Cycling and Suffering

First off, I’d like to clarify what I’m about to go on about. When I use the word ‘cycling’ I’m not referring to the rider who goes out on the open road for pure pleasure, i.e. not to suffer; nor am I talking about the tourer who uses the bicycle as his/her tool for travel and adventure (although there is suffering in this game, too, I can tell you). What I want to discuss is my new world: that of the competitive cyclist.

Me, suffering.

I’ve been thinking about this for some time because I feel I need to up my training next year if I am to survive both Etapes du Tour. The concept of ‘suffering’ is deeply ingrained in competitive cycling, as you will all know. I haven’t put too much thought into why this is yet, but I imagine that one reason is because cycling is simply one of the hardest endurance sports there is out there, and really it is about enduring pain as long as you can, and hoping that it is longer than the others you are racing with/against.

You see this displayed beautifully on the last climb of any big stage race. Often, the complete peloton will start up the mountain together, only to be slowly – sometimes viciously quickly – pulled apart and scattered across the mountain. Climbing ability, strength, having ‘good legs’ on the day, all come into play of course, but the capacity to endure pain, both physically and, most importantly for me, mentally, plays an important role in determining where you finish among that long line of riders.

Jan Ulrich, a great sufferer.

If we agree that suffering (or ‘enduring’, if you like) is a key element to success in competitive cycling (or any sport?), it surely follows that you must embrace suffering in your training as well. I think I can endure a fair share of pain, but I also realize that I could certainly learn to love my suffering more (if any suffer-lovers out there have any tips, I’m ready to listen). We all come to points in a hard effort where we say to ourselves, ‘That’s it, can’t do any more’ – that protective voice is just trying to save me from pain, which is nice of it, but really it is getting in the way of progress, so I need to learn how to ignore it and make it go away.

Sean Kelly (I think) - the Irish suffer-king

Therefore, I have declared 2012 to be The Year of Pain and Suffering! I will attempt to go that little bit farther, a touch harder, a smidgen faster when the new season starts in January, and, with a little luck, I’ll finish both my Etapes on my bike and not in the ambulance.

Some riders wear ‘suffering’ like a badge of honor, it’s true, and I don’t want to sound as if cyclists have a patent on the word. Still though, it’s impressive how much comes up in a Google search with ‘cycling’ and ‘suffering’ – there’s something to it.

Some quotes of suffering from those who should know:

“Cycling is so hard, the suffering is so intense, that it’s absolutely cleansing. The pain is so deep and strong that a curtain descends over your brain… Once, someone asked me what pleasure I took in riding for so long. ’Pleasure?’ I said. ’I don’t understand the question.’ I didn’t do it for pleasure, I did it for pain.”Lance Armstrong (7-time TdF winner)

“What makes a great endurance athlete is the ability to absorb potenial embarrassment, and to suffer without complaint. I was discovering that if it was a matter of gritting my teeth, not caring how it looked, and outlasting everybody else, I won. It didn’t seem to matter what sport it was–in a straight-ahead, long-distant race, I could beat anybody. If it was a suffer-fest, I was good at it.” — Lance Armstrong

Armstrong, suffering.

“I still feel that variable gears are only for people over forty-five. Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft… As for me, give me a fixed gear!” — Henri Desgrange (bike racer, 1st organizer of the TdF, and obviously a hard, hard man)

Desgrange suffering, with one gear!

‘Shut up legs!” Jens Voigt (40 yr old uber hardman and ‘beautiful sufferer‘)

Jens, suffering.

“It never gets easier, you just go faster.” — Greg LeMond (3-time TdF winner) 

“The key is being able to endure psychologically. When you’re not riding well, you think, why suffer? Why push yourself for four or five hours? The mountains are the pinnacle of suffering”Greg Lemond

“I have always struggled to achieve excellence. One thing that cycling has taught me is that if you can achieve something without a struggle it’s not going to be satisfying.”Greg Lemond

Lemond, suffering.

“Suffering is what professional cycling is all about, and champions suffer the longest. The ability to suffer can be heightened through training, which is why racers go out on the road for up to seven hours most days during winter and early spring.”Samuel Abt (cycling journalist)

“Cycling is suffering.”Fausto Coppi (5-time Giro winner, 2-time TdF winner)

Coppi, suffering

“Everybody tells me that I never look as if I’m suffering. But, when I watch videotapes of a race, I always remember the pain I had to endure.”Miguel Indurain (5-time TdF winner)

“I’m fascinated by the sprinters. They suffer so much during the race just to get to the finish, they hang on for dear life in the climbs, but then in the final kilometers they are transformed and do amazing things. It’s not their force per se that impresses me, but rather the renaissance they experience. Seeing them suffer throughout the race only to be reborn in the final is something for fascination.”Miguel Indurain

Indurain suffering…maybe.

