? Well, it can help provide consolation for the missed opportunity, secondly an event such as a time trial (or hill climb time trial in this case) has a lot less variables for success. So, as long as the rider understands the normal caveats to performance (e.g. equipment failures, bad pacing, illness, etc), they can gain some confidence knowing that all things being equal they should be able to beat the other competitors up a climb and this information can then be used during future events, for example to assess the abilities of a field or even a breakaway to decide the best place and way to act.
Overall, the most important thing is to make sure you link the use of these terms to a development context. Basically, make sure that whenever you use these terms (in self talk or when reflecting race outcomes to others) that they are linked to learning what to DO next time.
Finally, it is important to remember that reviewing a race and the things you did during it (even when you win) is one of the best ways to improve your results, however failing to learn the lessons and failing to correct any mistakes in future races just leads to static results. Ultimately your aim should always be to improve your results, even one place at a time – unless of course your ultimate aim is to just have fun and then it doesn't really matter where you finish so long as you had fun along the way!