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?

Cyclist - - First Person - Words TREVOR WARD Pho­tog­ra­phy JENNI LESKINEN

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

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