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Suffering and Cycling

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Words & images by Emma Nicholson

There is a collection of words whose use in sports marketing and journalism is always up for debate. Suffering – alongside the various iterations of ‘hero’ – is one such word. While we all understand why their use in a sporting context might be a little overenthusiastic, maybe there just isn’t a better way of describing the purgatory that we cyclists put ourselves through.

This curious relationship between cyclists and suffering has gained its annual surge in relevance in the past week or so, not least because of the return to spring racing in Europe – yippee! – but also thanks to the Track World Championships in Poland last week.

Stick around long enough in cycling and you’re guaranteed to hear ‘suffer’ and/or ‘heroic’ used to describe a rider powering up a tough climb or clattering solo over northern Europe’s least pleasant cobbled roads. In bike races, it is commonly agreed that the rider who suffers longest, wins. Although that’s not to say that the losers don’t have a hard time too.

Every cyclist, from the amateur just starting out to the most successful of professional riders, has their own stories of suffering, and of how and why they keep going.

Lawson Craddock completed all 21 stages of the 2018 Tour de France with a fractured scapula and stitches over his left eye, raising $290,000 for his home velodrome in the process; Geraint Thomas helped Chris Froome to his first yellow jersey in 2013 despite fracturing his pelvis on stage 1 and having to be manhandled on and off his bike at either end of each day; Adam “I eat pain for breakfast” Hansen battled through 20 consecutive Grand Tours, dislocating his shoulder and losing plenty of skin, all the while pulling like a steam engine for his team; the now-retired Jens Voigt slaved in countless anger-fuelled breakaways, delivering the hurt to his fellow riders on a daily basis and coining one of the most famous catchphrases in cycling: “Shut up legs!”

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All of these riders had a very good reason to keep going, but all of them were ultimately working for something other – bigger? – than personal glory. Suffering always has its rewards, however, whether that’s a deserved beer and pizza for you and I or standing on the top step of the podium for the pros.

Alex Dowsett, time trial specialist, Giro d’Italia stage winner and former hour record holder, said of riding for the win, “It’s one of the best feelings in the world and the suffering and pain just seem to disappear. Then I find it very easy to go much, much harder.”

That euphoric feeling of going well on a ride is certainly something I can relate to, rare though it may be. It’s that confidence that you’re pushing strongly through the discomfort, leaning into corners like a MotoGP rider, climbing up out of the saddle, feeling light and sprightly on roads at home or abroad. I tend to hit that level a few weeks into summer or on day three of a cycling trip to the mountains, no longer gasping with concrete dripping down my legs, with renewed lung capacity, a clear head and positive attitude. Then you get to the top of the mountain, literally or figuratively, and the reward is all around.

cycling on road

Yes, it’s damn hard work, not just to complete the ride but to get yourself to that point through painstaking training. There is ‘suffering’ at every stroke of the pedal but there is always something to celebrate, even if only a slow-burning sense of pride at having ridden through that horrendous late spring storm. This obsession we have with suffering may well seem a strange position to find ourselves in, but we all have our own reasons for being here. What’s more, without some pain and discomfort, we would never get better at what we do.

As Greg LeMond said, “It never gets easier, you just get faster.”

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