The Tailwind Bias

by F.

One of the hardest things about bicycle racing is knowing how you feel during the race. Are you tired? Or are you feeling at your peak? It’s suprisingly hard to tell, believe it or not. But getting the right answer is important. If you’re tired, you hang back, help someone else, or just sit in. If you feel great, you attack, try to get a gap, or join a chasing group.

As an amateur, and a “master” amateur athlete at that, I never had a very good sense of how strong I was on any given day. Sometimes I felt great and attacked…and got shelled like a peanut. Sometimes I felt like shit, got stuck in a break or attacked for the heck of it, and did OK. Maybe if you’ve raced all your life you have a more accurate sense of your fitness level on any given day. But from what I’ve heard, I don’t think so. There are too many variables interacting in all sorts of random ways.

One of the more annoying confounds is the tailwind. You’re cruising along, thinking, “Holy shit! I’m so strong today!” You cruise and cruise and cruise and then you have to turn around, or the course goes around a hairpin. “Holy shit! Headwind!” So that’s why you felt so strong. Call this faulty thinking the “headwind bias.”

How many metaphorical tailwinds are carrying us along, making us think, “I’m king of the world!”

Luck is a tailwind. Sometimes we think we’re responsible for it. Then we turn a hairpin and hit luck going the other way. That’s called a reversal of fortune.