The mental game of racing has two sides, separated by the fine line between the rider’s ability to focus and a savvy sense of when and how to shift that focus without losing it. The ability to focus happens inside the head. It’s a mental state centering on the ability to establish and maintain a rhythm. A rider who is able to shift focus, to see changes and to adjust with a successful new plan, is the rider who rides with heart. Some people define heart as driven by emotion, but there is also an aspect of intuition, of gut feeling.
For any dedicated athlete, it’s easy to confuse head mode with heart mode. It’s easy for them to go out of balance, and not so easy to regain clarity once the line between the two becomes blurred. Like a favorite song playing over trashed speakers, you reach for the fragments and create the rest in your head.
In racing, Nicky Hayden wins the all-heart category. You see him searching for that opening to gain a rhythm but crisp focus often eludes him. Even so, his approach has been good enough to win him a world championship and a spot in history. Dani Pedrosa is almost a pure rhythm (head) rider but only occasionally shows flashes of heart-driven brilliance. Lorenzo had a sweet balance of head and heart on 250s, and he has unquestionably reestablished that proportion in MotoGP. Stoner is the class leader in the head category of rider, he is all rhythm, as solid as they come. Outrageously solid, in fact. While he has perhaps relied too heavily on that strength in the past, with his departure from the sport imminent, we’ll never know where it might have gone.
Few, possibly no one before, have had both the rhythm and the ability to pierce through adversity and summon heart like Valentino Rossi. The trick is keeping the two modes sharply in focus but slightly apart. Once in balance, that divine proportion allows a rider to develop strategy on the bike, and push the pace and the flow of a race into something beautiful. That’s the Rossi of old. His fans’ heartfelt hope for the new year must be to see him back in balance, putting the strain of developing the difficult Ducati behind him.
Running new lines or creating a new strategy on the fly does not come naturally for most riders. To achieve it during the heat of battle, the rider’s certainty of a bulletproof fallback position is essential. Any uncertainty kills the deal. When you see a rider’s lines changing, lap times bouncing around and body language changing with no net improvement in consistency or forward charge, you are seeing a blurring of that fine line between head and heart, a disintegration of his rhythm.
Once a rider begins grasping at straws, trying to find inspiration from his heart when it needs to come from his head, his game goes sour. Rhythm means timing, but also stability. From stability comes consistency. And with all that comes the message that “I can lay down a base line you can’t match.” Other riders sense confidence and it is intimidating. It’s the subtlest game of intimidation. World-class riders say nothing about it, they just emanate it. Pedrosa and Lorenzo have been one-upping each other at this game for the better part of the 2012 season.
This is a truly intimate state with riders. They love it when they’re in it and fear it when another has it. With a solid rhythm in place, the heart is free to sing an inspired song, to run the quickest laps on thrashed tires, to fluidly respond to all challengers, not with aggression but with the authority of knowing you are in a state of grace.
In competition, achieving a balance of head and heart trumps the commonplace perceptions of ticking time and dimensional space. It’s an otherworldly balance, it is perfect symmetry and it opens a crack into the very essence of time and motion. I think I could safely say that every top rider on the world grid has been there; I’ve discussed this state with some of history’s best. Some lucky few of the rest of us have, too. Once you have it, you’ll never want it to leave.