In praise of… Suffering
Where any sane human would look to avoid him, The Man With The Hammer is positively embraced by the cyclist. The question is: why?
he following references to ‘suffering’ are meant in the context of sport. Just because you can’t stand in the shower after a race or training session, it doesn’t mean you have suffered as much as a victim of war, disease, famine or poverty.
Cyclists used to suffer in silence. Now we sing from the rooftops about it. Instead of a sign of weakness, it’s a badge of honour. You can get a ‘Suffer Score’ on Strava, subscribe to videos from ‘Sufferfest’, or enter a race called ‘The Suffering’.
One well-known brand has even adopted the slogan Ex Duris Gloria – ‘From Suffering Comes Glory’ – for its cycling club, and published a book called Kings Of Pain. Suffering is now a USP. Inevitably, it’s us amateurs who make the biggest deal about suffering. For the professionals, it’s just another day at the office. When I interviewed Geraint Thomas about completing the 2013 Tour de France with a broken pelvis, he made it sound as run-of-the-mill as burning his toast.
That’s fair enough. He’s paid a six-figure salary to ride his bike. No one’s paying me to go and ride in the rain for five hours. I’m entitled to moan about my pain.
In his 1978 book The Rider – recently republished and regarded by many as ‘the bible’ of suffering – author Tim Krabbé tells Dutch pro and Tour veteran Gerrie Knetemann, ‘You guys need to suffer more, get dirtier. You should arrive at the top in a casket – that’s what we pay you for.’ (This was a decade before Stephen Roche needed oxygen after collapsing at the top of La Plagne and could only communicate by blinking.)
Knetemann – who would go on to become World Champion – takes a slightly different view: ‘No, you guys need to describe it more compellingly.’ This, in a nutshell, explains how suffering became sexy.
In the days before live TV coverage of big races, fans would rely on radio broadcasts and newspaper reports. The commentators and journalists would often resort to hyperbole and hysterics to describe the events unfolding on the road. A rider’s grimace would take on apocalyptic significance.
One of the greatest sports writers was L’equipe’s Antoine Blondin, who covered 27 editions of the Tour and of whom Bernard Hinault said, ‘The most banal event becomes significant to Blondin. He has only to see it and write about it. He raised the status of the