Bernard Thèvenet and The Prophet enroute to Pra Loup.

The Fire and the Moth

The Fire and the Moth

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In my journey through life, I’ve been struck by the near universal existence of the competitive spirit amongst people. Even people who claim not to be competitive in nature are seemingly competitive about how uncompetitive they are. I’m more uncompetitive than you. We find it everywhere, between old friends and perfect strangers alike; during official tournaments or imaginary ones. The Commuter Grand Prix is a perfect example as the hairy-legged, YJA-wearing horde thunders from stop light to stop light, each trying to beat the others to some imaginary finish line.

It’s a curious thing where this competitive drive comes from for each individual. It appears to me that there are two principle types of competitive energies: one which burns by a flame borne of a desire to become the best and one of a desire to be better than others. It seems on the surface as though those are the same thing because competition is always about fighting over a single place within a hierarchy. But some people seem to compete out of a desire to be as good as they can be and use winning as a measure of success. Others seem to compete out of a desire to demonstrate that they are the best and use winning as proof positive. I admit it’s a hopelessly thin line, and I’d forgive you if you stopped reading right now, if you’ve even managed to wrestle your way this far.

I’m not a psychologist, but as a Dutchman I understand perfectly well that being loud and stubborn is all you need in order to talk about things you know nothing about. Both types can be incredibly fierce competitors, but those who focus inward often seem able to find a sense of satisfaction in defeat when they’ve competed at their maximum and come up short. They may well be disappointed or even angry at the thought of losing, but they will try again, and they will keep fighting and work to get better based on a willingness and desire to overcome their failings in previous attempts.

Those who focus outwardly typically hate losing, no matter how well they performed. Excuses will be made and others will be blamed in an attempt to justify to others (if also themselves) why they lost. I might even be tempted to perform the Standing Broad Jump of Logic (if you can accuse any of this of being logical) and suggest that externally focussed competitors are more likely to cheat than internally focussed ones because an internally focussed competitor would feel first and foremost that they are cheating themselves before others.

As Cyclists, we fly like moths to the fire of competition. The Pros are the extreme, and I personally wonder if the choice to dope or cheat is fundamentally made easier or harder based on where the core of each individual’s competitive spirit rests. We know now that all sorts of athletes dope and cheat, but how close we fly to the flame and what we are willing to sacrifice along the way to winning might be a function of where we find satisfaction in competition.

I love the heat, I love the things that I forgot

I loved the strings that tied me down and cut me off

I was a king, I was a moth with painted wings made of cloth

When did the flame burn so high and get so hot?

– Chris Cornell, Moth

// Defining Moments // La Vie Velominatus

  1. Wow, this is a tough question to answer! I don’t even know how I’d evaluate my own fire. Great stuff, Frank!

    These days my sporting life is twice-a-week futbol and cycling as much as I can. In both I just like to do my best and do still get pissed when I know I’m not playing/riding as well as I can. Only letting myself down, no real competition.

    When I played competitive sports while growing up and in college, I’d say it was a bit of an inward/outward focus. Sure, I still just wanted to do my best, but I definitely didn’t mind elbowing, bumping, or slashing someone if it meant my team was going to win, especially against hated rivals.

    I think I’m a bit more tranquillo in my sporting life these days, just looking to get some exercise and also, keep on performing well in a physical pursuit. I guess part of my resistance to being a full-on academic, and my passion for cycling, is my resistance to hanging up the cleats of physical pursuits and reducing my character to just mental, scholarly pursuits. I still love the black/white world of sports for that reason, feels tangible enough to provide some real satisfaction of testing your physical abilities.

  2. @Ron

    Wow, this is a tough question to answer! I don’t even know how I’d evaluate my own fire.

    I usually do it in the shower.

  3. @Ron

    I think I’m a bit more tranquillo in my sporting life these days, just looking to get some exercise and also, keep on performing well in a physical pursuit.

    Ditto – age tends to do that though I surprise myself by seemingly getting faster on routes that I track.  However, when I was younger my performance was a quantum better in a “real” competition even if that was not strictly speaking in a competitive sport.  Case in point we were “welly wanging” at a social event.  In practice none of us could throw more than about 11 meters.  The organiser (now my VMW)  blew a whistle for the “official” throws and I promptly threw it 23 meters.  Competition over.

