Sometimes, if I’m out for a ride with a friend, and the usual conversation about power-to-weight ratios and interval-session protocols has waned, I ask them what they think cycling heaven would be like.
The answers are remarkably homogeneous: “Smooth roads, warm sun, great-feeling legs, a beautiful Alpine climb and Chris Froome hanging on to my wheel and begging for mercy,” would be pretty typical.
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Almost no one’s cycling heaven is all that extraordinary. One friend said that if St Peter gave him a cast-iron arse, that would be more than enough, and another said that what he wanted was a cheesecake that got bigger the more of it you ate, both of which sound frankly terrifying to me.
But these exceptions are rare.
If I ask the follow-up question, “So what would cycling hell be like, do you think?” the answers are much more diverse.
“Two degrees and driving rain, and my house getting further and further away the harder I ride towards it.”
“A lovely sunny day, smooth roads, Laura Kenny ringing the doorbell to see if I fancy an easy 50 miles, and the flu.”
“A sort of Groundhog Day where I pay £10,000 I can’t afford at a charity auction to go on a ride with Geraint Thomas, and then knock him off in the first mile.”
“Everyone gets a free aerobic system upgrade except me because the voucher they emailed me ended up in my spam folder.”
Gluttons for punishment
The sheer inventiveness of the answers and the enthusiasm behind them is inspiring. There is a personal hell for everyone. And this is just typical of cyclists. We’re much more excited by misery than by ecstasy, and we just love to talk about it.
Most of us would score our most memorable day on a bike to be the one we hated more than any other while it was happening. For sure it will be the one we’ll have told the most people about, and in the greatest possible detail.
My own personal vision of hell was a 12-hour time trial in 2000 where I cried for the last eight hours, and I can certainly recount it in a lot more detail than any of my experiences involving smooth roads and fluffy white clouds. All my friends can recount it too, for which I’m very sorry.
What I like best about repeating this sort of story is that no one except the most breathtakingly naive ever says, “Why didn’t you just stop?”
It’s an unwritten rule that you never ask someone to justify why they do all these terrible things to themselves when the consequences of just quitting would be so very small: a little embarrassment and a ride in a broomwagon. One misplaced question and the whole magnificent edifice of suffering, self-sacrifice and glory crumbles.
All the same, the only thing that separates the everyday suffering we all know and love from hell is knowing we can stop. Even if the personal disorders that pervade the cycling brain mean stopping will never happen, at least the agony is something we’re doing to ourselves.
Despite the variety of cycling hells available, and the fact that most of their basic scenarios are pretty familiar, the thing that invariably makes them hellish is that they last forever. What cyclists want most from a day is a little slice of hell.
None of the hells I mentioned above belong to my friend Bernard, by the way. When I asked him the question, he simply said, “It’s trying to go for a nice ride when some blithering moron keeps asking questions so that he can transcribe the answers and put them in a magazine column,” he said.
And fair enough. That’s been going on for quite a while already.