The best book about cycling that I've ever read is The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallwey. Outlining the role the mind plays in peak sports performance, Gallwey's book is about tennis inasmuch as The Art of War is about war. All sports have both an outer game (the work the body does) and an inner game (the work the mind does), and success is through a combination and application of the two.
I think about the book a lot when I ride. It's easy to get wrapped up in "outer game" on the bike, working on keeping my cadence high or pushing a certain number of watts or controlling my breathing. But the very act of paying attention to all of these things is part of the inner game as well. I'm abandoning Gallwey's thesis here (or maybe bastardizing it) but in cycling I see three separate components to the inner game. They are:
Strategy: These are the choices you make about how to compete. Some of them are pre-determined (e.g. "I'm going to try to get into a break because I can't beat the sprinters on this course,") and some in real-time (e.g. "I've got to get out of the sweet spot in the pack and move to the outside if I want to move up because there are only 4 laps left.") Strategy is essentially knowing what to do.
Vision: This is your ability to read the race so you can apply strategic choices in real-time. It might mean assessing competitors' fitness or maybe it's finding someone's "tell" - like moving their hands from the tops to the drops when they are about to attack.
Self-awareness: In cycling we talk about "burning a match" when we put in a hard effort. Self-awareness lets us know how many matches are in our book. If we are not as fit or fast as we think, our attacks will fail and we'll run out of gas before the end. If we are fitter or faster than we think, we may hold back unnecessarily.
The ratio of each of these inner game elements varies even within different cycling disciplines. RIP the comments but here's how I think about how the inner brain is engaged across road, cross/mtb and TT / TRI:
I've used road racing in my examples within the elements above so won't detail that further. I suppose what needs some explanation is why I think the inner game is less a part of the other cycling disciplines. One big difference is the diminished pack dynamic and team tactics within cyclocross and MTB, and especially with TT efforts. I'm not saying there is no strategy involved here, but the gameplan for these discplines is closer to "go as hard as I can for the full race" than it is in more stochastic road racing. Maybe I'm wrong and that explains why I always sucked at those disciplines. Or maybe I sucked because I'm a strategist and couldn't brain my way through those events very well.
I also posit that vision is less important in events where efforts are solo and measured as opposed to a dynamic pack environment. I realize there are packs in cyclocross and MTB but there is also far less fluidity within them. In a road race you can be in 40th position with a mile left and still have a shot at the podium, if you use your legs and brain exactly right. If you're in 40th in a cyclocross race with a mile to go, either your legs or your brain has really let you down.
Instead of focusing on why you think I'm wrong in pointing out how the disciplines are different, I created that slider chart to show something else - how they're the same. No matter what kind of going fast on a bicycle you like to do, self-awareness is a critical part of the inner game.
And that's why I love solo riding, and why even when I was racing every weekend almost all of my training was by myself. To me, knowing what I was and was not capable of every weekend had a huge impact on my performance. In my very first road race when I was 16 and knew nothing about training, I was comfortable in the pack until about a mile to go. Maybe too comfortable, because I wasn't exhausted when I expected to be. I remember moving to the outside to move up and hitting the wind, then realizing I had open road in front of me and accelerating into it. Naturally, everyone with experience let me go and with 3/4 of a mile left I found myself on the front. Exhilirated (I'm winning!) I put my head down and powered on, even opening a gap with half a mile to go. It was at that moment that everyone else decided to start racing. You've heard the cliché "swallowed by the pack and spit out the back" a hundred times but have you ever actually experienced it? Within 500M I went from 10M off the front to 100M behind.
I'm pretty sure that experience traumatized me, because afterwards I became pretty conscious of my limits and how to stay within them. Most of my training since has sought to strike that symbiosis between what I'm able to do, and what I know I'm able to do. Obviously, knowing when to conserve energy in a race can be advantageous. But even when I'm out riding by myself, knowing how hard I can go before I blow up helps me avoid disappointment and frustration. It turns out I'm not as fast as the PRs I set on Strava 9 years ago, and it's easy to find self-loathing not practicing social distancing etiquette on my rides now. "Start where you are, not where you were," my wife and her decades of yoga practice remind me. Self-awareness is a big part of letting my rides do the work they need to do to keep me sane and happy right now.
Anyway I get how riding alone all the time can be monotonous and uninspiring. And maybe we're all already living inside ourselves an awful lot. But solo rides are all we have right now. If you're not able to fine tune your outer game in the absence of a small group attacking on a climb or behind a leadout for a speed limit sign sprint, maybe learning to love the solo ride can shore up your inner game in the interim.