Stage 15 of the 1998 Tour de France… A 189km Buffet of pain and suffering that included leg shattering beasts such as Croix de Fer, Telegraphe, Galibier, and a mountain top finish at Les Deux Alpes. It doesn’t matter that everyone racing that day was loaded up with enough EPO to kill a Rhino, once a full noise alpine storm was added to the mix, you had all the ingredients for a day from hell.
Having just that sort of day was the yellow jersey, Jan Ullrich. As he wilted and then spectacularly crumbled, Ullrich ultimately lost 8.57 (#meltdown) to Pantani that day and it was clear to see he was a puffy eyed mess being put to the sword as the stage unfolded.
And then on that final climb up to Les Deux Alpes, in what would ultimately become a mythical legend moment, Ullrich’s last remaining domestique, Udo Bolts, turned to his suffering and fingered team leader and in disgust at the epic capitulation, unleashed perhaps the greatest motivational sentence ever said from one rider to another:
“Take the pain you fat pig”
It doesn’t really matter if those were the actual exact words he said, it was in German after all, so it would have sounded somewhat ferocious and like being eye gouged by a donkey. However, in passing that judgement and creating that legend, Udo touched on what ultimately lies at the core of cycling, no matter what form you’re doing (unless you’re one of those cunts on a folding bike and essentially turning bike paths into asteroid fields, you can utterly fuck off immediately):
Yes, cycling makes an art form out of suffering… Its at the centre of all rides, indeed all cycling depends on the foundation of pain in one form or another. Yes, this comes in vastly different formats obviously, but any time you want to “go faster“, our good friend pain is there, waiting for us and with a vast array & arsenal of strange emotions and feelings at their disposal to lather upon us.
Every cyclist has their own personal, complex and unique relationship with pain, so its impossible to categorise it into neat little cliche boxes. Some of us embrace it and seek it out, like an obsession… Some of us talk about how we love it, but actually really don’t and then some of us are so afraid of it we will do anything to avoid it.
What got me thinking about this topic? Oddly it popped into my head during a particularly difficult session pre-Trans Provence. The training plan called for 7 x 3 minutes at FULL gas, with 3 minutes rest between each one. Furthermore, I was supposed to do this 6 times over 3 days in a row… Fart noise.
Whilst I didn’t quite manage that load, I was halfway through on the second day where I hit that usual glass ceiling of pain and suffering and thought to myself “I need to push through this“. I took a few harder pedal strokes and the next thought I had was pretty simple “But… I don’t want to“. I knew that I needed to, but deep down on that second day I didn’t have the desire to hurt myself.
Without that willingness to smash yourself, to embrace the beat down and to unleash harm on your own legs and lungs, its the brutal reality that cycling improvement will remain an unattainable enigma like that hot girl at the bar who won’t return your highly skilled advances.
It got me thinking about pain, about the minds ability to limit what the body can do and ultimately, what makes us want to continually tear our thighs to pieces in pursuit of cycling excellence?
Its a perverse situation – If you don’t hurt yourself as much as you can in training, others will punish you more later. By ‘others’ I mean both the terrain you may be taking on, or of course, the competition you may face come judgment day. Whilst intervals are one of the best ways to access pain, even they can’t be compared to the pain that its introduced into your world by others. And lets face it, most of the time the bulk of people who ride are secretly worried about how everyone else is going form wise…
So, first let’s examine the characters out there in the wild and the role they have to play in ramming you into the Hurtlocker… Do any of these feel hauntingly familiar one way or another? Do you know these people? Are you even one of them?
Best we start at the top of the food chain. In every riding group there is at least one of these, or if you’re as unlucky as fuck, possibly 3 or 4 of them. They don’t feel pain, or pity or mercy and they will absolutely not stop until you have been dropped, humiliated or just completely broken. Doesn’t matter if they’re on a 29er XC bike which is now considered a niche product, or performing a solo break away on the road, you’ll find yourself whispering the same words with your crew about them: “Beast, weapon, freak, machine, cunt”
The Terminators have a completely different take on pain than the rest of us. To them its simply an ingredient that’s necessary in order to go fast, KOM on everyone else or win a race. It does register to them as being something that’s in the background, but its definitely not a focus or something to consider.
