This is a word you will hear all the time in cycling.
Sports people, being a body-led, kinaesthetic bunch, are often not the world’s best describers, so a few words get used time and time again and become rammed with meaning.
I made them suffer - to up the tempo on a climb
I was suffering - other riders were putting me on the ropes
You have to know how to suffer - describing the willingness to put yourself in the hurt locker in order to win
Suffering for my sport - as in the life style you have to live
Suffering - as a way to describe the desperate pain of trying to go faster
Suffering - a way of describing the nobility of cycling
Suffering - a way of describing the quasi-mystical element of enduring pain in the pursuit of excellence
Suffering - the cost of having The Passion
"Suffering is our unit of measure, our currency, and yes, our virtue. It is also the single most difficult thing to explain to the non-cyclist."
@Csos on Velominati
The dictionary gives two meanings of the word; being subjected to something unpleasant and the archaic to undergo martyrdom or execution. In cycling it can mean both at the same time; it can describe the pain of the sport, from the way you are riding on the day to the gritty ouch of a road rash, and it can describe the metaphysical yearning behind the cyclist’s task, an understanding of the extreme agony of existence. Suffering will lead to redemption - on the good days at least.
Let’s start with the simple things like discomfort and physical pain.
Bike racing, like any sport where you are committed to push yourself on a regular basis, is really hard. You force your body into applications of effort that are both uncomfortable and, given how life works these days, totally unneccessary.
How hard is hard? I know when I’ve really pushed myself when, as soon as I finish a ride, I have to lie down and wait for ten minutes for the nausea to go away. That’s very common at all levels of the sport, everyone has to do it (see photos of Chris Hoy above). Some get that feeling worse than others - I remember a cyclist I used to race against who would regularly have a little throw up after crossing the line. Nice.
Pros got a lot further. Tommy Simpson famously pushed himself into an early grave climbing Mt Ventoux (not helped by amphetimines). Riders are regularly scooped up by team assistants on the finish line, totally spent.
Even at the local amateur level racing is very demanding. Putting yourself in that much pain regularly is just not something many people want to do. The whole sportive thing is probably great - I don’t do them - but when riders try their first short circuit race the shift in intensity really catches them out. In an hour-long circuit race the pace is on from the start, you don’t get a chance to warm into it, your heart rate is maxing out in a minute and it stays there, the whole way. You don’t manage yourself into and out of pain, you are just shifting the pain level from just about endurable to this really fucking hurts.
These are the things that haven’t changed about cycling since it began. You can add all the tech you want on top of it, but the fundamental experience is that of suffering to go faster. The bikes have changed, but the look on the racers faces hasn’t.
You can’t fake it. Even when the cheat and sociopath Lance Armstrong was riding up those hills EPO’ed off his face he was still, undeniably, in the depths of suffering. The drugs made him faster, but they didn’t make it hurt less.
To my mind this is why racing cyclists are so particular about how they look - it’s a kind of armour. And it even explains why proper roadies are often just so bloody rude to ordinary cyclists. The agony a pro embraces is many orders of magnitude greater than even a good amateur cyclist.
I love the somewhat overwrought description of training by kiwi lead-out supremo Greg Henderson:
“Training is like fighting a gorilla. You don’t stop when you’re tired; you stop when the gorilla’s tired.”
Well that’s as it should be if you want to make it to the top. If you want to be a pro. Or even a good amateur. And the daily question the racer has to ask themselves is - how much am I prepared to suffer? And then they have to go out and do it. You don’t prove it by planning it or writing about it, you have to ‘put blood on the road’.
I hate to leave the last word on basic physical pain to Armstrong, but he describes this wanting pain well:
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 the pleasure; I did it for the pain.”
Why would you want pain? I am going to come back to this later - in about fifteen bikes time - when I start to get interested in endurance. For the moment let’s just note that pain is a fantastically useful feedback system. It lets you know what is happening in your body. Without it riding a mile, or hunting game on the Savannah, would be impossible. There’s a reason people say that you need to build your ability to suffer. You need to be able to suffer to progress beyond riding to the pub and back.
The common understanding of road racing is that you ‘suffer faster’ to paraphrase American rider Greg Lemond. But it’s not just this, it’s not just that racing cyclists suffer - all cyclist’s have the discomfort of pushing themselves. What sets racing cyclists apart is that they have to want to inflict that suffering on other people. Sure, they are not punching their opponents in the face, but made no mistake, the aim is to annihilate them, to attack, to ‘drop’ them - to make them suffer in order to vanquish them.
That’s why there are so many great photos of two riders riding side by side up the climbs in the grand tours. They are trying to match each other, to gauge the form of their great enemy, in order to break them into little pieces. This is what getting ‘the look’ from Armstrong meant - I am going to kill you. A good sport for a sociopath then.