“Suffering for eight hours…the most unpleasant experience I’ve ever had.” Chris Boardman 3-time World Hour record holder), describing Stage 21 of the 1996 Tour De France.


“Cyclists live with pain. If you can’t handle it you will win nothing”Eddy Merckx (winner of basically everything, five times!)

Merckx, making everyone else suffer.

“While it is a very hard and sometimes very cruel profession, my love for the bike remains as strong now as it was in the days when I first discovered it. I am convinced that long after I have stopped riding as a professional I will be riding my bicycle. I never want to abandon my bike. I see my grandfather, now in his seventies and riding around everywhere. To me that is beautiful. And the bike must always remain a part of my life.” — Stephen Roche (Triple Crown winner – TdF, Giro and World Championships in one season)

Roche, suffering.

“If you knew the pain I had in my legs…what suffering! I couldn’t wait to get to the hotel.” — Thomas Voeckler (France’s current chouchou and 20-day Yellow Jersey wearer) , after Stage 18 of this year’s Tour de France.

Voeckler, at the end of his suffering.

Finally, to end on an un-suffering tone, one of the very best quotes on the more pleasurable aspects of cycling by, who else, Hemingway.

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of the country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.”
Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway, not suffering at all.

27 thoughts on “Cycling and Suffering

    • Hi Steph – You’re very correct. Childbirth and suffering definitely go hand in hand. And there’s the on-going debate which is tougher, the pain of high performance athletic competition, or the pain of childbirth. Men will never understand the pain of childbirth (thank goodness, for if we did the human race wouldn’t last very long), but I know enough high performance female Ironmen that have children, to offer their view on the subject. All of them say childbirth is easier than pushing through the pain of a 9 to 10 hour Ironman competition, because when you’re racing you have the choice of just saying “enough is enough” and quit. Physical pain is easier to manage when you have no choice. Childbirth is mostly physical, while athletic competition is mostly mental. There’s no question, both hurt, but according to my female athlete friends, they all say the mental pain to continue and endure the relentless physical pain of competition is internal torture. Besides, the childbirth has a better prize at the finish line. Athletes only get a medal or a t-shirt.

      • Hi Robert,
        You’re right – childbirth pain is well worth it for the end result, and, as you say, there isn’t a darn thing you can do about once the process is underway! That’s very interesting what you say about the mental aspect to pain – the knowing you could stop if you wanted, but driving yourself to carry on despite everything.
        Best wishes, Steph

  1. Great Post Gerry – And a great discussion. After 32+ years of racing competitively, training and racing in over 100 marathon distances, competing in 7 Ironman Triathlons (placing as high as 10th overall – I really suffered that day), running and training in 1000’s of 10k’s, racing in so many cycling events I’ve lost count, I’m often asked why I do it? And because I’ve been asked so often, I’ve developed an answer. I usually start by saying, “If you have to ask, you won’t understand my answer”. Most people don’t get it; all high performance athletes get it in spades. So here goes, “I do it to suffer; I do it to feel pain; I do it to take my body to a place that very few will ever experience in their lifetime; I do it to see if my mind will win out over my body once again, because when my legs, lungs and heart are screaming to stop, and my mind pushes through the pain to the finish, I WIN! And for that moment, no matter how brief, I have reached Nirvana (which ironically means to be free of suffering)”. Like I said, if you have to ask the question, you probably won’t understand the answer. Well, it’s time to do a hard interval workout…..See you in Nirvana

    Enjoy the Ride….Rob

    PS: I wrote a blog a while ago about “WINNING” and the five categories of how people define winning that might apply to the discussion. Check it out at:

    • Having re-read that blog article, I’m not sure which type I am – probably a mixture of them all, like many people. I’m certainly not competitive in the sense that I would die before I let the guy next to me beat me to the top of the mountain, but I AM competitive with myself and can push hard when, as you say, ‘the race is on’. Winning for me is doing as well or better than I expected, and knowing that it was all because I had trained properly for it, i.e. I agree 100% with Lemond above when he says that there is little satisfaction in gaining something without a struggle.

      I can think of a few moments in my life when I really ‘earned’ something from lots and lots of concentrated effort: my black belt way back when I was 21; arriving in Darwin after my cross-country ride of Australia; winning Gold in the Singapore Dragonboat Festival in 2008; and finishing the Etape du Tour this year. I was brought close to tears on the last two from the emotion.

      I can’t say I love to go out and push myself beyond my limits on the bike every day, in fact I’m really enjoying the off-season because I can just go out and fartlek as much or as little as I like! I need to learn to embrace my pain in 2012.

