Dr Hutch: When cyclists use the term 'pain cave' they hurt themselves, and fellow riders

Cycling Weekly's columnist explains why the Zwifter's favourite colloquialism - 'pain cave' - is stupid

Dr Hutch in his own pain cave
(Image credit: Alamy/Future edits)

If you want some idea of how little influence I have at Cycling Weekly, I’ll point you in the direction of the regular feature our print magazine (opens in new tab) now has about readers’ “pain caves”.

If we cyclists, as a group had sat down to brainstorm the most instantly effective means of making ourselves look very, very strange to outsiders, this name is it. Look at it this way, if someone called at your house and over a cup of tea you casually asked if they wanted to see your pain cave, one of two things would happen. Either they’d run away so fast they’d leave a human-shaped hole smashed in your front door, or you’d end up showing your turbo trainer to a deeply disappointed person who was actually expecting to be tied up and whipped with a handful of double-butted spokes. Neither of these scenarios will be good for your reputation in the neighbourhood.

“Pain cave” is a stupid name. It’s an extension of the “hardman” thing. (See also “Most brutal sport in the world” and “Aren’t footballers pathetic?”) If you met a rower who kept a Concept 2 in their agony annex, what would you think? Exactly. “Pain cave” might have started ironically, but it’s solidified into something we’re taking much too seriously.

I might be prepared to cut you some slack if you really call it “the pain cave” all the time with your family, as in, “Sorry dear, I couldn’t hear you because I was in the pain cave.” But one of the reasons I’m letting you off is because I don’t like to kick someone just before their marriage disintegrates. Using the phrase “pain cave” is the precisely the sort of thing the phrase “unreasonable behaviour” was designed to deal with.

This might be the point to admit that my house includes a “gym”. This is embarrassing, and slightly hypocritical. The gym contains a Wattbike and a 14 kg kettlebell. The Wattbike is for sitting on and the kettlebell is for propping the door open to stop the place getting too hot.

Acts of Cycling Stupidity

A friend reminded me of a road race from long ago where one of our teammates was up the road in a 2-up break with less than 10 km to go.

The bunch was indecisive. A chase would start, then peter out. Another of our teammates moved to the front of the bunch. We assumed he was going to do a bit of blocking, but instead he put in the biggest 5 km of his life to almost single-handedly tow the bunch back up to the break. In the end none of us made the top ten.

When challenged (with some force) about this tactic after the race, he looked crestfallen. “I’m sorry, I really am. I just wanted to get near enough to see how the sprint worked out.”

But at least that’s all it contains. There is nothing intended to inspire or motivate. There are no jerseys hanging up (mine or anyone else’s), no framed pictures of me clamping Geraint Thomas into an awkward selfie. I don’t have any bike components nailed to the wall and reclassified as “art”. I have managed to make at least one room in my house something other than a shrine to myself. The downstairs loo might have everything short of an altar, but the gym is just a small room with a bike in it.

The most spectacular set ups of all belong to the pros (such as this 'pain cave' belonging to Ashleigh Moolman Pasio). In one e-racing event I noticed one rider who had a stunning picture of a vast mountain vista behind him. Careful inspection revealed this picture had no frame, no reflections on the glass and had birds flying about in it. It was a background of genuine mountains, viewed from a delightful Pyrenean terrace. When he subsequently referred to it as a pain cave, I decided that hell was too good for him.

But if we could call it something else, I do like the idea of dedicated training spaces. Indoor training used to happen in garages, kitchens, bedrooms and sheds. We were surrounded by old paint tins, kettles and discarded socks. Everyone took the bike and the trainer away afterwards and stored them out of sight.

The whole process was furtive. We were a bit embarrassed not to be out on the road in the pouring rain or the freezing darkness, like a proper hardman/woman. The trainer was not for those willing to suffer, it was for those trying to avoid doing so at all costs. Proper cyclists went out, however dreadful out was.

Now, at last, we’re in and proud.

Dr Hutch writes for Cycling Weekly every week. To read more of his columns you can subscribe via Magazines Direct, save on the cover price and get the magazine delivered to your door. (opens in new tab)

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Michael Hutchinson is a writer, journalist and former professional cyclist. As a rider he won multiple national titles in both Britain and Ireland and competed at the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games. He was a three-time Brompton folding-bike World Champion, and once hit 73 mph riding down a hill in Wales. His Dr Hutch columns appears in every issue of Cycling Weekly magazine


As a writer, he wrote the award winning The Hour about his attempt on the sport’s most famous and sought-after record. He followed that up with Faster, about the training, the science the genetics and the luck behind the world’s fastest riders, and Re:Cyclists, a history of cyclists from 1816 to the present day.


He’s written for outlets ranging from Cycling Weekly to the New York Times, and has presented and and commentated for the BBC, Eurosport, Channel 4, and Sky Sports.


Before he did any of that he was a legal academic at Cambridge and Sussex universities. He now lives with far too many bicycles in London and Cambridgeshire.