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Rule #5 : Cycling's relationship with HTFU

Bernard Hinault Liege Snow
Frank Strack
9 Mar 2016

There's a certain need for toughness in the sport of cycling and in life, as we find out with Frank Strack's Rule #5 meditations

Rule #5 is perhaps the most fundamental of all Rules. To ride a bicycle is to push our physical boundaries. To ride a bicycle quickly is to push our psychological limits; it is our mind that allows our bodies to achieve what it believes lies beyond its reach. Cycling is steeped in a tradition of toughness and a willingness to go beyond what we believe we are capable of. This is the essence of Rule #5: the mind pushing the body beyond our perceived limits.

There is no absolute; it is a relative measure. It is observed any time we push through a resistance of some kind – physical or mental - whether that means attacking the group when your legs are already cooked, pushing to continue a ride after an unscheduled meeting with the Man with the Hammer, or whether simply gathering the courage to throw your leg over a top tube in order to become a healthier person. 

These things flow over into our daily lives. Sometimes it can teach us to stop fussing over things that need to be dealt with directly.

Rule #5 – aka The V – is a state of mind, a lifestyle. It doesn’t mean you can’t fuss about with aesthetics, complain about the weather, or worry about ancillary details. But it does mean you have to be tough, disciplined, and know when aesthetics should take a back seat to function. It means that although you have complained about the weather, you still go out in it to do your training. More than anything, it means you push yourself to do something when the signals coming from your body say to stop. Rule #5 permeates everything in our lives.

Ignoring the pain

My favourite movie is Lawrence Of Arabia. Everything you need to know about Rule #5 is taught in this movie. To begin with, pushing through to watch the entire thing is an exercise in perseverance. More poignant, however, is the conduct of Sir Lawrence; his success in Arabia was partly due to his kind nature and compassion, but mostly to his ability to channel and lay down massive helpings of The V.

In the most powerful scene of the movie, he lights a colleague’s cigarette and, upon finishing, allows the match to burn down to his fingers. His colleague watches on in amazement, before attempting the stunt himself. The match burns slowly down and he drops it well before the flame reaches his tender flesh. 

‘It damn well hurts!’ says his colleague. Lawrence calmly replies, ‘Well, certainly it hurts.’ 

The colleague demands, ‘Well, what’s the trick then?’ To which Lawrence says, ‘The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.’

The trick to becoming a better Cyclist depends on one’s ability to suffer. Riding faster is easy, after all; all you need to do is push harder on the pedals. Continuing to do so in the face of burning lungs and searing muscles is the element that separates the tourist from the Cyclist. The artist suffers because they have to. The Cyclist suffers because we choose to.

It seems the bicycle exists for us to push our boundaries. The feelings of freedom and flight break the shackles of our daily lives and allow us to move beyond the limitations within which we find ourselves confined. 

Initially, we’re excited about the range offered by a bicycle. Once we understand the range, we test the speed. Once the speed is understood, we test a combination of the two. Cycling appears to be designed as a test of our ability to push ourselves beyond the perceived limits of not just ourselves, but of humanity. The harder you are, the more successful you’ll be as a Cyclist, regardless of whether you’re a weekend warrior, an enthusiast, a racer, or a pro.

The Hardmen of Cycling have an extensive history in the sport. The tougher they were, the more preposterous their exploits, the richer the tales of their adventures have become. The races became tests of their strengths, endurance and perseverance. In the late 1860s, the first official bicycle race was held over the distance of 1,200 metres. A score later, bicycles were being raced over a distance of 125km. By 1903, the first Tour de France would be held over almost 2,500km in six stages. Each subsequent event was created to offer a new challenge, a new test of the athlete’s ability to battle the elements, each other, and themselves.

The greatest exploits are things bordering on mythology. The first rider to cross the fearsome Tourmalet in the French Pyrenees, Octave Lapize, is said to have called the race organizers ‘murderers’. (Hyperbole, not French, has always been the true language of the peloton.) These men, in the early 1900s, rode fixed-gear bikes with flip-flop hubs and moustache handlebars to match their own handlebar moustaches. To change gear, they would stop, unscrew the wingnuts that held the wheel in place and reverse the wheel to change to a larger or smaller gear. They did this in hot, cold, rain, snow, over dirt or cobblestone roads. The stages were three or four hundred kilometers in length; the riders started early in the morning and finished late at night. They were unsupported by team cars and mechanicals had to be repaired without assistance, and failure to comply was an offence that would have you thrown off the race. The toughness of these men cannot be over-estimated.

In the post-war era, the sport began to resemble what we see today. Derailleurs, down tube-mounted bidons, and drop handlebars were a common site. The racing was faster, the bikes lighter, a wide(er) range of gears, and the races shorter. Cycling was less a test of sheer persistence, but also a game of tactics and willingness to suffer acutely in order to drive home an advantage. 