They have the luxury of being able to disconnect from pain and simply focus on churning cranks at a metronomic rate, for as long as it takes for them to be alone at the front of a race or ride group. They’re chiseled, look relatively PRO most of the time, possibly Welsh and ride Ultegra/XT usually, not because they like cheap gear, but because they wear drive trains out so fast its just a case of economics.
The most obvious identifying mark of a Terminator though is that as you search your mind, you can never really recall seeing them in difficulty… And in particular, you have never seen them actually snap. No, they have never melted down, blown to pieces, zig zagged or been fucked up. They usually leave that up to you as they dance off into the distance.
First modelled by Cadel Evans, the cockroach likes pain so much, they make sure that everyone knows about it. Their pain is visible, its raw, its unbridled and you can spot them as they thrash wildly about atop their machine.
The other tell tale signs of the cockroach is usually bad fashion or an unkept machine… They don’t chase fads so much and still have long sleeve thermals that needed to be thrown out a few years ago. This is mainly because they are total fuckpigs when it comes to pain and screaming muscles. They just like to charge in there in their ankle high Nike sport socks and wallow in the suffering to the point of it being a bit weird. Possibly beaten up a lot as children, they have low to no interest in discussing sock length or a second espresso, instead more focused on getting in a second hill loop, preferably in the direction of an incoming storm.
The only thing worse than being dropped by the cockroach (a very high possibility) is having to get the full view of their horrific style as their body convulses all over their bike and their hairy legs mash the worst peddling style you have ever seen… All in mismatched kit. Best to fake a puncture the moment they attack.
Similar to the cockroach, but without all the body spasms that go with it, the Shadow has a different and haunting approach. This is more like the movie “The Duel“, whereby they seem to have the ability to always be there, lurking… Watching… The Shadow has the ability to consume pain if they have an unfortunate target in sight.
Chances are the shadow was sucking on your wheel like one of Manila’s finest and even though you have attacked them and put 10 metres into them, they continue to lurk. You plug away for 10 minutes, but still the shadow remains. By this stage you realise that A) they’re riding the same 50km loop as you and B) they look like a bit of a cunt, so you would rather not get involved in a chat.
As nonchalantly as possible you slip your hands smoothly down into the drops and caress it down a gear to squeeze some more wattage into the equation. You keep it steady and try not to rock the shoulders as you pump away. Up a roller and you give it a PRO like squirt over the top… A few more of these and you finally allow yourself that all important look back to see what damage you’ve done…
And the cunt is still there. At best, he’s grimacing or gritting his teeth… At worse, the fucker is smiling. Yes, the shadow probably won’t attack you or take a turn, but like the cycling herpes they are, once latched on they’re impossible to shake. Only approach is to stop for an Instagram pic session and hope like fuck they don’t stop with you and offer to take the shot.
Ehhhhhh… The Fonze is a coooool muthafucka! You know the one, bike is absolutely mint, all the latest shit or just makes it look PROer than PRO and without a question their kit is immaculate. They always wear shoe covers at the right time and you’ll never see them turn a single pedal stroke in mismatched kit. Helmet hair? What the fuck is that? It doesn’t exist in their world as there is a seamless removal of helmet and installation of a boutique cycling cap before you can even mutter the words “double espresso?” upon arrival at coffee.
However, there is one issue with the Fonze – They are too cool to suffer. Yes, that’s right… The thought of being seen with snot flying from their nose, or gasping for air with a red face or even worse of all – Being dropped, is all too much for the Fonze. They don’t want to undo all that hard work being a cool motherfucker by being smeared in pain mayo.
