If there is one thing we all enjoy, it’s a good suffer.
It’s the key word for so many of us. Cycling without suffering is not cycling at all. It is our collective purpose in life to knit joy from purest misery, our mission to convert the heathens to our world of hurt.
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It is, of course, also the most overused word in the lexicon. When people start telling me about how much they ‘suffered’ on some 2,000 metre mountain of their own imagining in (probably) Derbyshire, I always feel completely comfortable just walking off, because I know they won’t even notice I’ve gone, so buried will they be in their own self-canonisation.
I only ever suffer on a bike for two reasons. The first (and more common) is by mistake. In general I can fix this problem almost instantly by pedalling less hard.
If that doesn’t work I downgrade my expectations of athletic ability even further, and pedal even less hard. This is a sophisticated technique known as ‘pacing your ride properly’.
Occasionally this still doesn’t work, more than likely because of hunger knock. On these occasions I regard myself as a failure rather than a hero.
A friend of mine, faced with this scenario in a student road race championships, simply got off, removed his numbers, and claimed he was a spectator. He had very much the right idea.
The second possible scenario of suffering is where I feel that suffering now might prevent suffering in the future. This concept is more commonly referred to as ‘training’.
I have, for the most part, abandoned this whole idea on the basis that I can, as I mentioned above, always solve the ‘suffering-in-the-future’ problem when it arrives by not trying to go so fast.
The other side of suffering is the suffering of others. Only this week I heard a colleague refer approvingly to “seeing a rider’s soul through his suffering”. I’ll be honest, by the point when I’ve seen a rider’s tongue through their suffering I don’t usually want to see very much more.
All the same, I do enjoy watching the suffering of others. In fact I enjoy it very much indeed. But this is not because I favour some unsettling quasi-religious interpretation of bad pace-judgment, or because I want to see the universe in a bike rider’s eyes, it is because I’m an enthusiastic amateur sadist.
I like kicking back, cracking open a beer in front of the TV and thinking, “Rather you than me, buddy.”
The suffering of others gives me no urge whatever to emulate them. Not least because ‘suffering’ is not in any way equivalent to ‘ability’. He who suffers most is not the quickest, and I’d rather be quick than miserable any day of the week. If I couldn’t have that, I’d settle for slow rather than miserable.
But perhaps the biggest problem I have with suffering is that it’s such a luxury. Those who prize suffering above all often look back misty-eyed to a time they’re too young to remember, when Jacques Anquetil and Tom Simpson and Raymond Poulidor did battle in the mountains armed with five gears (all too big) and wool shorts (probably too big as well).
They were doing it (for the most part) to avoid working for minimal pay down a mine, or because the alternative was 16 hours a day in the fields.
They suffered because they had to.
Most of the modern sufferers do it for the sheer pleasure of it, and that’s something that most of their heroes would find quite baffling. If you ever summon the ghost of Jacques Anquetil to inspire you in your suffering, you’ve only got his character right if he’s saying, “What the hell are you doing? You don’t need to do this!”
And if you ever summon the ghost of me, I’ll tell you the same thing.