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Pain, not suffering in cycling

I watched Paris-Roubaix a few weeks ago, and I must confess it reminded me of how hard cycling really is. Cycling is synonymous with pain and suffering, through the training, the crashes and the disappointment.  It’s at the heart of the sport, and it’s what makes it great; and through this pain is how great champions of the sport were heated, tested and formed into the legends we will always remember. It’s what makes the glory of a goal accomplished so sweet.

At the end of a race or hard ride you’ll hear the “suffer fest” phrases quite a lot.  On TV coverage, the commentators will say “look at the suffering in his eyes”. And on Strava the ride titles are sometimes a laugh more than anything else. Riders like Tony Martin have spoken at length about what it takes to win a world title in the TT, and how to cross the pain barrier. Bradly Wiggins has also gone into the detail of what he experienced while taking on the hour record. But let’s not get too far into all of that. Instead, let’s look at the 2 sides of a coin: pain and suffering.

Riders in the tough spring classics

What is suffering? 

Suffering can be defined as extended periods of discomfort, hardship and pain. It’s chronic. It can be in the form of cancer or terminal illness, living in a gutter in the middle of winter while starving, or living in a deteriorating situation with no hope in sight. The most notable part aspect is that it’s out of our control, there’s no clear end in sight and we can’t stop it!

What is pain? 

Simply put – It’s suffering we can stop.  No matter how hard and unbearable the pain, at any moment we can turn the switch off and it’ll stop (forget the lactate!). Even though we don’t like to admit it, and don’t do it often, at any moment during a climb or hard interval, we can pull the plug and the pain will stop. There’s a clear goal (or reason/purpose) in sight, and it’s completely in our control.

Marco Pantani during the 2003 Giro, by Watson

Do you see the difference?

Cycling is a tough sport, and extremely painful, one of the most brutal sports there is, and we can be proud of that fact! It’s almost cult like, which in a way is pretty cool! But my friends and fellow sadists, it’s not suffering!  Sure, there are the troubled souls of the sport like Marco Pantani, a true legend of the sport, but one who unfortunately let his life fall apart and genuinely suffered, but as with everything, that’s the exception. Once you’ve been through true suffering or seen someone go through it, I have no doubt you’ll agree with me.

So what can we draw from this? Well I’d like to think encouragement!  It’s not as bad as we think it is, next time when you’re climbing a mountain or doing a brutal interval, think about the pain you’re experiencing this way: there are people out there experiencing the same pain, or more, who can’t stop it.  So it might seem hard, but it will be done at the top of this hill or end of this stopwatch; and then you can go home and recover, have a coffee, a beer and a laugh; and of course come back tomorrow!

Max Levy celebrating, by Drew Kaplan

For every bit of pain you experience on the bike, cycling rewards you. For every brutal climb, there’s a thrilling decent; for every head wind, there’s a tailwind; and for every painful pedal stroke, there’s that single stroke of glory at the finish line. So when you’re at your limit, the pain is too much, and you want it to stop so badly; just think about the people who are going through the same pain, but can’t stop it; they’re really suffering.  Draw some inspiration from them, and if you know someone like that, do it for them.

The sprint finish of Milan San Remo 2017, by Tim de Waele

It’s all about your attitude towards a given situation; choose the way you perceive it. If you can find the purpose in it, and see the end goal in sight, you can get through a whole lot more than you thought you could. And at the end of it all, it will be glory and reward so sweet.

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom

– Viktor Frankl

At the end of the day, after all the “suffering”, up’s and down’s, good and bad luck, I hope you can see the absolute beauty of the pain in this great sport. And what a privilege it is to be alive, and chase your dreams on a bike!

Matthew de Freitas

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