A Cyclist’s Guide To Suffering

Cycling, as a sport, is based on suffering. The spectacle of gritted teeth and rocking shoulders of the world’s most talented riders atop the French Alps, is something all fans of the sport love to see. The suffering of these cycling deities, observed from the comfort of our sofas or even the grass verge of the mountain itself, is a very real and tangible sensation to those who have ridden a bike to any sort of level other than to the shops and back. It is suffering that connects the Froomes and Pogacars to the 3rd Category middle age businessmen, with the over the top S-Works and “how much?!” jersey, and them to the Aldi kit wearing Chewbacca legged newbie, suffering is all for one and one for all, suffering doesn’t care about your million euro contract, your Rapha aero chamois, your new 18 grams lighter Zipps, or your fresh Decathalon bib-less shorts. Suffering is suffering.

There are riders whose ability to suffering is admirable and is done so with such panache that it becomes less comparable to us mere mortals. The first rider that springs to my mind is the recently retired Vasil Kiryrienka of what was Team Sky. Watching Kiryrienka pull the front of the ever-depleting peloton up the lower slopes of mountains is a beautiful sight, the rock solid core and shoulders acting as firm back board to a pair of firing quadriceps and calves. The suffering of the riders being dropped at a virtually unbelievable rate from the back of the group led by Kiryrienka is immense. Bodies pushed daily to perform a very specific task of pedalling a bicycle, push to and beyond the point of no return at the hands of Team Sky’s powerhouse. The blood lactate and pain being produced within the muscles of the rider doing the pulling is nearing breaking point, but the physical ability and years of training allows said rider to expel numerous rivals, leaving just the pinnacle of talent in the world tour to battle it out.

I often wonder to myself if the pain felt by those pulling and expelling is equal to those being pulled and expelled from the rear of the peloton. Riders lactate tolerance is hugely variable and is largely based on physiology as well as training. Top sprinters can produce upwards of 20mmols/L whereas purely endurance athletes may struggle to produce even 10mmols/L. This is a measure of how much blood lactate and hydrogen ions the body can produce for a given anaerobic effort. The amount the rider can produce means they can push harder during a maximum effort, leading to numerous positives but equally to negatives. One rider may be able to push the limits higher towards the end of an all-out effort, whether that’s a late 3 km attack or in a fitness test, usually leading to a positive outcome. The downsides to this is the rider maybe be left in the fetal position, whimpering, aside the finish line photographers, gasping for oxygen as the body struggles to cope with the sheer amount of blood lactate coursing through its muscles.

There are positives to producing lesser amounts of blood lactate during races and testing. The lesser the amount, the less oxygen and fresh blood is needed to clear out the muscles, thus allowing a repeat of the effort sooner. This begs the question, how much does blood lactate hurt? The slowly growing ache, peaking at red-hot needles trying to force their way from the inside of the muscle to the exterior, is that equally painful to each individual? I can produce 18mmol/L of blood lactate during a 3-minute maximum effort. Another rider may produce only 12mmol/Ls, but I have no doubt that our legs burn to equal extents, even with the differing levels. It is most likely possible to measure this, but even with a measurement, I presume the outcome is still fixed. The levels the body can produce is still the same, pain is still pain, and the body still has its limiting factors. The amount the body can produce and cope with can be trained and often is with high intensity training, but the rate of clearance can also be trained. Usually by repeated high intensity efforts with short rest periods between. Those lucky enough to have a coach will almost definitely do doing this sort of training already.

So far I have only written about physical suffering felt with each pedal stroke, and touched on the science behind the art of suffering, but delving down the rabbit hole of suffering in cycling presents more and more ways to make one suffer. The definition of suffering is the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship. To go fast on a bicycle, you have to essentially just press down hard on the pedals, resulting in physical pain felt in the muscles. In order to ride your bike fast up a hill with the world’s best, you need to train hard, have exceptional genetics, talent, the mental strength to withstand the unique pain felt holding a wheel three quarters of the way up a mountain, and one also needs to be lean. Optimisation of watts per kilo is directly linked to going fast uphill, and increased this ratio is the sole way to climber faster. Either produce more power, the watts part of the equation, or have less weight, the kilo part of the equation. The pursuit of “lean” is an almost religious undertaking, with an ideology of cutting, restricting, and craving. This is not the case at all if done correctly, in a flexible and sustainable way, but to many this is another form of suffering manifesting itself in riding faster. Ordering a salad when your friends order the double cheeseburger washed down with three pints of ice-cold beer provokes apprehension, simply missing out on the things most take for granted. For young aspiring riders around university age, this suffering can be all too much. Restricting one’s self from social environments such as nights out to avoid pressure to drink or eat “bad” food can lead to a downward spiral of self-destruction within the sport. Seeing social media posts of wild parties, music festivals, and nigh clubs, showing how the normal young adult lives their life, is a hard thing for some riders to see. Many fall victim to the thought of ‘is the grass the greener on the other side’.

It is more than possible to have balance and equality of living to win, and living to live, but it is a very fine and blurred line that stretches between both sides. Often the passion and drive of those who reach the top is either so strong that they don’t feel like missing out on the rest of life and growing up is more than justified for the sport and success. To others who reach the top, the balance in life is perfect, and sustainable. The times to enjoy themselves is equal to times when every minute on the bike, every minute of sleep, every calorie and its contents are calculated. Then there are those ridiculously talented people who with a mild level of dedication get to very high levels of the sport based on natures gift of genetics, but these people fall into a category of their own.

The main principle of this sport is winning races. To win, one must suffer beyond what thought capable. To get to the level of fitness needed to be at the front of the world’s biggest races is built through suffering in numerous aspects of life. Since the first pedal stroke of the very first interval session as an under 14 there has been suffering. Most of us who call ourselves cyclists ride our bikes out of the sheer pleasure of riding our bikes, suffering is optional but often welcomed into our legs in the pursuit of physiological gains, beating our friends, or beating rivals on the local club ride. It is all suffering to a certain degree, but it is done with love and passion for an incredibly rewarding sport. Occasionally things are taken too far and the love and passion is morphed into disgruntled longing for the other side of life, a life not dictated by training plans, watts, and calories. To some the love of the sport is far stronger than the suffering, the feeling of pushing the body to its limits, and finding where the overall limit of one’s capabilities lie outweighs the suffering. Even for those who relish the pain and let it consume their life in pursuit of being a world beater, cycling is, at its core, suffering.

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