So what’s the compensation for this physical suffering and aggression, why would you bother?
Being really top-notch fit is amazing. It’s about speed of course but also efficiency. You are in tune with the bike - bent to it really - and while this should feel like you are owned by the bike it reverses and it feels wonderful. You have a sense of mastery. You know exactly how fast you can go and for how long and you time your efforts perfectly. You can push deeper into the suffering knowing that your body will not only recover it will feel even stronger afterwards.
Here’s Cadel Evans on winning the 2009 World Road Champs:
In Mendrisio I felt it - the exhilaration of what the bike has to offer. It's a simple machine that conjures a vast mix of emotions. It can evoke the senses and raise the spirits of people who watch. For those who ride it can seem like the perfect vehicle for transport. For those who race, there's no better sensation than being on top of your gear making mountains feel like flat roads. Cycling throws up plenty of obstacles, unknown territory, high speed split-second considerations. Where to next? What's around the next corner? Who cares? You're flyin'!
That’s the feeling - any anyone can have it, if they train hard enough.
Not withstanding the fact that professional cyclists tend to die early (!) the regular riding of a bicycle makes you not only fit but also mostly healthy. Endurance sport is good for you full stop. Sure you have to look after your posture and flexibility but the thinking is that you have a heart that runs about ten years younger than the general population.
I remember chatting with a guy who had done Paris-Brest-Paris (a 1200km 90 hour ride) six times. He thought that long-distance cycling changed you at a cellular level - for the better I should add. He looked amazing and emitted a warm glow, as if he was fired from inside by a small bunsen burner of vigour. The last time I saw him was overtaking me on a hill out of Carhaix on the 2015 Paris-Brest-Paris at around 3am on night two. He is over seventy.
There is also something great about getting outside. I love a good windy commute and sometimes a storm is a great experience. You are in it, not watching, not hiding. You are in the world and the world is in you. I am a city-dwelling web-guy so much of my life is regulated, and in the grand scheme of things having a headwind on a commute for 30 minutes is hardly a wilderness experience, but in London it helps keep me sane.
And finally racing is fun. It’s very strategic, there’s a lot of bluffing, but mostly it is kinetically exhilarating. Being in the middle of a group of riders charging along at 25-30mph is a buzz in it’s own right. It’s a very intense experience. You have to be right on the ball, all the time. Double that on the track.
You can see some of this these days with the new cameras - the closeness of the other riders, the jostling for position, the shouting.
One thing this video doesn’t capture is the amount of snot that flies around!
Enough about simple suffering. Let’s get metaphysical.
The buddists are all over this. Dukkha (suffering) is the first noble truth:
Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering.
It’s a brutal place to start a religion from, but luckily the Buddha spent a lot of time on empathy and kindness to compensate. Which is a good thing for a religion, but no so relevant for a sport. Buddism revolves around the notion that you would want to escape suffering, but racing cyclists turn the other way, ride into it and are generally not too worried about compassion when they close on the finishing line at 40mph.
When the great Fausto Coppi said simply that cycling is suffering. I suspect he was not conscious that he was paraphrasing the buhhda, and he was certainly not telling anyone to avoid the suffering, he was just stating a fact.
Cycling in all its forms is very much a product of Western mindset and Western industrialised society, and I think it’s a sport that is best thought of in terms of the official religion of that society. I am not talking about the scientific method, I am talking about the Christian tradition.
To my mind there is something of a protestant hangover in the toil of the British cyclist grinding out a big gear along an A road at 8 o’clock on a cold Sunday morning in the ‘Club 25’. And a more catholic version saturates the warmer southern climes of Europe and South American where cyclists are followed like saints and are expected to suffer as much - their small silver crosses bobbing on their pigeon chests as they climb and climb and climb up the worlds steepest and highest passes.
The intersecting area of the Venn diagram of religion and cycling meets its apogee in the small church, the Madonna del Ghisallo, AKA The Cyclists Church (blessed by Pope Pius XII in 1949) above Lake Como, where frames and jerseys hang as icons. In typical Catholic fashion there is even the macabre, the very bicycle that local cyclist Fabio Casartelli was riding when he fell off the Col de Portet d’Aspet in 1995 and died. A genuine relic.
In this view of cycling to suffer is to is to be made honest by being stripped back to the bone and so approach the divine. To make a sacrifice in order to overcome the mundane and touch the cycling shoe of God. You can see this in the Tour de France on the big mountain days. Riders that have been hiding in the peloton have to come to the front and endure hours of intense pain in order to prove that they are worthy to take on the cloak of the Yellow Jersey - the holy shroud of cycling.
The great riders become images of suffering for glory. Anquetil, Coppi, Merckx, Hinault. Iconic. Like religious figures their faces are etched with pain. They burn themselves to mark themselves worthy.
