The wages of suffering
For a pro cyclist, pain comes with a certain amount of financial gain – but what about the rest of us? The Velominati’s Frank Strack has the answer
The Rules seem to suggest we should suffer on the bike because that’s what the pros do. Then I read an interview recently with a pro who said he doesn’t understand anyone wanting to suffer on a bike who wasn’t being paid to do it. I couldn’t help thinking he had a good point. Rob, Southampton
Atlas shrugged, and the skies fell. For an eternity he held up the heavens unwaveringly. But for this moment of weakness, they toppled irrevocably to the ground.
Without straining the metaphor too much, I’m talking about ‘will’. The will holds court over all other qualities of the human being. Strength, fitness, knowledge, insight: they are all subject to our desire to achieve them. When the mind is strong, the human body can achieve the unimaginable. When the mind is weak, we are like leaves in the breeze.
I’m not a religious man, but it’s interesting that every religion I’m aware of speaks of suffering as being a crucial rite of life – it’s universally considered the cleansing force through which we develop as human beings. In other words, suffering isn’t something we do to emulate the pros, and it isn’t even something we do as cyclists. Suffering is something we do as people. It just so happens that cycling is an excellent tool to help us understand its value.
The relationship between the cyclist and suffering is a funny one. Ours is a particularly difficult sport. There’s something about the efficiency of the machine together with the sense we’re somehow suspended weightless above the ground that makes it possible to exhaust ourselves more comprehensively than in almost any other pursuit.
Our lives have become very easy. We don’t have to hunt food, which is good because I have absolutely no idea how to trap and kill a glutenfree taco. We also don’t generally need to be on the lookout for another animal trying to kill us as their own food, so long as you don’t consider distracted motorists as predators. Even farming and construction have become relatively easy if you consider the state of those industries 50 years ago before heavy equipment stepped in.
We don’t really know what hard work looks like anymore, and this presents the perfect opportunity for me to pose my Cat Theory.
It’s based on the fact that every cat I’ve ever seen is highly strung and generally acts like everything, including shadows and dust, are out to kill it. This is because cats are derived from lions and tigers and other badass animals that have a genuine need for a survival instinct. Except cats now live in our homes, and their lives are devoid of any credible threat. Absent of that threat, their minds create paper dragons out of everything that moves to satisfy their basic need to be on high alert at all times. In other words, their minds need a certain level of stress in order to feel normal.
Similarly, we as humans have a basic need to be intensely active. We were a hunting and gathering people who roamed about looking for food and trying to invent new ways to stay alive. Eventually we grew tired of walking all the time and settled down and began to grow our own food, toiling in the fields instead of gathering.
That’s the gist of our evolution, and if you keep following along the line, we’re now sitting at computer screens, typing for survival instead of chasing after wild jackalope.
Cycling allows us to suffer, so we may become once again more closely connected to our ancestors. We use cycling to rediscover the psychological rebirth that cleansing our muscles with lactic acid affords.
I can understand why a professional cyclist might not be so enamoured with suffering. They did it for a living and I’m sure it becomes tiresome just as any job might. Jacques Anquetil hated the suffering that cycling brought him – for him it was purely a means to an end.
But for the rest of us, for me at least, cycling allows us to be worthy of our suffering, to return to our roots as human beings.
Frank Strack is the co-creator and curator of The Rules, and a high priest of the Velominati (for illumination, see velominati. com). He is also co-author of The Hardmen: Legends Of The Cycling Gods (£12.99, Profile Books)