For some reason I was thinking about what advice I would give to someone who wanted to take up bike racing. I was raking leaves as I was doing this so there was plenty of time for my mind to wander. I would advise a burgeoning race to learn to do everything well. If you are a climber learn how to sprint, if you are a sprinter learn how to climb. I know that seems like ridiculous common sense but I have seen too many people pigeon hole themselves and not reach their potential. I believe that races are won on strengths and lost on weaknesses.
When I was thinking about how this advice might apply I thought about Erik Zabel. During his long career, in an age when racers began to really specialize toward one day races or Grand Tours, Zabel raced them all. Not only did he race a full season, but he also competed in the grueling six day track races in the winter. He won Milan San Remo four times, the points classification at the Tour de France six times, and also the points jerseys in the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a Espana as well. In a long career he won nearly two hundred races as a professional. Erik Zabel was not ever the fastest sprinter in the bunch. What set him apart was his ability to climb better than faster sprinters. His successes in the Tour came because he could make it to Paris, long after many of the other sprinters had retired rather than facing the mountains. As a sprinter who could climb Erik Zabel made the most of his natural abilities while minimizing his weaknesses.
In Zabel's story I see a lesson of universal application. First of all I believe that it is important to know who you are and to recognize your gifts. Many people who experience real frustration in life do so because they are not in a position to use what they have. I know many people, myself included, who have found themselves at a dead end because their skill set was a poor fit for their work. You are who you are and if you try to be someone else it will never bring real contentment.
However knowing who you are and where your strengths lie does not mean you should ignore your weaknesses and allow them to become liabilities. I have seen equal frustration and stagnation similar to the dead end of misapplication where what someone needed was a little growth to rise above the things that were bringing them down. I have to admit that my natural inclination is to do what I like, but most of the real success and satisfaction has come when I used my natural abilities and worked hard to be more complete. For me at least there is a sense of pride that comes from having applied yourself and done something you thought was impossible.
No matter what it is that you do, ride your bike, go to the mat, do your job, build your relationships or strive for spiritual growth, think about Erik Zabel. His capacity to limit his weaknesses set him free to use his gifts more fully. Having written this I hope to carry it around with me, so that when I am frustrated or stagnant, I ask myself the important questions. At those times it will probably be the case that I am not utilizing what I have, or allowing my weaknesses to undermine my strengths. I hope this helps some of you out there. Let me know if it sets you free to experience joy and contentment.