On suffering

Suffering comes in many forms. Climbs. Headwinds. Hangovers. Breaks from the bike.

Some days, you know it’s waiting for you out there on the road before you even clip in. Other days it appears suddenly, seemingly without reason.

But it always manifests itself in the same way. 

It starts with simple pain. The pedals get progressively harder to turn, stiffer. Instead of resting on the bars, you find yourself gripping them tightly, even pulling on them somehow. Your fingers edge towards the gear lever, itching to ease the discomfort, if only temporarily, by slipping on to a bigger ring. Your thighs throb and burn, feeling like they’re on the verge of exploding. That fluid, circular pedal stroke becomes choppier, more up-and-down, less a stroke, more a mash. Your shoulders are moving with each pedal mash. You stand up, then collapse back onto the saddle. Each breath burns the back of your throat. You’re fairly certain someone is trying to rip your lungs out of your chest with a meat hook. The pain becomes chronic, it fills your entire consciousness and you begin to suffer.

You know this is the zone where races are won, where PBs are set, provided you can hold it together, keep moving forward, don’t let the pace drop. But the pain. The pain!

It’s time to deploy your favourite distraction techniques. We all have them. Something, anything, to help take your mind off the feeling in your legs, your lungs.

To begin with you employ mindless optimism. You simply hope the discomfort will go away, that you’ll get the fabled “second wind”. Until it does go away, you start shifting your gaze. First of all you focus on the road immediately in front of you. Then you drop your head, looking almost backwards, just for a second, until raising it again and staring at some distant object. “If I can just get to that tree,” you think, “I’m sure the pain will have stopped.” You grimace at your Garmin, but it must be broken – the numbers are changing too slowly. Ignore the data, focus on the tree. It will get nearer. The pain will go away. You do your best Tommy Voeckler face. The tree stays impossibly far away.

The pain refuses to subside so you try to lose yourself in your technique. Keep the pedal turns fluid, circular, press down, pull up, press down, pull up. Keep your core strong, stop the movement there and keep your shoulders still. Caress the bars, no more. Relax. Keep the cadence high. Eyes locked on the road ahead. Breathe in through the nose, out through the mouth. Deep, slow breaths.

Of course, it doesn’t work. It never does. What next?

Mental arithmetic. You’re 60km into your ride, with 12km left, so that’s 80% of the distance covered. If you hold this pace, there’s 29 minutes and 48 seconds to go, you think. Just 5 more minutes and you’ll have less than 10km left, which is 13%? 14%? of the total ride.

But that doesn’t work either.

You start hallucinating. Imagining you’re in a race, imagining this is how the pros feel (it isn’t, for them it’s much worse). You’re Tony Martin time-trialling your way to victory. You’re Peter Sagan off the front somewhere in Flanders. You’re you, in a lone breakaway on a stage of the Tour de France, a shockingly talented debutant at the age of 37, the peloton in pursuit. You’re Jason Bourne and the future of the free world depends on you covering that distance in time. You’re in the Wacky Races and desperately close to catching The Ant Hill Mob but Dick Dastardly is in hot pursuit.

The images turn more domestic. Coffee! A bacon sandwich! A long soak in the bath! It makes the suffering worse. You need another distraction.

Think, think. What would Jens Voigt do?

Finally, blankness. Just existing. Grinding it out. Pedal turn by pedal turn. You’re a cyclist. You suffer.

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