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In praise of suffering

The man with the hammer
Trevor Ward
5 Aug 2016

Where any sane human would look to avoid him, The Man With The Hammer is positively embraced by the cyclist. The question is: why?

The following references to ‘suffering’ are meant in the context of sport. Just because you can’t stand in the shower after a race or training session, it doesn’t mean you have suffered as much as a victim of war, disease, famine or poverty. 

Cyclists used to suffer in silence. Now we sing from the rooftops about it. Instead of a sign of weakness, it’s a badge of honour. You can get a ‘Suffer Score’ on Strava, subscribe to videos from ‘Sufferfest’, or enter a race called ‘The Suffering’.

One well-known brand has even adopted the slogan Ex Duris Gloria – ‘From Suffering Comes Glory’ – for its cycling club, and published a book called Kings Of Pain

Suffering is now a USP.

Inevitably, it’s us amateurs who make the biggest deal about suffering. For the professionals, it’s just another day at the office. When I interviewed Geraint Thomas about completing the 2013 Tour de France with a broken pelvis, he made it sound as run-of-the-mill as burning his toast.

That’s fair enough. He’s paid a six-figure salary to ride his bike. No one’s paying me to go and ride in the rain for five hours. I’m entitled to moan about my pain.

In his 1978 book The Rider – recently republished and regarded by many as ‘the bible’ of suffering – author Tim Krabbé tells Dutch pro and Tour veteran Gerrie Knetemann, ‘You guys need to suffer more, get dirtier. You should arrive at the top in a casket – that’s what we pay you for.’ (This was a decade before Stephen Roche needed oxygen after collapsing at the top of La Plagne and could only communicate by blinking.)

Knetemann – who would go on to become World Champion – takes a slightly different view: ‘No, you guys need to describe it more compellingly.’ This, in a nutshell, explains how suffering became sexy.

In the days before live TV coverage of big races, fans would rely on radio broadcasts and newspaper reports. The commentators and journalists would often resort to hyperbole and hysterics to describe the events unfolding on the road. A rider’s grimace would take on apocalyptic significance. 

One of the greatest sports writers was L’Equipe’s Antoine Blondin, who covered 27 editions of the Tour and of whom Bernard Hinault said, ‘The most banal event becomes significant to Blondin. He has only to see it
and write about it. He raised the status of the Tour by giving it his own cachet – it became a myth to be renewed every year. No matter how predictable the race, he could maintain the interest in it.’

And of course before the modern, hi-tech contrivances, scientific advances and ‘UCI Extreme Weather Protocol’ enjoyed by today’s peloton, riders back in the day really did suffer. Only eight of the 81 who started the 1914 Giro d’Italia made it to the end of what is considered the toughest Grand Tour in history because of relentlessly bad weather and stages averaging 400km in length. 

Sure, Bradley Wiggins described the last few laps of his 2015 Hour record as ‘horrific, really painful’, but who’s to say whether his suffering was any more or less than that of Londoner Freddie Grubb, who preceded him as a British Olympic TT medalist by a century and who was one of the 44 riders who abandoned that 1914 Giro on the first stage after 11 hours of cycling?

In his autobiography, The Climb, Chris Froome describes himself as ‘a glutton at the punishment buffet’ and says pain ‘is the friend that always tells me the truth’.

Allowing for the obvious – that suffering is relative – I’ve endured my fair share of pain on the bike, but I’ve never considered it a ‘friend’. It’s just a consequence of pushing myself hard – almost vomiting after a club hill climb comes to mind – or enduring abysmal weather. A five-day slog through a Portuguese monsoon made me look deep into my soul and curse the day I’d ever set eyes on a bicycle.

In The Rider Tim Krabbé is disappointed that on each of his ascents of Ventoux, he arrived at the top ‘feeling fresh’, while the likes of Gaul and Merckx had required medical assistance. He should have pushed himself harder, like I should really have vomited at the top of my hill climb. But how can suffering be a barometer of effort when it’s such a subjective term?

Suffering has its place in cycling, but for me it’s best lived vicariously, through the exploits of the pros. When a pro suffers – whether it’s Nibali cracking on a climb or Cancellara getting off and pushing up a cobbled hill – it gives hope to all us couch-bound mortals. It shows that our heroes are only human too.

Regardless of how we define suffering, there is a reason why cyclists have a penchant for enduring it – whether it be in the form of bad weather, a monstrous climb or some other challenge. It’s a primeval rebellion against how cosseted and spoiled modern life has made us. 

To quote from The Rider again: ‘Instead of expressing their gratitude for the rain by getting wet, people walk around with umbrellas. Nature is an old lady with few suitors these days, and those who wish to make use of her charms she rewards passionately.’

In other words, it doesn’t hurt to go out and suffer once in a while.

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