"Race face" is on at the Tour of Somerville. © David Hurford

"Race face" is on at the Tour of Somerville. © David Hurford

Game face, pain cave, race face … as cyclocross racers, we’ve heard those terms thrown around nearly every time we’ve raced our bikes. But have you ever stopped and thought about what they really refer to, and what they mean for your racing?

I was at the Rockstar Games Harlem Skyscraper Crit last weekend and when we were at the start line, the announcer said, “Wow, take a look at expression on the Rockstar racer over there,” and I knew he was going to say my name. I was right, and “Molly Hurford has her race face on and she looks like she wants to rip the legs off of all the girls here” followed. He went on for a couple minutes and my face turned fire engine red. The fact of the matter was that I didn’t have my “race face” on, I was just nervous because my legs were cramping and my brakes were rubbing and had been somewhat repaired as I was being propelled to the starting line. So much for ripping legs off.

And that’s what I thought in my head. “Just stay with the pack. Finish in the pack.” And while that’s not a bad result for a Cat 3 rider in a Pro-1-2-3 field, it’s not really shooting for the stars. I know I’m a fairly strong rider that should be able to hold her own in a pack, the problem is that since upgrading to Cat 3, I’ve let my mental game drop.

Bart Wellens is coming to race cyclocross in the U.S. - with StarCrossed and Rad Racing GP. (Roubaix World Cup file photo) © Joe Sales

Bart Wellens has an excellent race face here at the Roubaix World Cup. © Joe Sales

Part of it may be a lack of training this season: between work and being exhausted from a straight year of racing road, triathlon, Ironman and cyclocross from February through December, I needed a mental and physical break. Road season has been just that: racing enough to keep my competitive spirits up and get in some tough “workouts,” intermingled with mountain biking and half-hearted training.

I’m bored with half-hearted. This weekend, I raced at the Giro Del Cielo, a stage race in New Jersey with a Women’s Cat 3 Field. The first day, I wasn’t overly happy with my performance in the time trial, but that was from muscle cramping, a problem I deal with every few months. The real kicker was that during the crit, I realized that even though I was racing in a field of Cat 3 women, my category, I was still chanting “just stay in the pack.” I did, and finished mid-pack. But afterwards, it occurred to me that I had a whole lot of fight left, and I had spent the race playing it safe. Sprinting hasn’t been my strong point lately, but if I went into a race knowing that, why didn’t I try to attack at any point?

The next morning, when I was on my way to the race and the sun was rising, I started to remember my first few races. My teammate Don used to give me pre-race pep talks and I can still recite them by heart, since it was always the same exact speech: “You have the fitness. You’re so much stronger than all these girls.” (It went on from there, but I won’t bore you with the rest.) Anyway, there was a time when hearing that made me sit up, put on my race face and work hard. Even if I didn’t win or place well, I felt good about every race back then.

Lately, I feel like a wimp.

On that drive, I decided to start racing like I used to:  to do what I enjoyed doing when I started racing. That meant being in the front of the pack, chasing attacks and, during the slower moments, making conversation with women around me. I’m tired of getting into the mindset that finishing in the pack is good enough, or that I’m willing to sit in the back of the race and just hang on. That’s boring, and it isn’t fun. So, during the race that day, I did all of those things. And my sprint at the end wasn’t amazing, I didn’t finish great, but for the first time in a while, I really felt like I was racing, not just hanging on. From now on, if I’m paying to race, that’s what I’m going to do. Go all out, race to win, and keep a positive attitude about it. Racing makes me happy, but it’s only fun if I’m giving it my all.

Paul Warloski’s column about having a good time instead of chasing points really struck a chord with me when I read it. I think he’s right, that racing should be fun. And while I plan on chasing points a little more seriously from now on, that’s actually part of making racing fun for me. I haven’t been having as much fun lately, getting nervous before race, settling for mid-pack or back-of-pack finishes. That’s not me, and I don’t like that I let myself slip into that attitude.

To me, “race face” is all about the attitude: it means that you go into a race feeling tough, both physically and mentally, and are ready to win, or to try your hardest to do so.

It’s time to put my race face back on.

Tell me: how do you stay mentally focused during racing? And if you have a great picture of your “race face,” send it along, in the comments or by emailing it to molly [at] cxmagazine.com.

If you want to read more about my training, racing and editing exploits, you can find the painfully full version of events here: Molly’s CX Adventures.