How many times does the thought cross your mind? “I wish this could just end right now”, as the elastic to the wheel in front starts to stretch further and further, and the effort to close it gets more and more painful. A puncture, a broken spoke, something innocuous but definitive. A noble end, an irrefutable excuse. “Not a crash, nothing painful, just an end.”
And then it finally happens, the shameful truth emerges – the legs inadequate, the heart too weak, the line of riders drift away. Shoulders bowed, head hung low – you’ve been dropped.
Did it ever happen to Mercx? Did anyone ever have ‘The Cannibal’ for breakfast? Was Hinault ever humiliated, anyone ever lick his plate clean? Did that guy who beat you and the rest of the field on Sunday ever grovel in the wheels of stronger riders, ever ride himself into the ground only to finish dead last – or not finish at all? After all, we’re all human – right?
A bridge too far, a break too long, a field too strong. Eyes bigger than the stomach, ambition greater than the ability. Excuses obscure the reality, a myriad of reasons why it wasn’t your day. In the head all very valid and perfectly sensible hypotheses for failure, but they pass the lips in the guise of excuses, responded to with hollow sympathy and limp encouragement. You gave it your best shot, you can only do your best, it wasn’t your day, terrible luck… You just weren’t good enough and you failed – I know it, you know it. Sometimes the truth is best left unspoken.
Racing hurts, the suffering is inevitable. But it comes in various guises. The winner will feel the euphoria of effort, the warm glow of exhaustion. The dropped rider is tortured by the suffering, the stabs of cramp are like sadistic punishments – the pain with no reward. The will to succeed ebbs away, eroded by self-doubt and physical limitation.
Cut adrift, bobbing along behind the bunch, the physical relief is replaced by the crush of failure, disappointment, even shame. It may not strike immediately, it may have been there creeping up the whole race, but at some point it burrows away and takes hold. Legs grown strong from hours of training suddenly refuse to turn the pedals in circles, gripped by a weakness that only hours – minutes – ago seemed impossible.
But. But there’s another race only a week away, another chance – a weaker field, a shorter distance, an easier course. A chance to correct the mistakes, to make amends, to get an early night, eat well, train better, race smarter. Pick your fights, hide in the wheels – whatever it takes to avoid another DNF…
Or screw it all and go down in a blaze of glory. No one remembers a DNF except you – and then only if you choose to.