This is a highly conflicting situation for the Fonzie, as they also know that they need to keep some prowess on the bike to reinforce their status and not slide into the ‘posing cuntbag’ category. As such, the Fonze will usually hide away for any efforts, most likely on an indoor trainer so no one can see. If they do arrive at the group hell ride, expect them to take the KOM and then put in some “turns for the boys, mate” before disappearing to the cafe to hit on the Barista and work out the best filter to use for today’s Gram.
Don’t bother trying to catch the Fonze out on a group ride, your attempts to draw them out and punish them will be met with either the fact that its a “recovery spin” or some form of injury will surface that wasn’t previously disclosed.
The Jelly Baby
The JB actually takes on many forms… You may also know them as ‘Bovine’, ‘Joey’s’ or 95% of people in an ANZA jersey. If I was a British General I would therefore refer to them as ‘Cannon Fodder’. High chance that they also used to play golf at some stage.
Regardless of their origins, the JB’s have a similar relationship with pain as an artisanal Spanish ice block has with a Sunday afternoon in Singapore: They both melt like fuck, quickly. However, the key difference is that the ice block doesn’t suddenly become the cycling equivalent of a meteor.
Yes, if you’ve ever seen a JB being squeezed in a pace line or group ride situation while they’re still in the “I can do this” phase, you have probably noted that while their flailing limbs are somewhat comical, their bike handling skills may not be. If you’ve ever seen the results of what comes next then you’ll agree to stick to the advice of making sure that you give the Jellies a wide berth when they start to wobble.
Classic quotes from this pigeon holed group you may have encountered are:
- “Yeah, this is my first ride in 3/6/9 months”
- “I’ve been injured/sick/just recovered from Ebola”
- “Yeah, did a massive ride yesterday (20kms to coffee)”
The most useful role the Jelly babies serve is if you need a cheap ego boost. Yes, coming across a herd of them on a ride can always be a quality bit of sport. Invariably there are a few of them that will want to try and grab your wheel, consigning the weaker numbers of their herd to getting pinged out the ass instantly, hopefully whilst gasping and crying out “Gaaahhhhh, Brian, wait up…I… Can’t… Hold… The….“.
From there you can enjoy feeling as PRO as fuck as you turn up the volume and watch as one by one the multi coloured Jellies get vaporised like marshmallow’s at a fat kids birthday party. The climactic moment coming when you give the final one, usually their Captain Kirk, ‘The Look’ as they explode like a squirrel wearing a hand grenade back pack, leaving you to cruise away feeling 5% cunty and 95% awesome.
Wait – This doesn’t seem to help me with my pain & suffering man?
Good point… So how does one go about dealing with the suffering? How do you try and embrace something that generally most people want to avoid? There is little to no pain sitting on the couch eating a packet of Tyrell’s Sea Salt and Vinegar chups, actually, I lie, when you get the flavoring all over your fingers its a cunt using your smartphone… Especially the thumb print lock on the iPhone 6.
Initially I thought that I’m extremely unqualified to provide any advice on this topic, but then of course I realised that I as I feel the burn more acutely than most, perhaps I’m well placed to drop a few ideas. The key thing to remember is that pain is like dating a hot, but crazy person: They want to break you and make you cry or go insane and you know if you can tame them then you’re going to have an awesome time:
Sounds like fun right?! But if you do want to get ahead and build a relationship with pain, to indulge in the lactic and the endorphins then here are some dubious Dirty Tips up in YO grill:
1. Get angry
For those of you that have had the chance to ride fuelled by insatiable rage, you’ll know what I mean here… Yes, its the ultimate short term fuel to block pain receivers and allow you to unleash feats of strength that perhaps you didn’t realise you had access to… You know its wrong, but… But… It makes you feel so powerful… Especially when you cut a couple of heads off.
It may be some cunt cutting you off in a Merc, or someone equally cunty on a Lapierre riding you off the road in a race, or ideally some fuckbag not taking their turn in a pace line – doesn’t really matter what turns you into a mushroom cloud laying muthfucka, as long as you can use that adrenaline fuelled rage to go down a couple of gears, block out the hurt and smash the fuck out of it.