  4. @Russ

    I noticed the Cafe Hollander logo you’ve got there, but your profile says you’re in New Zealand. Do you have some connection to WI? Hollander is just down the road from my house, and the meeting point for the group that I ride with (and has a most amazing selection of Recovery Ales!).

  5. A very searching question Frank.

    I think you’re probably on the right lines.

    I’m currently working my way through Steve Peters’ book The Chimp Paradox – he works as a psychologist with a lot of sports people including the British Cycling team.

    I’m not halfway through yet so I won’t jump to conclusions but I suspect something like that will be in the mix. His analogy is that we all have a primitive chimp inside us who is impulsive and also highly competitive and territorial  – it is likely to lash out and take defeat badly.

    The book is about managing and to some extent leveraging the chimp attributes to work for and not against the more civilised and rational human side.

  6. 1st off, the photo…

    THÈVENET: Merde Merckx. Pourquoi faites-vous ça fait tellement mal.

    THE PROPHET: … (goes deeper into the cave)

    And then @frank‘s response to @Ron made me glad I had already swallowed my coffee.

  7. Thank you Frank.

  8. When I started riding with a group, my goal was only to keep up. Being dropped gave me fuel to train harder. My new goal it to bridge the gaps. I don’t always make it, but no longer worry about falling off the back. Winning, for me, is improvement over time and to ride as hard as I can each time out.

  9. Excellent piece, Frank.  I love how some articles really make one self analyse motivations/decisions or what have you.  I believe I am the second type, as far as cycling goes anyway. Success is defined based on how I feel at the finish with my own performance, and not on the hierarchy of names on the results list.

    Case in point – derailleur hanger breaks at 90km into a 140km sportive.  Rather than abandon, use chain breaker to shorten chain and convert bike to a single speed.  Finish ride with one gear and a chain with no tension (constantly changing gears).  First 90km – 3 hours.  Last 60km – 4 hours.  Finished at the 7 hour time limit = success.  It was a real Rule #9 ride too.  Not abandoning was another measure of success.

  10. That  Peugeot kit Thevenet is wearing is still one of the all time great kits. Ironically, it was worn by Merckx himself from 66 -67 and remained virtually unchanged until the team folded in 1986. Of course, in 75, when this picture was taken, Merckx was still suffering from “the punch” that had left him severely winded on the the stage that finished at the Puy de Dome. That’s why he looks awful.

  11. @wiscot

    That Peugeot kit Thevenet is wearing is still one of the all time great kits. Ironically, it was worn by Merckx himself from 66 -67 and remained virtually unchanged until the team folded in 1986. Of course, in 75, when this picture was taken, Merckx was still suffering from “the punch” that had left him severely winded on the the stage that finished at the Puy de Dome. That’s why he looks awful.

    Interesting that you’re focusing on the photo; I chose it because I like to try to decide what kind of athlete someone is, based on how they conduct themselves. Merckx was, I think, the internally focussed sort – he would attack when already in the lead just to prove to himself he could still make himself hurt. Thèvenet of course famously beat Merckx by using drugs which makes me feel like he might have been the external type.

    Ullrich to me was also hugely internal; his sportsmanship on Luz Ardiden being a great example of someone who would rather lose fairly than win unfairly…ignoring the fact that he also doped.

    Armstrong to me is a classic example of the externally focussed athlete; it was all about beating others for him, he admits as much.

    I think both types are perfectly normal and acceptable athletes, by the way, and I’ve been beaten by and have beaten both kinds. But I feel the strongest affinity for those who I believe are internally focussed.

  12. @ChrisO

    A very searching question Frank.

    I think you’re probably on the right lines.

    I’m currently working my way through Steve Peters’ book The Chimp Paradox – he works as a psychologist with a lot of sports people including the British Cycling team.

    I’m not halfway through yet so I won’t jump to conclusions but I suspect something like that will be in the mix. His analogy is that we all have a primitive chimp inside us who is impulsive and also highly competitive and territorial – it is likely to lash out and take defeat badly.