Hardest of the Hard

Perhaps the most genuine tale of The V is Fiorenzo Magni, in 1956. He famously broke his collarbone in stage 12 of the Giro. He refused to abandon the race, and instead wrapped his bars and shoulder in elastic bandages to approximate some degree of comfort. Riding a bicycle batshit fast does, however, require the use of the arms in order to create the leverage required to turn the pedals over. To compensate for his inability to pull on the bars, he tied a tubular tire to his handlebars and clenched it between his teeth. He finished second overall. No one asked him to do this; The V comes from within.

Eddy Merckx was similarly gifted and is said to have had Rule #5 pressure-release valves installed in his cycling kit.

Eddy Merckx was similarly gifted and is said to have had Rule #5 pressure-release valves installed in his cycling kit. To Merckx, hurting his legs was par for the course; it didn’t matter if he was 10 minutes behind or 15 minutes ahead, when the legs twitched, he left the bunch behind and headed off on his own. 1969 is a season where he littered the history books with epic solo breakaways. At the Ronde van Vlaanderen, he broke away with 70km left to race. In true Flemish tradition, he did this in the rain, and into a headwind, although to be fair that is the only kind of wind they have in Flanders. Later that year, in the Tour de France, he broke away on Stage 17 while already holding an eight-minute overall lead; he attacked with a paltry 140km left to race. He doubled his lead. 

These Merckxian exploits are the stuff of legend, but only because he was successful. Any of his bold moves could have resulted in disaster; a poorly-timed smack on the head from the Man with the Hammer could have put paid to his escapes and reversed his fortunes. But he was called ‘The Cannibal’ for a reason, and that reason was his unwavering refusal to quit. Always pushing, always driving to be better, stronger, tougher. 

Fighting the stones

The roads of the Cobbled Classics are the easiest place on Earth to find what it takes to be a Hardman. The cobblestones of northern France and West Flanders in Belgium are brutal things; they are not like the stones you find on your city streets. Some of them date back to Napoleon, and all of them are rough, uneven tracks cutting through fields of mud and cow shit. Riding the cobbles takes a special kind of rider, the kind with lots of power and great bike handling skills. Much like driving over the washboards on a gravel road, riding the cobbles is best done at high speed. In flight over the stones, the bicycle rattles around beneath you in a series of micro near-crashes stitched together in endless succession. The rider needs to let the bike flow beneath them, to follow its course with steering resembling something more akin to making polite suggestions than turning the bars. 

Each cobblestone slams into the wheel and smashes the bike backward, sapping momentum out of the forward motion of the rider. The only remedy to this is to push harder on the pedals. 

That is in the dry. Merckx forbid the cobbles be wet. 

The riders who drink Rule #5 from kegs kept in the cellar are the ones who excel at these events. The harder the race, the thirstier they are for it. 

The Man with the Hammer

Cycling mythology speaks of The Man with the Hammer, and his wife, La Volutpé. The Man with the Hammer is a feared creature who pops us on the head, causing our strength to leave us. His wife is the seductive beauty of a day when we are touched by a grace that allows us to pedal with the strength of ten men in our legs and endless air in our lungs.

The Man with the Hammer has visited me frequently. We sometimes even set a place for him at the table, knowing that the day’s ride is designed with the express purpose of setting an appointment with him. Riding through a bonk is one of the rites of passage that each Cyclist should strive to endure. Last week, I rode 200 hilly kilometers with one energy bar in my pocket. Our meeting came two hours from home. Turning the pedals on an empty tank hardens your mind in a way that normal riding can never do.

My most intense meeting with him came on my first ride up Haleakala, a volcano on the Hawaiian island of Maui. It features the shortest route from sea level to 3,050 metres found anywhere on Earth. The road is paved from top to bottom and, because it goes to an observatory, it does not strive to seek the easiest and shortest path over a saddle, like a normal mountain pass does. For 60 long kilometres, the road rises relentlessly. 

He was waiting for me in the middle of a sweeping right-hand hairpin bend some distance before the halfway point. The remainder of the climb was less ride and more death march. But I persisted, and I look back on that ride with pride; I unearthed a special corner in my mind that I didn’t know I had, as I contemplated the inside of my skull for many hours, struggling up the remainder of that road. It is something to be proud of.

That pride and the lessons I have learned from that experience and others like it helps me face my life with the knowledge that I will persevere, no matter what challenge awaits. I will not quit; I will do what is required to be successful. That is the essence of Rule #5: Pushing ourselves to do what is required of us.

Frank Strack is the founder of velominati.com

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