What separates the contenders from the pretenders?
Training methods, nutrition and equipment all have reached very high levels these days. As a result, there's a lot of good people out there on the starting line. Each time I move up to a new age group, I always say to myself, this is the year that I'm going to bring home some hardware. But then some guy at the top of my age group spanks me so hard that I go home with my tail between my legs.
Years ago, you may be had a handful of people who could put the hammer down. The rest of us were just there for the beer. Now, only a few of us bring beer coolers and the rest of the field is so serious.
Who gets to stand on the podium?
It's the mental toughness (MT) factor.
It's not that mental edge, visualization or "the zone" bullshit. In my mind, MT is all about pain. Physically, most people who train hard are fairly similar in terms of physical output. It's about; "thy who suffers the most, wins" or as high school track coach used to say, "gut it out you wussy". Even if you are in top notched shape, it's still going hurt. As Greg Lemond once said, "It doesn't get any easier, you just get faster."
It all comes down to this: who has the highest pain thershold? Who can endure more pain than the rest of the field?
How to improve?
Learn to accept pain or at the very least, get used to it. And if you happen to enjoy pain, then most likely you'll be putting the hurt on everyone else.
In the past, great mountaineers (e.g., R. M.) used to train for winter ascents by taking ice baths and running bare-handed in the middle of the winter carry snowballs. They were trying to simulate the pain that they would be feeling on the actual climb.
How to perpare for suffering on the bike? Go out for a fast ride with the big boys and try to keep up. Or my personal favorite, go out for a long ride and carry no food. Bonk, but keep pushing through that wall.
"To such an extent that racers include a blowup in their training. I remember Fignon, three days before the World Championships, setting off to do three hundred kilometers alone, with a cereal bar. He went out to meet the Man with the Hammer. If Fignon needs it, just about any clown, like me, can use a blowup too." - Paul Fournel, "The Need for the Bike"
As they say, "what doesn't kill you, will make you stronger".
Feel the burn and push on through.