Suffering

July 13, 2008

I’m writing this post from our hotel room in Lafayette, on our last day here before we hit the road again tomorrow. It’s occurred to me on and off during the ride that many of the people reading the blog aren’t cyclists and thus don’t have a sense of what riding long distances in open country is like.

To be frank, the riding at the outset of the trip was physically and mentally painful. We made that point obvious, I think, in our original posts, which is why I would throw out words like “pain” so frequently. Were it not for the spectacular scenery over the coastal and Cascade ranges in Oregon, I suspect the physical requirements of the ride might have made us seriously reconsider just what it was we had gotten into. Our problem was — and I can admit this now — that none of us, save for my friend Brian, were in good enough shape. Granted, all of us could ride 50 miles without much of a problem, but the kind of serious effort required for the 75- or 80-mile rides up and over mountains is another proposition entirely. For anyone who’s started riding a road bike and has done their first 30 or 50 mile ride, you know what riding distances longer than your body’s prepared to deliver feels like: the numb wrists, aching back, headaches, burning legs, cramped feet, sore crotch, aching shoulders, and on and on. On a long ride, nearly everyone at some time asks themselves why they are putting themselves through the experience. On very long rides, the sheer distances combine with the physical effort to wear down one’s resistance, revealing just how much will power one actually possesses. However, while the body is in pain and is therefore doing the screaming, the real culprit is the mind, which simply isn’t prepared to deal with the consequences of another 40 or 50 miles on the road, and which is all too willing to concede the body’s wishes.

Perhaps the most honorable word in professional road cycling is “suffering”, which in that context means the attempt by a rider to dig into his reserves as far as possible to win or in some cases — say, after a heavy crash or in brutal weather — even to finish a race. To have suffered, genuinely and massively, is considered by cycling aficionados as the bravest of all feats, for cycling is a sport steeped in oceans of pain. It is pushing one’s body and mind past their limits that separate the heroes from the goats, and to earn a reputation as a rider willing to suffer allows entrance into the ranks of cycling immortals.

Now, what we are doing here on this trip doesn’t begin to approach the extraordinary efforts put in by professional cyclists. In many ways our trip isn’t even the hardest possible trip by bike across the U.S. — that honor goes, without question, to those who ride unsupported. The mere thought of towing or carrying 80 or 100 pounds of gear up and down the mountains of the west, or pushing that mass against a strong headwind, makes me shake my head in disbelief.

Still, our ride is difficult, undeniably. We have had moments of genuine suffering: the climb to the top of the Teton Pass; the very long, last day across eastern Wyoming to the Nebraska border; fighting brutal headwinds in Iowa; laboring under a hot sun in humid Illinois; doing a full day’s ride despite feeling under the weather. Each time we’ve had to fight some kind of obstacle, encounter some type of discomfort, overcome a substantial amount of pain.

In contrast to the first part of the ride, however, we are in much better shape now. My legs are harder and my body slimmer (for which I’m grateful, because I was about 15 pounds overweight when we started). Our average speed is a good two or three MPH faster now than when we started, meaning that whereas our average was around 15 MPH at the beginning, now we regularly ride 18 to 19 MPH, weather permitting.

Greg LeMond, the first American champion of the Tour de France, reportedly once said that in cycling, it never gets easier, you just get faster. Our bodies are now capable of much more than when we started. Riding 80 miles in normal conditions is now a bit like taking a walk, but on occasion cycling rears its deliciously brutal head and delivers a painful object lesson in suffering, slapping us with a stiff headwind, the hot sun, an intemperate road, or an unexpectedly steep climb. Those moments make cycling, to be honest. May they never end.

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