      • I too, like the off season. It’s a time to recover from the season of structured workouts, with defined goals and objectives. I guess I fall more in the camp of the competitive athlete, because I really enjoy the times when the reward of hard work is worth the suffering, like riding up Ventoux in 1:34 this summer. Since there can only be one person across the finish line in first place overall, and if I know I gave it my best shot, that’s winning.

        • Wow, that’s scary. I’m thinking that the Etape will be going similarly quickly, especially the one in the Alps. For those who live on the wrong side of the pond, you’ve been warned!

  2. Really enjoyed your selection of quotes to which one might add the Jens Voigt’s pithy “shut up legs”. Glad to see I safely sneak past (by a margin) the Henri Desgrange dispensation for being allowed gears.

    • I’ve still got another year before I can give up my fixie, according to M. Desgrange…you must be very happy with all those gears, David! I’m putting Jens up now, by the way. I can’t believe I let him slip by…thanks!

  3. Hi gerry
    here’s a quote from the horses mouth ..
    Sean Kelly on the Tour de Tour in 2003
    On the night stage over beers….when asked about what it takes to win
    “Its all about riding in the races
    and suffering”

    • You mean you were drinking with ‘the horse’?? The closest I’ve come is seeing him ride past me in the Paris-Roubaix sportive this year as I was taking a leak! Can everyone in Ireland have a beer with Sean Kelly? If so, I’m coming up!

      • Its a small country.. he did the tour with us …eric boyer too.
        Best cycling memory for me ever….trying to stay on his wheel going down the Galibier. masterclass in desending
        I won night stage…hes a lightweight drinker:)

  4. Excellent post. There is no doubt that learning to push yourself beyond self-perceived limits is critical. I have found this to be true in many other endeavors, not just athletic ones. Although I am no fan of running, one of my favorite quotes is from Roger Bannister, who said, “The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful is the man who will win.”

    • Thanks, Steve. I was thinking about adding something along the lines of what you wrote above, so thanks for adding it to the conversation.

      My favorite Geena Davis quote (ok, the only Geena Davis quote I know…) sums it up nicely; “Life is pain. Get used to it.” (spoken to her daughter after falling on the ice)

      • There’s another quote which I think applies to your strategy for next year. It’s by Joe Paterno, Penn State’s football coach: “The will to win is important, but the will to prepare is vital.”

  5. Great motto for 2012, dude!

    You might be interested in this site:

    Not that you need it where you live, but should you want to increase your weekly cycling by getting on a trainer, that’s the site for getting great videos to help you suffer.

    The guys that made our 108 shirt also have one with the Jens quote. I don’t like the design, but the quote is a classic already.

    BTW, Tommy had the yellow jersey from stage 10 to 19, not quite 20 days.

    • Thanks for the link. I’m hoping this rain ends so I’m not forced to get a trainer!

      I was including 2004 for Tommy, when he held onto the Jellow Yersey (as I heard Sastre call it last year!) for 10 days, too.

  6. “Enjoy the suffering; pain is only weakness leaving the body.” Paul Howard, rider in the 2700 mile Tour Divide from Banff, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico.

  7. Start your training by buying a home gym, then break the bank by buying top of the line BIKE, WHEELS (JULY 28 ENTRY)AND RACING EQUIPMENT!!! and hire a chase team or join a team with a local coach. Of course this means not leaving licence on top of a car(May 22 post), no beer breaks, no frites and hamburgers during training (June 8 post)another beer to celebrate ( June 7 post) . Get the point, you are about to embark on a lifestyle change that only you can answer to. Many males go through family life and then mid life crisis, you as others have chosen a different route as supported by this article Good Luck, and Bonne Chance

    • Thanks Spend Your Money for living up to your moniker…I can’t even afford those new wheels so I might need to wait a while for the home gym! I liked the article and the conclusion, i.e. middle-aged men are turning to bikes instead of cars because modern cars are too complicated to tinker with! For me though, modern bikes are in the same category. I’m lucky I’m not the tinkering type, I suppose. Anyway, whatever the reason, you’re right about the changes in lifestyle. At least there is the off season to look forward to!

  8. Thanks very much for your thoughts. I’ve declared 2013 as the year of suffering: capped by my participation is a 7 day tour in Colorado with 30K of climbing. I don’t race, but am drawn to endurance riding, and place myself into the pain crucible again and again. A few days ago I rode what may be the most insane 23 miles of intervals I’ve ever done – how is it that the win can blow straight at you no matter which way you ride? There’s a lot to be learned in the hurt locker…a lot to be gained. Mostly I love it when it’s over, and that persuades me to keep going back for more. What a beautiful sport.

  9. Love this topic, just wrote about breaking pain barrier with micro goal setting 2 mins ago in fact and great to see these posts up on the web. The Desgrange picture is class.

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