Managing Failure

Summertime is no doubt my favorite time of year. Long hot days means the mountain bike trails are open most of the time. It’s time to toss the spandex in the drawer and put on the baggies and shred the gnar! Of course I miss my indoor riding buddies hammering it on Zwift everyday but don’t worry. I’ll be back in October.

Summertime also means mountain bike racing! Historically, I have never been that good of a mountain biker. It was really only in the last few years with my Zwift Fitness that things really started clicking. Last year I had a mountain bike season beyond my wildest dreams where I won several age group sport class races with my local cycling IMBA affiliate, Triangle Off Road Cyclist or T.O.R.C.

Standing on the top step. I won $70 and spent it all on bike gear. BRAPP!

While it wasn’t the biggest of the cycling world’s prizes, it was big to me and those wins had an esteem boosting effect that I cannot compare to many other successes in life. I felt like I was really good as something. Since my last race in November, I have made some small fitness gains and continued to improve my mountain bike skills and decided that it was time to jump up to expert class. In these races which aren’t USA Cycling events, you self-select your class and no way I am going to get called out for sandbagging!

So, my first race of the year was on Sunday, June 2nd on some trails I know like the back of my hand. I had been throwing down some fast Strava times there and figured I was to take on the Experts. I was ready and I had 1 goal. Don’t finish in last place! 

A window into the inner dialog in my head after the race

Well, I failed at the most basic of goals and finished last. A DFL. Things started off OK. I was able to get into mid pack entering the single track trails and was hanging on to the wheel in front of me for a little bit. But I knew I was going way over my sustainable threshold and if the pace didn’t settle I was in big trouble. One by one, I heard the polite calls from the riders behind me to make room for them to pass and I gladly obliged. Mountain bike racing is cool like that. “He bro, mind if I pass you?” This went on for I while until I watched that last wheel cruise into the distance and it became apparent that I would be spending the next hour of my life doing a single track time trial, battling discouraging thoughts in my head. Each lap cruising through the feed zone, I heard the calls from a few friends encouraging me. I loved the support and realized that I am my own toughest critic, with the exception of Lars.

At least he’s honest

I have now had a few days to process the race and have looked at this as a both a learning opportunity and a GRIT or QUIT moment. I’ve been able to do an autopsy on the race and looked for the areas where I could have done better and some areas that are promising. Here’s some the facts that I need to consider before I beat myself up any more:

  • My bike broke and I was riding a borrowed bike. It was a super sweet lightweight race machine but still not that familiar to me. 
  • I was coming off of a week long vacation where I ate like a pig and didn’t get enough sleep or train much
  • My lap times were comparable with the top sport class racers so I haven’t gotten slower even with being out of my routine and on a different bike. The fitness is close to an all time high
  • There really isn’t any overlap between the fitness and speed of the sport and expert classes. The top of the sport class has a slight gap between the bottom of the expert class. Step up is more of a leap into the next higher category.

This last bit is important. Stepping up a level and riding with such fit athletes and thinking about competing with them some day is not an insurmountable task. The fact is, it is just progression. In my first mountain bike race 9 years ago, I’m pretty sure I finished last. Then I beat a few guys the next time, was mid pack in my next race and so on and so on until I finally won. It was the same with Zwift. I got chewed up in my first C races but soon leveled up to B and have gone from always getting dropped to hanging onto the front in competitive races. This step will be no different. I just need to look at areas for improvement and stay consistent. Maybe I will never win and that’s ok. But I will keep making improvements and that’s really what I am after.

Weak lungs, lost PMA, weak quads and a vacation induced case of “The Itis” from pigging out on cookings, chips and pizza all week

When looking back on Sunday, my results were a bummer but it really was a great day. I got to hang out with my new cycling team, Crank Arm Brewing which is hugely supportive of the local mountain bike community and our IMBA affiliate.

The Crank Arm Brewing Cycling Team!

I got to stick around and break down after there race with the team and TORC volunteers, and I got to see my buddy Shea break through some barriers and my friend Erik podium the expert class and win the Omnium as this was a 3rd stage in a 3 day race. I also felt very supported by my wife and friends and especially Lars who was very encouraging and even loaned me a bike to race on.

If you have a similar experience where you got knocked down and picked yourself up only to reach new heights, let us know in the comments below!

Thanks for taking the time to read and I’ll see you in Watopia. RIDE ON!

Ken “The Badger” Nowell

[email protected]




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  1. Shawn McAfee

    Keep at it buddy. I’m in the same place. My results from last weeks summer series race… finished in 23rd with my best performance possibly ever. Still only managed 23rd of 30. Ouch.

    However, this is a seriously stout group of racers, several state champions, a LOT of roadie crit racers and then little old Zwift boy… me. It’s a shortrack race of 2.5 miles and 4 laps. This last week I took 1:15 off my time per lap from last summer, a total improvement of nearly 5 minutes. And yet still I’m 5:15 behind the leaders. I blame part of it on a long flat road that I just can’t hold the speed of the geared riders and get dropped.

    To me I consider this failure, but with definitive improvement. This engine still needs an upgrade.


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