My first race is less than a month away. Great news for me because it will give me something tangible to write about on this bloody blog!
Until then, I plan to ruminate on some of the peculiarities of road cycling that provide such fascination for disciples like myself.
Today I’m mostly thinking about the symbiotic relationship between cycling and suffering. Long before I turned a wheel in anger this bond had become apparent thanks to the great Sean Kelly and his bike racing commentary on Eurosport (yes, I watch loads of cycling as well as doing it…).
As any Kelly commentary aficionado will tell you, the joy of his interjections comes from the unique way he has with words. For instance, on the rare occasions that the missus sits down with me to watch some big race coverage we usually end up amusing ourselves with a kind of prediction bingo based around when the Irish legend might next mention some hapless rider “sooferin”.
Recently, I also spotted a great quote from the former pro Rolf Aldag who said: “I think suffering in cycling is basically the key to success.”
Now that I’ve ridden for four years in the semi-competitive world of sportives I have a better idea of what Messrs Kelly and Aldag are on about.
There can be few other sports where participants inflict so much suffering on themselves over such long periods, only to come back for more at the earliest possible opportunity. Boxing is clearly a world of pain but at least the idea is to inflict it on someone else, which, let’s face it, must be quite satisfying. I know from friends who play golf that an off-day can be maddeningly frustrating, but at the end of the day it doesn’t actually hurt. And, unless you’re Eddie Izzard, most people completing a marathon have the good sense to wait a while before strapping on their trainers again…
But cyclists? We love it. In what other sport would a series of training videos openly celebrate the pain they’ll put you though by calling themselves The Sufferfest? And still sell by the bucketload…
I’ve had days on the bike when every pedal stroke feels like Hell on Earth. All I want is for it to stop, but it won’t because there are still miles of unforgiving terrain to cover before collapsing over the finish line. And yet once the torture is over I not only keep on coming back for more, I tend to look back with relish at those moments of physical and mental crisis. Why?
I’m no psychologist, but I believe human beings are hard-wired to relish suffering. Let’s face it, life in prehistoric times must have been pretty shitty but we still seemed to make the best of it. And just as it must have been quite a buzz to bring down that mammoth for the first time, so the euphoria would surely have been intensified by the life or death struggle…
Today most of us don’t have to kill our own food and, though life has its struggles, they rarely have a true life or death intensity. So maybe we actually miss the feeling of putting it all on the line? And maybe suffering on a bike fills enough of that void to make it genuinely addictive?
My own personal Calvary occurred on the climb to the summit of the Col du Galibier, up above the altitude sickness line where the mind is known to mess around with you. At least that’s my excuse anyway.
In the words of Sean Kelly I was sooferin’ majorly, my riding companion had already disappeared smoothly up the road and there were still several kilometres of punishing gradient to go before the summit. Then I came upon a group of people who’d clearly driven up the mountain to cheer on a friend, but who were generously encouraging all the other riders as they struggled past. It just took one friendly “allez!” and that was that – I started blubbing uncontrollably; actually sobbing as I rode.
And yet today I look back wistfully at times like those. Times when I went so close to the edge but not over it. When I suffered like a dog but made it through the other side.
Until the woolly mammoth makes a reappearance, that’s going to have to do for me.