That’s me up there, pretty physically and mentally distraught at the end of Rapha’s Hell of the North a year ago today. It wasn’t an especially tough ride at a little over 100km and 1,000m of climbing albeit with quite a lot of bridleways and terrain not normally suited to road bikes. It was the punctures that put the nail in the coffin; seven of the buggers. I ran out of tubes and gas cansiters and couldn’t inflate the patched tubes I had enough to mitigate pinch flats. I gingerly nursed my bike around increasingly frustrated and fraught forgetting to eat or drink. My club has the motto ex duris gloria1 but in this case there was little glory from the suffering.
The ride is a tribute to Paris-Roubaix which is raced again today2. Of all the races in the calendar Paris-Roubaix is probably the peak of cycling’s fetishisation of suffering: hard racing, faces of pain as riders push their limits, brutal cobblestones, all through landscape scarred by war and hard labour in mines and factories.
Suffering is by definition uncomfortable, painful, unpleasant – in short something you want to avoid and shouldn’t want to see inflected on others – so why is cycling so obsessed with it?
Inflicting on yourself I understand on a certain level. When I mulled over why I was doing the TCR, I concluded it was to see if I can. Seeing if I can will require me to test my limits and inevitably suffer. That suffering has a purpose though: there is a reward for doing and therefore a return on the investment. That includes the suffering I’ll go through when training. It would also apply in a race, where the ability to push harder, longer, deeper is what allows one athlete to beat another.
I’m less comfortable though with our delight in the suffering of others. The glory given to a rider who finishes the Tour de France with a broken pelvis, the shame from missing a time cut on an audax or the encouragement to go riding in atrocious weather. With professional athletes there is something almost gladiatorial about it which is offensive: young, fit men and women putting their lives and wellbeing at risk for our entertainment.
Other sports have had their epiphanies even if change is slow. It feels like cycling needs to turn the corner too. For sure push yourself as I will on the TCR to test your limits but don’t criticise others if they don’t. And at the top start taking injuries seriously rather than getting back on the bike – there are more important things that races in the long run.
1 Glory arises from suffering
2 And I’m be doing the Hell of the North again. This time with larger, tubeless tyres. Fingers-crossed they fend off the punctures.