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The Sufferfest and the joy of suffering

Sam Challis
16 Sep 2015

The virtual world of The Sufferfest training video has been made painfully real. Cyclist heads to the Sufferlandrian camp in Switzerland.

This is not the first time that Cyclist has been in a world of pain, but it is perhaps the first time that this world has been given a name: Sufferlandria. To be more precise, I’m in the UCI headquarters in Aigle, Switzerland, which for a short time has been invaded by the twisted minds behind the popular (some would say fiendish) Sufferfest training videos. While the staff of the sport’s governing body go about their daily business, I have joined a group of Sufferlandrians to be put through my paces in a range of training sessions.

The longest week

Over the course of the week-long camp, the morning sessions concentrate on fitness, while the afternoon sessions focus on improving skills in a range cycling disciplines, from road racing and time-trialling to track riding and BMX. But exactly where did the phenomenon of Sufferfest emerge from, and how did it come to take physical form within the offices of the UCI?

‘It started when I was just training for sportives and things like that – trying to be fit in the wintertime,’ says David McQuillen, founder and ‘chief suffering officer’ of The Sufferfest. ‘I was riding an indoor trainer and just dreading it, it was so boring. I remembered when I was racing as a kid I used to watch old Tour de France movies, so I thought I’d go on YouTube and find some.

Sufferfest team talk

‘They were inspiring but they weren’t structured workouts, so I taught myself how to edit video, downloaded some clips and made my own videos. I gave them to some friends and they liked them, so I put them up on iTunes as a podcast and all of a sudden thousands of people downloaded it. I didn’t have the rights to the video or the music so I panicked and took them down, but thought maybe I was on to something.’

It turned out McQuillen was indeed on to something. The Sufferfest training videos are now used worldwide by cyclists looking to invigorate their indoor training. As The Sufferfest continues to develop, McQuillen’s original videos have been joined by more recent additions developed by elite coaches, such as Stephen Gallagher of Dig Deep Coaching and Neal Henderson of BMC Racing.

‘I think we really tapped into people’s desire to push themselves to a point where they can be really proud of themselves,’ says McQuillen. ‘The image of most cycling brands is quite boring – it’s all dramatic shots of people looking cool on bikes. So I thought people needed something different to be inspired, something with a story and humour to tell them that suffering is OK, and even that you can love it.’

Sufferfest founders

This narrative is integral to every video and a unique aspect of The Sufferfest. The brutal interval sessions are tempered with humour and a sense of belonging to a wider community – the nation of Sufferlandria, which has its conceptual capital city at Sufferlandria.com. Here members can learn the culture of the nation, with a Facebook group providing a forum for them to communicate and engage with a supportive community. The solidarity between Sufferlandrians is enhanced by the smart way the training sessions remain relevant to all riders, regardless of ability or fitness.

Neal Henderson, coach at BMC Racing, says, ‘There’s no comparative element when using The Sufferfest videos to help you train. Everything is based on perceived effort, so even while some people might be strong and powerful racers and others just hobby cyclists, each person is working at their own effort level. It’s this common ground that allows people to relate, so that community feel was an inevitability.’

From virtual to physical

The popularity of Sufferlandria as a national identity inspired McQuillen to look at running a national team camp. ‘Just like I initially made the videos for myself, I designed this camp for me. I’m a normal guy with normal commitments. I don’t have a lot of time to train and I was never a very good cyclist but I always dreamed of being on a national team. So I thought, well, we’ve already created a nation so why not create a national team that I could be a part of, and also give other Sufferlandrians a chance to do something they’d never normally be able to do? We first approached the UCI two years ago, and initially it refused. It’s not a commercial organisation and this was a commercial camp, but thanks to the brilliant efforts of their sponsors coordinator, Emmanuel Blanchard, it saw that this was a grassroots opportunity to open up the UCI.’

Sufferfest track riding

Louis Chenaille, press officer for the UCI, explains the decision: ‘One of our aims is to encourage people to take up any form of cycling. The Sufferfest has been a sponsor of the UCI for several years and we love that it encourages people to cycle whatever your lifestyle or time commitments.’

The purpose behind these camps, according to McQuillen, is to make anyone a better rider. ‘The Sufferfest videos are different to normal videos so The Sufferfest camp had to be different to normal camps,’ he says.

Reports from those who Cyclist talked to afterwards suggest the Sufferlandrian National Team Camp was a runaway success, with people highlighting the friendly competition and emphasis on personal development. Many commented that it maintained the tone of The Sufferfest videos. Even UCI president Brian Cookson seemed impressed: ‘Feedback was really positive and the camp has given us valuable insight for joint activities in the future.’

As the camp’s venture comes to a close, McQuillen concludes, ‘I’m so proud of what we’ve achieved, but more than anything else, I’m most proud of the incredible community of Sufferlandrians that has emerged. I’ve never been a part of something so fun, positive, supportive and inspiring. And painful. Yeah, it’s pretty painful.’

Contact: thesufferfest.com

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