I am not a mean girl, really. This is what I tell myself in the middle of a race, when I’ve just exchanged some (ahem) straightforward words with a competitor in a breakaway. Was that rude? I wonder. I hate to be impolite or, worse, unkind. But competition is not about being nice. I have to harden my heart and push all those genteel instincts into the background. When I click my feet into the pedals on the start line, I’ve got to put on my race face. I must become a mean girl.
What is competitive sport if not a conflict between two opponents, each of whom wants the same thing? No matter how much you respect your fellow competitor, you are trying to beat her. You must put your own goals first. You cannot worry about what she thinks of you. She is not thinking about you as a person. She is thinking about you as an obstacle, and she is thinking about winning.
A common situation in which angry words are exchanged in a bike race is during a breakaway scenario. (This is when a small group of riders from various teams pulls clear of the main pack.) Generally, most—or all—of the riders in the break contribute to moving this small group forward by taking turns riding in the wind at the front, but sometimes one or more riders will skip their turn and shirk the work. Whether or not a racer decides to work depends on many tactical factors, and there is no rule requiring her to “pull through.” However, when a racer does not work, she often incurs the ire of the others in the break, and harsh words are directed at the shirker. It’s very common to hear the non-working rider being guilt-tripped by the others, even though she probably has a good tactical reason for not working.
I haven’t done any serious research on this, but anecdotal evidence suggests that male bike racers don’t try to guilt-trip each other. They might throw some F-bombs around to relieve their feelings, but they won’t play guilt-trips trying to affect their opponent’s behavior. So why do women do it? Probably, because it sometimes works. Imagine that: some female racers feel so bad that they are making their opponents’ jobs harder, that they actually sacrifice their own race plans to avoid that guilt. Come on, girls! Get your game faces on. It’s a bike race, after all, not a quilting bee!
Early in my cycling career, a girl said something snarky to me during a race. I remember feeling surprised and hurt. For more than a year afterward, I thought of her as a mean girl. Then I learned she was going to be my teammate the next season. I was not looking forward to meeting her at team camp, and wondered if she recalled the incident. It turned out that she did remember, and one of the first things she said to me was an apology. She had been “in a bad mood,” she said, and took it out on me in that race. She ended up being one of my favorite teammates and a good friend. She taught me that words in the heat of battle should not be taken personally, as they are usually not meant personally. I have never since taken to heart someone’s frustration with me in a race.
At the same time, her apology made me realize how difficult it is for many women to set aside their “manners” when they step on the playing field. I’m not suggesting that there’s no place for consideration in sport. On the contrary, athletic pursuits have a history of uniting disparate groups (think about the Olympic Games, which originated with athletes from warring Greek cities assembling in peace to compete, and which continue to be a symbol of international understanding and cooperation). However, consideration and respect for one’s opponents does not preclude one’s trying one’s darnedest to beat them.
Cycling is on some level a contact sport. Touching, bumping, and even pushing can occur in the peloton (the main pack of riders in the race). There is a fine line between asserting one’s position and holding one’s place against the flow of traffic, and pushing someone else out of the way. When two riders become entangled and crash (sometimes bringing others down in the wreck), it’s not always clear who caused the accident; in fact, a lot of the time it’s a combination of factors and no one is really to blame. Usually, there are no hard feelings, and it is understood that no one ever means to cause a crash. However, it’s curious to me that when it is words being exchanged instead of physical contact, women seem to get more sensitive and bashful.
In my opinion, an aggressive attitude is absolutely necessary to pursue victory in any competitive sport. However, the amount of aggression acceptable in the rules of the sport may be more than some competitors are comfortable with on a personal level, and I suspect that this contrast between personal and professional codes is greater for women athletes. Learning to become a mean girl, and putting on a game face, is one of the crucial lessons for a woman moving from the recreational to elite ranks of a sport.