MIND OVER MATTER
As Dan Martin rides half of the Tour de France with two broken vertebrae, John Whitney asks what makes cyclists so hard?
Most look as though a strong breeze would topple them, yet pro cyclists prove themselves time and again as sport’s toughest. Dan Martin’s heroic Tour de France ride to Paris, where he overcame a stage nine crash to still finish sixth overall, is the latest in a long list of against-the-odds rages against the dying of the light, the Irishman possessing the gait of a man three times his age whenever he climbed off each evening. Geraint Thomas cut a similar figure at the 2013 Tour. He’d crashed even earlier in the race - the very first stage, in fact, in Corsica - and had to be lifted from his bike by Team Sky soigneurs, such was the impact of his broken pelvis. Against all odds - against even his mother’s wishes - he finished and was no passenger either, still managing to be a key wingman to Chris Froome. Of notorious suffer-lover Tony Martin, his former directeur sportif Brian Holm once said that “with more people like him the Germans would have won at Stalingrad in 1943.”
Why - and how - do pro cyclists shake off cracked backs and grievous losses of skin, while footballers (make that male footballers, having watched the women’s Euros) are prone to going down like sacks of spuds and making mountains out of molehills when it comes to injury? For a start, good luck to a cyclist trying to con a commissaire and taking a tumble on the tarmac. More pertinently, the lack of substitutions in a bike race, perilously short contracts meaning they’re never far from the scrapheap and a prevailing ‘badge of honour’ attitude towards injury make it more likely a rider will push through the pain. There’s also the issue of concealing injury, which happens in other sports - boxing, for example - but never more than in cycling; Team Sky only revealed at the end of the Tour that Luke Rowe had ridden much of it with a broken rib. To let it be known earlier risks exposing weaknesses to the opposition. In cycling it’s a tactical move to play down injury or, better still, not talk about it at all.
Incredible feats have been achieved while injured and there’s always more room on the honours board. But perhaps there’s something bigger to say about the human ability to tolerate pain. Dan Martin certainly thinks so: “Shows how powerful the mind is in pushing through,” he tweeted after finding out he’d ridden over half of the world’s toughest endurance race with broken vertebrae.
Do cyclists learn how to tap into those pain reserves or does the fact they already possess them lead them to cycling in the first place? Cannondale-Drapac DS Charly Wegelius believes it’s more of the latter. “If you’re the type who enjoys a comfortable life and gives up when it gets tough then you don’t become a cyclist in the first place.”
Everyone, however, has the ability to go deeper than they think in their tolerance to pain. Whether you choose to depends so much on will, habit, experience and context.
In cycling it’s a tactical move to play down injury or not talk about it at all