I started reading Pro Cycling On $10 A Day last week. It's a book by Phil Gaimon. If you haven't read it, I suggest you do. It's a fun read, and even talks about some guys that we get to race with on a regular basis in our region. In the book, there the author says "Sometimes I think I'm not stronger or more talented than anyone else. Maybe I'm just better at suffering." I like that.
I'm not a masochist, but there is something about suffering on the bike that I love. I think it's most likely because in the back of my mind I always know that suffering pays off. In cycling, you get back what you put in. If you can really make yourself suffer in training (and then rest, of course), you'll get faster. If you put in garbage miles, then you really shouldn't expect to be very strong on race day.
Some people can suffer more naturally than others, but I do think that the level of suffering that you can handle is something that you can train. When I was 12, I started speed skating. Like cycling, it's a sport that requires you to push it to your limit. I can't count how many times I've wished that my legs would just give out so that I would crash, because crashing would be less painful than the workout I was doing. I had some of the best skaters in the country telling me I couldn't quit. If I tried to get out of the pack, they would literally pull me back in. If I didn't make a pass that they thought I should make, they'd talk smack until I made it. When the drill would be over, I felt good about completing it, and realized that next time I could suffer even more; so I would push harder the next time. And then harder. And then harder. Eventually you find your limit. That's the place where your mind is strong enough to keep pushing, but your body isn't. That limit looks different for everyone. Some people vomit, some people crash, some people look like they are pedaling squares (it's not just a saying...if you ever see it happen, you know exactly how that saying came to be), and some people look like they are in la la land.
Guys that aren't willing to suffer will never find their true limit. I see some people on training rides getting dropped, and I can tell by their face and pedal stroke that they have a lot of untapped energy left. Other people have drool and snot going from their face to their handlebars, and they are still on the front, determined to crack everyone behind them. These guys are the ones increasing their suffer limit. When they get into a race situation, they'll be able to go harder and suffer longer than the other guy. They'll be able to hang on in the gutter during a strong crosswind. They'll be able to dig just a little deeper at the top of the climb where the group splits. When they are bridging the gap to a breakaway, they'll be able to get there, while the guys who can't suffer get stuck in no-mans-land. They'll have that one extra kick in the field sprint when everyone else is fading.
Don't make excuses like "if this was a race, I would have pushed myself harder." That's just code for saying "I'm lazy." Lazy cyclists don't get fast. Determined cyclists who in training aren't afraid to hurt, who aren't afraid to take chances, who embrace the pain of hard work, who don't mind pulling into a headwind, who don't skip a training day because it's cold, who don't sit in the pack all ride, who are honest with themselves about they need to work on (and work on it) get fast.
Here's one of my favorite motivational videos, featuring some of the best skaters in the US.
A few quotes from the video:
"Some people dream of success. Others wake up and work hard at it"
"The harder you work, the harder it is to surrender." - Vince Lombardi
"It never gets easier, you just go faster." - Greg Lemond
"If everything is under control, you're going too slow." - Mario Andretti