It's a sinister game that athletes play with themselves any time a victory was within reach but ultimately slipped away, and it's a game that I've found myself playing a couple of times this year.
As a domestique, the opportunities for personal success are few and far between. Instead, my focus is on the success of my teammates, which is itself very satisfying, but it's important to – at least occasionally – go all-in in pursuit of throwing your hands in the air. These days, those opportunities usually come in the form of time trials.
While my spring was aimed at peak form during the Giro d'Italia to help Tom Dumoulin as he attempted to defend his title, I was also making weekly visits to my time trial training grounds, a flattish road with minimal traffic and a water fountain at the end. I would finish each ride with knotted shoulders, aching from hours of cheating the wind. My bike was streaked with horizontal lines of salt-and-sunscreen sweat, the evidence of commitment to the process at 50kph.
The Giro went very well for Tom, and my performance in the time trial pegged me as a favorite for the national championships in the next month, the only date on my calendar circled as the one I wanted to win.
When that day drew to an end, I found myself looking at the silver medal in my lap and asking myself, "What if?"
What if the rain had held off? Or persisted?
What if I'd started among the other favorites instead of hours before?
Would any of it had made a difference, or merely thinned the margin of loss?
It's the uncertainty that gnaws away at my brain and leaves me feeling like a sore loser, and it's a side of myself I don't admire. Over time I can shift my focus to the positives: I'd had a perfect race in the conditions set before me, doing everything under my control correctly. I went home with a silver medal in my first appearance at the race in five years, my resolve hardened for the next time.
I didn't have too much time to dwell on it, however, as the Tour de France was just around the corner. Tom amazingly finished second there in his first attempt at the general classification, and it was a great race to be a part of, even if it did exhaust all my physical and mental energy. Since then, I've recovered pretty well physically, but the length of the season has left me drained mentally.
Even still, I mustered the motivation to go back out to my time trial grounds multiple times each week, aiming to help Team Sunweb repeat as world champions in the team time trial, as well as hoping for selection by the national team for the individual time trial.
It stung to be passed over for the ITT, the "what if's?" creeping back in with the knowledge that victory at nationals would have meant automatic selection to worlds. I still had the TTT to look forward to, though, and focused on that instead.
As defending champions, we were named as favorites for the win, but I found myself fighting off doubts about my form. The climb late in the race posed a real quandary – better to sacrifice myself before the climb to be sure the team got everything out of me, or conserve a bit before the climb in the hope that I could make it to the top?
With full honesty, I really enjoy team time trials as the perfect balance between technique and strength. With that in mind, the first 30 kilometers of the race were So. Much. Fun. At training camps, whenever practicing the discipline, it is invariably on a big, flat, straight road, and it's only about holding the speed and keeping the line steady. Like physics calculations using a point-mass in a complete vacuum, you're forced to acknowledge that it's not real life. Real team time trials don't use roads like that.
This one did, though, and it was the purest test of TTT mechanics I've ever experienced. Aided by the imperceptible descent of a large valley, we averaged nearly 62kph for half an hour. The tranquility of fourth position in line is almost indescribable, the air flowing past you as though it didn't even see you.
Eventually the fun ended as the climb arrived, and feeling alright, I committed myself to the plan of reaching the top with a full team. I skipped a turn to reach the climb a bit fresher, but it soon proved a lost cause as I was in trouble early on the climb. I watched them ride away from me in pursuit of gold, finding myself as the last rider on the road and beating myself up for making the wrong choice. Ah, hindsight, thou art cruel.
One of the last updates I heard before my teammates were out of radio range was that they had the fastest time check at the top of the climb. I rode the final 20 minutes in radio silence, in agonizing anticipation of the results. Were we world champions? Did we do it? I continued berating myself, asking "what if's" about the race as well as the progression of the season in general, hoping that my teammates had held on and I could be done with the twisted game of second-guessing.
I did my best to enjoy the medals ceremony, knowing that in time I would be truly happy with the silver medal, but for the moment frustrated with myself that I wasn't happier. For the second time this season, a chance at victory had slipped away and my mind was swimming with "what if's?"
Just a day later and my attitude has already shifted towards the better. Over the years since the re-introduction of the TTT, our team has climbed from the position of "respectable" to a consistent favorite, showing that we are among the best in the world. I'm proud to have contributed to the silver medal and look forward to our future successes. There's always another race, another chance to do it better.