    The book is about managing and to some extent leveraging the chimp attributes to work for and not against the more civilised and rational human side.

    I like this thought.  What are laws and social mores but ways to keep our primal nature in check? Competing against each other is how we express/manage that aggression.

    What I like about the article is its exploration of what motivates each of us to loose the inner ape.

  13. @Rob

    I am competitive but I could care less about my competitors, they are just furniture that is in place to allow me to play.

    You put it perfectly; I’m definitely the first sort but I’m fiercely competitive and accept nothing but the best. When I was training full time as a youngster, I was good enough that being at my best meant I was winning, so it was very convenient that way.

    Also, I would probably have torn the eyeballs out of my competitor’s face if I had to during a race, but once the race was over, many of us were great friends – training together, hanging out during the off season and all that. I think that’s another sign of internally focussed athletes; being able to let go and be friends with the people you have to compete against.

  14. @Ccos

    Frank, I dwell on Rule #70 often and this post highlights the reasons why. Competition is what really keeps me riding (and I suspect others too). Racing/competition is what I need to motivate myself to train and ride. In this one area of living, I don’t do well with abstractions and so can’t train to “stay in shape” which is why I don’t go to those gymie places and pick up heavy things.

    The pain cave is hard to crawl into when there’s nothing pushing you there. I admire those who can on their own without competition.

    I’m not at all saying that internally focussed athletes can perform as well alone as they can in a race – I think that its almost impossible to hurt yourself in training the way you can in a race. Whether you focus in or out, I think competition is about pushing yourself to get to the line first, end of.

    I also need events on the horizon to help find the focus to train properly, otherwise I’ll just get on the bike and ride however I want to that day – which is loads of fun and very liberating, by the way – but its not as productive for getting results.

    @Fausto Crapiz

    I understand what you’re saying, but I think that is kind of a generalization. As a general rule I hate losing… for me, 2nd is first loser. But when I lose, it motivates me for a long time. When my legs are screaming on a training climb, I call to mind the last time I got my butt kicked and then INSTANT ENERGY.

    I would definitely agree that boiling every kind of athlete in the world down to two principle types is a generalization.

  15. @Mikael Liddy

    Had a variation on that second paragraph presented by a workplace coach a few weeks back when it came to accountability.

    It was basically boiled down to winners internalise, always looking first to what they could have changed to get a better outcome, and thereby continually improving the way they go about things. The flipside is that losers externalise, seeking to lay blame for their failures at the feet of anyone but themselves, and so continuing to approach situations in the same manner & generally failing again.

    Nice. I think its liberating to admit your own mistakes and errors in failure as well as success. It puts the control in your hands so you can improve, rather than seeing yourself as a helpless participant in the event.

  16. @ChrisO

    A very searching question Frank.

    I think you’re probably on the right lines.

    I’m currently working my way through Steve Peters’ book The Chimp Paradox – he works as a psychologist with a lot of sports people including the British Cycling team.

    I’m not halfway through yet so I won’t jump to conclusions but I suspect something like that will be in the mix. His analogy is that we all have a primitive chimp inside us who is impulsive and also highly competitive and territorial – it is likely to lash out and take defeat badly.

    The book is about managing and to some extent leveraging the chimp attributes to work for and not against the more civilised and rational human side.

    I’ll be curious to hear more about that when you’re done.

    @TheVid

    Excellent piece, Frank. I love how some articles really make one self analyse motivations/decisions or what have you. I believe I am the second type, as far as cycling goes anyway. Success is defined based on how I feel at the finish with my own performance, and not on the hierarchy of names on the results list.

    Case in point – derailleur hanger breaks at 90km into a 140km sportive. Rather than abandon, use chain breaker to shorten chain and convert bike to a single speed. Finish ride with one gear and a chain with no tension (constantly changing gears). First 90km – 3 hours. Last 60km – 4 hours. Finished at the 7 hour time limit = success. It was a real Rule #9 ride too. Not abandoning was another measure of success.

    Similarly, my Heck of the North was a disaster mechanically but overall, I rode well and was good on the technical sections so I’m happy with the ride. And because I know what I did wrong and where I can improve, I feel motivated to train properly, do some recon, and come back this year to be more competitive.

  17. THE FIRE AND THE MOTH
    sounds like a title for the next V book.

  18. @frank

    @Ron

    Wow, this is a tough question to answer! I don’t even know how I’d evaluate my own fire.

    I usually do it in the shower.

    I’m the lead out man…put in all the work there today and then Frank comes around me at the finish line, gets the applause, the smiles, the podium gals. Life can be so unfair!

    (I guess I had that coming. Nice work!)

  19. @Ron

    @frank

    @Ron

    Wow, this is a tough question to answer! I don’t even know how I’d evaluate my own fire.

    I usually do it in the shower.

    I’m the lead out man…put in all the work there today and then Frank comes around me at the finish line, gets the applause, the smiles, the podium gals. Life can be so unfair!

    (I guess I had that coming. Nice work!)

    Classic case of second is nowhere!

  20. Strava up!

  21. @Fronk

    Dunno about the article.  I’m too slow to be competitive, so I don’t bother, but more importantly, that’s a cool song from Audioslave, and one I had not been aware of.   If I had to live in the US, it would be in Denver or Seattle.  It must be such a cool place to be sometimes.

    I do like to complete hard rides though, so my competitveness gets vented there.

    Low horse-power diesel, I am.  You don’t get much, but you get it all day.

  22. @frank

    @wiscot

    That Peugeot kit Thevenet is wearing is still one of the all time great kits. Ironically, it was worn by Merckx himself from 66 -67 and remained virtually unchanged until the team folded in 1986. Of course, in 75, when this picture was taken, Merckx was still suffering from “the punch” that had left him severely winded on the the stage that finished at the Puy de Dome. That’s why he looks awful.

    Interesting that you’re focusing on the photo; I chose it because I like to try to decide what kind of athlete someone is, based on how they conduct themselves. Merckx was, I think, the internally focussed sort – he would attack when already in the lead just to prove to himself he could still make himself hurt. Thèvenet of course famously beat Merckx by using drugs which makes me feel like he might have been the external type.

    Ullrich to me was also hugely internal; his sportsmanship on Luz Ardiden being a great example of someone who would rather lose fairly than win unfairly…ignoring the fact that he also doped.

    Armstrong to me is a classic example of the externally focussed athlete; it was all about beating others for him, he admits as much.

    I think both types are perfectly normal and acceptable athletes, by the way, and I’ve been beaten by and have beaten both kinds. But I feel the strongest affinity for those who I believe are internally focussed.

    I focus on the photos because I’m a sucker for good images. (I work in the arts . . . ) I know Thevenet admitted taking cortisone in his 1977 win (hardly the worst “drug” admittedly, but it did have some serious physical consequences in subsequent years, particularly with his liver ) but his 75 win was, I believe clean. He was busted in the 77 Paris-Nice for doping.

  23. @wiscot

    I could be wrong, but I’m pretty sure he’s come out in the last 10 or so years and admitted he used drugs to beat Merckx that year. I’m not seeing it in a 7-second scan of Wikipedia though.

  24. Interesting take on motivational forces in different sports from Scott McGrory after he spent some time doing conditioning training with some AFL players here in Aus. Also has some some points on Ullrich & his mentality perhaps limiting him from meeting the potential that his physiology allowed.

    http://scottmcgrory.com/cyclists-vs-footballers/#read

  25. “It appears to me that there are two principle types of competitive energies: one which burns by a flame borne of a desire to become the best and one of a desire to be better than others. It seems on the surface as though those are the same thing because competition is always about fighting over a single place within a hierarchy.”

    Very fine line indeed. I know I train/compete to be the best I can be… but then when I see that in my club at least, there are only a small few that win against me on a regular basis I inwardly smile knowing they (the 90% slower) all know I am faster/stronger. I love it when people mention my ability to “dish out the hurt” but none of these things drive me to train, work harder, pushing into the pain cave longer. The only thing that pushes me to do that is a desire for personal perfection/best.

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