“Suffering:” The word is etched in cycling’s lexicon, deeper, it seems, with each passing race and ride. The sport’s relationship with suffering — the word and the state of being — predates the internet. But in the social media era, when carefully filtered images of abrasions, mud-streaked legs, and faces lined by fatigue can and must be dramatically captioned, its use as a descriptor of life on two wheels has exploded.
And why not? The word has always fit cycling’s hardscrabble identity, one forged in the operatic newspaper coverage of those early Tours de France and Giri d’Italia. It fit perfectly into the narrative of “les forçats de la route,” the convicts of the road, grimly enduring all manner of hardships to escape the farm or factory life.
A hundred years later, it still applies. How else can you describe what Fabian Cancellara has undergone this season? One of the last great season-long campaigners, he cracked two vertebrae in a crash at E3 Harelbeke in March, then another two while wearing yellow at the Tour de France. He clawed back again to start the Vuelta a España, only to be felled by a virus. Spartacus called it a season in August, having struggled, endured, and, yes, suffered.
And what do you call Peter Stetina’s experience since hitting an unprotected traffic bollard in a sprint at the Vuelta a País Vasco, where he shattered his leg, kneecap, and three ribs? On the bike, the 28-year-old helped his BMC Racing teammates win stages at August’s USA Pro Challenge, his comeback race. Off the bike, he walked with a cane. You call that “suffering.”
Those are extremes. But this sport definitely has a baseline level of individual affliction, the routine suffering we deliver to — and accept from — our rivals or force upon ourselves. The burning legs and searing lungs, the churning gut, the tunnel vision — all the manifold symptoms of the body running out of the materials it needs to do what the brain asks it to. In cycling, these discomforts are somehow a reward.
“I cannot sprint against the fastest, and sometimes I struggle on the bergs at Flanders, but Roubaix is perfect for me,” Belgian brawler Stijn Vandenbergh said before this spring’s Paris-Roubiax, perhaps the race most closely associated with physical torment. “I like to suffer and make others suffer.”
In most contexts, that sentiment would mark Vandenbergh as a sociopath. In cycling, it’s a testament to his dedication to his job. Indeed, if the sport’s assorted gods assembled their own set of commandments, somewhere between Eddy Merckx’s “ride lots” and Major Taylor’s “don’t eat cheap candies” would lie Udo Bolts’ admonishment to Jan Ullrich as he struggled with a moment of weakness en route to his 1997 Tour victory. The hardened domestique’s advice to his young charge offered neither tact nor tenderness: “Quäl dich, du sau!”
Suffer, you swine.
Bolts was nails — ask anyone — and while most of us won’t stoically drag more fancied riders through 12 trips around France, there is a little bit of him in all of us. We are comforted by the fact that for all the affronts to our rights on the road, the hurled insults about Lycra and sexuality and more than a few hurled beer cans, the bad weather and popped collarbones and all of the other indignities of thousands of miles on the road, we are tougher than other people.
We suffer it all and smile. We smile because cycling, lest we forget, is not the way of the cross. To focus solely on the pain and grimaces and raw, bleeding knees in all their romantic, sepia glory is to ignore cycling’s inherent yin and yang, one that guarantees equal portions of not suffering — generous helpings of beauty, reward, and fun.
There is no other sport with such a refined balance, which offers so detailed a receipt of the physical currency spent and later refunded. Each leg-sapping ascent comes back to us on the downhill. Every too-hard pull on the front finds its counterweight in those seemingly impossible moments being sucked along at the back, spun out and effortless at the same time. Even the most relentless coastal headwind vanishes at the turnaround. (There are no tailwinds in cycling, as the saying goes. There’s either a headwind, or you’re having a great day.)
It isn’t always that simple. Rewards for the harder moments aren’t necessarily immediate. Winds that promised to pay us back on the ride back home can shift or die, and mountaintop finishes can deny the gravitational dividend. On every group ride and in every race, someone is stuck paying the bigger part of the peloton’s collective tab. But over the years, it all evens out.
For all the howling winds and cold rains or, worse, winters spent in basements hunched over warped rollers, there are the bluebird days that can’t be captured with a lens or improved with a filter. Terrible city streets and urban sprawl give way to smooth, rolling farm roads and high mountain passes. Every dizzying Wednesday interval session has its counterpart in a chatty Monday recovery ride.
And for all those intervals and other slights against our bodies — the fatigue; the rebellions of joints and muscles and organs; the failures of talent and genetics and, if we’re honest, commitment — there are those moments when it all comes together. Sometimes through careful planning, sometimes almost by accident, we occasionally fall into that state of grace where gaps close by magic, hills flatten out, and competitors seem slower. No matter how much the speed and effort might still hurt, in those moments, we’re not suffering.
Nor are we suffering after our rides, when we sit in the sun with friends we’ve made over the years or on a single ride — whom we have alternately vanquished and been vanquished by, attacked and nursed home. We drink coffee or beer and laugh at ourselves and our lives. We enjoy the still, satisfying fatigue that stems from the effort we just completed, of having emptied the tank and found out where the limit was.
It is the opposite of suffering.
There is true suffering in cycling, the kind that can’t be relieved by simply letting up or putting a foot down, resting, and recovering. You can see it in the sad journeys of the sport’s troubled souls, men like Marco Pantani, José María Jiménez, and Frank Vandenbrouke, and in the anguish of the families of Nicole Reinhart, Andrei Kivilev, Wouter Weylandt, Fabio Casartelli and all the others who went out one morning to race bicycles and didn’t come back. It is there in abbreviated careers of men like Mauricio Soler. But that suffering — that of lives profoundly changed or lost — is the suffering of humanity. Cycling is only the setting. The kind of suffering cyclists talk of when we recount how the road pitched up or the big attacks went down? That isn’t suffering at all. It is discomfort, pain, or an investment that pays off later, in the next race, on the other side of the hill, on the ride back home, or in a warm coffee shop after a cold January ride.
Call the sport “hard” or “challenging” or “painful.” It is all of those things. But don’t ever describe being alive and able to ride a bicycle as “suffering.”