Suffering on the bike even looks a lot like the suffering of the saints. There are many photos to choose from when you want to illustrate this - here are a sprinkling, there’s many more.
Cyclists at this level of the game become stars. They exist outside of the mortal firmament and ascend to the heavens. Immortalised in stories, occassionally covered in money, they become secular saints. Many cyclists resist this (Bradley Wiggins is a good example), others embrace and amplify their deity (Armstrong) and sometimes they fall a long, long way back to earth, often with a sickening thud (Armstrong, but equally many cyclists from that era - Pantani, Landis, Hamilton, Ulrich, Basso).
We are used to the massive media profile of cyclists these days, specially here in the UK since cycling started to take itself seriously and get some money behind it. But cyclists have long been adored, between the two wars and into the ninetines cycling in Europe was pretty much confined to Europeans, but before the First World War cycling was more global and created stars as big, if not bigger, than they are today.
Crowds at Madison Square Gardens regularly topped 10,000. When English pro cyclist Bert ‘Invincible’ Harris hit his head on the track and died in 1897 tens of thousands of mourners turned up on the streets to Leicester to mourn his passing. Then there’s the amazing story of Major Taylor, the first black sports star.
The sports star is not exclusive to the bike, but the origin of the modern professional athlete is very much the story of the professional cyclist.
If we can say that the church of capitalism is the ruling religion of the modern world, then we can surely say that sports personalities, through their ‘miraculaous’ performances, are regularly beatified by the media as secular saints. Where once religion was the opium of the masses, now professional sport is the religion of the consumer.
As with all religion there is plenty of room for corruption in the church of sport and the congregation of cyclists that turn up weekly in their lycra rainment, sipping the magical water of electrolyte drink. The forms of corruption range from the drugs (from opium and burgundy to speed balls and EPO), to race fixing, bribery, bullying. There is even the corrupt pope and plenty of people who think they are beyond reproach.
We will come back to the religious festival that is the Tour de France and the ‘green’ credentials of professional cycling (hint - there have none) when I explore capitalism and cycling in more detail in a later aside, but for me it encapsualtes the extremes of suffering very well.
At a basic level the grand tours (France, Italy, Spain) are three weeks of physical intensity it is impossible to imagine. A few hundred riders endure the pain of riding, the living out of a suitcase, and intense media scrutiny. Then there’s the fact that any one of the 2.3 million people that line the route could topple you with a misplaced placard or camera.
The suffering is physical and, unlike the shorter events, the mental drain is huge. Helicopters over you all the time, the moto riders shoving a camera in your face as you grimace up a mountain, the pictures broadcast live to the world, the manager giving you orders through the radio.
Then there are the elected stages where the race can actually be won. Here those who want to be ‘the one’ must come forward and flay themselves in public as commentators pick out their weaknesses. To slow down has a moral dimension. You haven’t worked hard enough, you are not trying hard enough. The truth is that the individuals who would hope to be King or Queen are almost identically well trained and motivated, what the race comes down to is the strength of your team and your genetic heritage.
And yet we watch it again and again for the stars battling each other, for pulling out career defining performances, for their feats of suffering. It creates its own glory and, for all that The Tour is a money machine, it is also a platform for great individuals and their teams to entertain us.
For the one who is gifted and suffers the most the glory is endless. The worldly spoils are relatively modest by sporting standards, but they join an exclusive order of the greats. Their suffering has bought you to a state of grace, from here you need never turn a pedal ever again, nor do they have anything to prove to anyone. They transubtansiate into an eternal presence of a brand and the faithful mimic them on the weekends, cranking up Box Hill or out along one of the world’s countless time trial courses, each one of them pushing that little bit harder remembering what the great one did on Ventoux, or the Alp d’Huez. The legions rise in their name, literally ascending the site of pilgrimage, high-tech versions of the old penitents who found grace by crawling their way to the sites of holiness.
What perhaps is strangest of all is that these same cyclists - having won something really big like the Tour de France, or a track world championship or even an elite national championship - don’t just hang up their wheels. No, they keep putting themselves through travails to try and win things again.
Pantani, full of EPO, in full pomp
The reason why is the final shared secret of all cyclists, what makes them the faithful. We all know the suffering but there is something else, that thing that overtakes you, that means you have to watch yourself at dinner parties lest you start raving about your next big ride, that makes you think that having another bike cluttering up the house is a logical choice, that has you gazing at maps and building bicycles in your mind. This is the thing that keeps the pros coming back to the insanity of racing year after year, this thing keeps you motivated and on your bike in the deepest, coldest winter and makes you take holidays filled with hills and rain and joyfully tolerate getting older and slower.
And it’s a topic to leave for another day: