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