Turning into a giant rage monster on the bike will absolutely allow you to tap into reserves of strength that you may have thought were previously unattainable. To be noted that if this includes abusing others around you, it may be slightly awkward at coffee or at prize giving, but don’t let that hold you back – After all, it worked well for Lance… Sort of.
Warning – Usually a short term gig, unless you’re the Hulk… Like a jet fighter on full afterburner, you may find that this approach could leave you feeling slightly drained and then heading straight for the whole crash and burn scenario.
2. Smile, you’re on the pain train!
Choo fucking choo… Once on that pain train, you may as well buy some snacks and settle in. I expect this advice to meet with some scepticism, but try and stay with me here as this actually works. Yes, I successfully used this on the field of battle and would go as far as saying it provided me with one of the best road racing results I have ever had, in the context of a whole load of shit results mind you.
In simplistic terms, when you’re on the limit and suffering significantly… Just smile. Well, more to the point, think of something that makes you smile. Could be those German Volleyball twins from Uni, or the time you ‘enriched’ your room mates Shampoo bottle with extra minerals whilst in the French Alps, or got the chance to see cupcakes used as missiles… Doesn’t really matter what, just tap into something that brings a smile to the grill (Recommend you keep whatever it is on the downlow)
Er… Weirdo… Yes, scepticism is welcomed, but its a classic case of transference and if done properly, this actually seems to work. When I first read about this I scoffed like a pug at it, as it initially sounds preposterous, but if you have the poise to remember to do it, it actually works. Well, until you run out of smiles…
3. Don’t look down
There are a few good reasons to keep the head up and not look down… Regardless of what you happen to be doing at the time:
- You’ll notice you’re only 1.30 through an 8 minute interval where you could swear that it was at least 5 minutes done, and you already feel fingered
- You’ll see how spaz your pedalling style is as you’re fucked and this is instantly demoralising
- The mere physical movement of dropping the head instantly lets your subconscious know you’re beaten… Granted this point is low on science and high on making shit up, but dropping ones head is highly associated with general defeat, so don’t
- By looking up and fixing your steely glare on a distance object you’ll not only transfer the focus from the screaming in your thighs, but to whatever is down the road/trail. It also sends a message to those around you that your head is still, you’re composed and you’re about to fuck them… Even when that may be utter fiction.
4. Be the giver, not the receiver
Nothing to do with Grindr settings, but the overall concept is broadly along the same lines. The Belgian National TT Champion once said to me these prophetic words:
“The only way to cure the pain, is to make the pain”
Its also closely linked with the concept of ‘If its hard for you, its hard for everyone else’. In essence, if you’re the one dishing out the hurt, then chances are it won’t feel so bad. This is basically the core concept that all expensive boarding schools run on, irrespective of what their brochures may say. Simply ask yourself if you’d rather be the fingerer, or fingeree? Doesn’t take too long to realise its better to be the giver…
Worth noting that this approach may not work out if you’re the weakest in the group – But, if you try it and that’s the case, it won’t take long until you’re on your own to crawl home, so one way or another your pain will be cured.
5. Embrace the suck
As lieutenant Speirs said once to a Band of Cyclists:
“The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you’re already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you’ll be able to function as a cyclist is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All cycling depends upon it.”
Fucking Oath Ronald, take that essence into your next group ride with the gang from the office and see what happens.
That’s right – Just get used to the fact that if you want to ride fast, faster or fastest that its going to hurt. Its going to hurt in strange ways you perhaps didn’t anticipate and if you do it day after day, its going to hurt in ways you didn’t realise were possible. Embrace it, relish it and like most things in like – the more you indulge and experiment with it, the better it will ultimately feel. Get out there and start hammering some intervals, sure you’ll look like a cunt to start with, but better that than sliding into Jelly Baby land.
If you don’t want to accept that pain in some form or another is an essential ingredient in the greatest sport in the world, then that’s cool… You’ll just be missing out on some of the greatest aspects of riding a bike, the places you can go and the people you can roll with. Even when they stop talking and start dismembering you because you’re the only one weighing more than 70kg…