You will often hear cyclists talking of pain. A strong rider will be referred to in awe as being able to ‘hurt themselves’ in training, having a high threshold of ‘suffering pain’. A racer will ‘bury themselves’ in order to bridge across to the break. I don’t know what all this masochistic talk has to say about the imbalanced psyche of the cyclist, and I wouldn’t like to delve any deeper (I’m not sure I’d like what I might find). Needless to say, any succesful competitve cyclist will need to embrace a love of suffering into their lives.

Like the Eskimo and their many words for snow, the cyclist requires a whole new vocabulary to express the sensations experienced during competition. But without such shorthand, I’ve tried to convey some common varieties of suffering and exhaustion below. Unfortunately this is only a sample – there are too many miseries to describe here.

TT TORTURE

The so-called ‘race of truth’ requires a fair amount of white lies on the part of the cyclist. He asks himself ‘Is this pain really worth it? Am I really going as slow as this feels? I’m not going to win am I? How minor can a mechanical problem be in order to abandon?’. It takes an awful lot of cajoling to keep those legs turning. The Tester is a peculiar breed, ploughing a lonely furrow, suffering alone, without even a team mate to turn to and complain about this infernal headwind/bad road surface/’whole stupid sport’.

STAGE RACE FATIGUE

For most people the opportunity to eat with impunity sounds like a dream come true. But the novelty soon wears off – forcing down bowls of porridge and plates of pasta becomes tiresome. It’s only fear of running out of fuel at a crucial moment that drives each painful spoonful. Between stages the racer’s mantra becomes ‘conserve energy at all times’. Whilst laying down, immobile, almost comatose, the dilemma between not moving versus shifting your weary limbs in order to mix another protein shake, weighs heavy on the mind. Seeking out rest at every opportunity does itself become exhausting.

THE HILLCLIMB WHITEY

Hillclimbs are usually in the region of 2-5 minute efforts, making them unique in the world of road racing. Not short enough to be an out-and-out sprint, yet not nearly as long as even the shortest time trial – the hillclimb seems to have been invented with the sole purpose of ripping up your lungs and forcing your heart pounding to bursting point. Every last ounce of power and energy needs to be expended in those short minutes – if you’re not collapsing across the finishing line, you haven’t worked hard enough. In my hillclimb debut I misjudged my effort, starting off too quickly. By three quarters of the way I was starting to veer off the road I was getting so light-headed, nearly falling off into a ditch. I’m not sure I would have been able to crawl back out again.

*In the 1987 Tour de France, Stephen Roche was locked in a tussle with Pedro Delgado for the race lead. On the gruelling mountainous stage to La Plagne, Delgado attacked Roche on the final climb and with 10km to go had built a lead of nearly one and a half minutes. Knowing that he couldn’t keep with Delgado, Roche stayed calm and limited his efforts until the closing 5km – “I told myself, ‘Be calm. Stay steady. Wait for the five-kilometre sign, then give it everything.” With the mountain lined with fans, and unable to see Delago on the road ahead, it seemed that Roche’s chances of winning the Tour was over. Delgado appeared, zig-zagging over the road to cross the line – but with Roche only a handful of seconds behind. Uncertain of the extent of Delgado’s lead, Roche had buried himself in the final kilometres, pushing himself so close to his limits, that collapsing across the line he required oxygen and medical attention. As he was being put into an Ambulance, Roche was asked if he was ok by a French TV reporter. “Oui,” he replied, “mais pas de femme tout de suite.” (“Yes, but I’m not ready for a woman just yet.”) Roche went on to take back the time he needed against Delgado on the final time trial, and ultimately, to win the 1987 Tour de France.

PHOTOGRAPHY GRAHAM WATSON
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