Hunger Artists

LIEGE BASTOGNE LIEGE 1981Sean Kelly with Claude Criquelion at the 1981 Liege-Bastogne-Liege

There is a covenant between us. The pros suffer. We watch. They will not suffer if we do not watch. We will not watch if they do not suffer. Some of us take this a step further. We suffer too. We suffer to understand ourselves, but also to understand their suffering. It puts their exploits in perspective and bonds us to them.

What is this transaction? Is it fan and competitor? Is it sadist and masochist? Entertainer and audience? All of those and more?

To be sure, there is art in cycling. Some riders have the tactical nous to achieve victories without being the strongest in the race. I’m thinking of Sylvain Chavanel, Phillipe Gilbert and perhaps Heinrich Haussler from the current peleton. Other riders find ways to turn their pure strength into spectacle. Now I’ve got Thor Hushovd, Fabian Cancellara and Mark Cavendish in mind. Finally, there are the sufferers, those who push themselves out into the red. These are the riders who win the Grand Tours, Contador, Armstrong, even Cadel Evans, on some level. There is no rider offering a red kite prayer who is not creating something from his or her capacity to suffer.

There is an audacity to suffering. Who dares go beyond the red?

There is a Kafka short story titled,  “A Hunger Artist.” The main character is a once popular performer of fasts, a hunger artist, who falls out of favor with the public. Fasting is no longer appreciated. His straw strewn cage moves slowly from the center of proceedings  out to the periphery of the circus. Eventually, the crowds walk by without so much as noticing his shrunken form. He pushes on regardless, starving himself to death, only to be buried in a hastily dug grave, along with the straw from his cage. He is replaced in the cage by a sleek panther.

This is, I believe, Kafka’s view of the artist in general, that he is made to suffer to earn his bread, but at some point the bread and the art get separated. The true artist goes on. He suffers to the end of the performance, regardless.

And so, looking back at the peleton, we can understand the popularity of a rider like Jens Voigt or Kurt Asle Arvesen or even Franco Pellizotti. These are riders who put it out on the line, that push at the edges of what’s possible, but do it for the sake of the thing. They aim less at winning races than they do at creating a story about themselves, a story of noble struggle, or purifying suffering.

I read an interview once with Jens Voigt (the King of Suffering), and the interviewer asked, “What sort of conditions are good for you to win a race?” I’m paraphrasing here, because I can’t find the original. And Voigt responded, “When it’s rainy, windy and cold, it’s good for me. Basically, when things are bad for everyone else, they’re good for me.”

On another occasion Voigt described his strategy as basically throwing everyone into a blender of suffering, including himself, and seeing what comes out the other side.

As this winter descends on the colder climes (I’m exempting SoCal from that category, Padraig!), and the suffering ratchets up a notch or ten, I will think of what I’m doing, of what other riders are doing, as art. And as surely as no one hands me a bouquet when I walk through the door of the office, much less kisses me on each cheek, I will be satisfied with what I’ve done and know it’s more than simple hobby or transport.

I’m telling a story with my suffering. I tell it every day with the succinctness of a nickname. Robot. Robots don’t get cold. Robots don’t suffer. I’ve forged an identity from the way I ride, often alone, in the dark, into the wind. This is New England, after all.

Writing those words is much, much easier than riding them. Believe me. In my writing, I share my experiences, and you evaluate the truth of what I write, and you accept my suffering (maybe), and it bonds us (I hope).

We create this thing together.

How many saddle sores do we need to reach this point, and how much lactic acid do we need to be carrying? Is it uphill all the way? Is there a headwind? Will someone pace us? Will the echelons string across road like accordions of mercy and deliver us, just as a hole develops in the heel of our old wool socks?

Will the Earth spin under our wheels, and will all the trees blur into one, tall green spire? Will our chains run dry and our cables stretch thin on our way to this place?

In my mind, I can see it. The sweat soaks all the way out the brim of my cap and the lycra lets hold its grip. The road turns up and disappears, asymptotic in the distance. There’s a rasp in my chest and a creaking in my bars, and I used my last spare tube hours ago. It doesn’t matter, because the side walls of these thins tires are nearly gone. I’ve gone sallow in the cheeks, almost gray. I blend into the winter-bleached asphalt, pebbly and rough. And cars swish by, oblivious, the radio on too loud.

Image: John Pierce, Photosport International

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  1. Marco Placero

    Amatori know that cycling isn’t about, as my woman friend said while I square-eyed Tour coverage, “just a bunch of guys riding bikes.” Not about races, even winning them. Their goal isn’t health, camaraderie, tactics, scenery, challenge– those are perks. It is at basis dedication to a method of directing one’s soul. The machine is a vehicle for learning.

    A writer once stated that the mind is the rider. So what’s the driving force? “Hunger” reaches a description of the indescribable. Maybe riders like Jens are creating stories about themselves. Maybe more to the point; are they creating stories FOR themselves?

    Thanks Robot for more cold weather entertainment, when it’s hot too.

  2. Souleur

    wonderful insight, and whereas many will read it and not find it fulfilling being fluffed into a comfort zone that anesthetizes their soul, i take this and i need it like a fix for a heroin addict. I need to know there is someone else out there. Someone else who cannot feel their toes and are wiping frozen snot off their upper lip. It was 7 yesterday morning, and i gave in and didn’t ride. I will atone for this now….thanks Robot

  3. Dave

    Its nice to know and be reminded that I am not crazy. That others feel the same way I do. Even though I train with others, these things we do not speak of. It is the unspoken truth of our sport. My bike has helped release me from my darker addictions and has given me a profound outlook on life that I had never had before. Your words and insight have found a home.

  4. Joe

    Thanks for this post! I’ve been struggling with motivation to get out in the cold after a long (and wonderful) season of racing, but reading this made me truly excited for my next ride. Reminding me of the true satisfaction felt when suffering alone in the cold.

  5. lachlan

    gotta love Voigt.
    As an old team mate of mine used to respond…
    “whats our race strategy?”
    “-let’s attack.”

    Gotta lve the photo from Liege too, robot… it’s a classic. Compared to todays riders Kelly et al. always seems to look at once less stylish, less well positioned, slower, yet much, much, much harder! :o)

  6. MattS

    Wonderful words Robot. Timely in a sense; I’ve just cleaned up returning home form my planned 80k ride that became 60. The forecast called for snow here and there, and I only made it 15k before it began. Minus 4 celcius felt normal (freezing heels and toes), until I decided it was to dangerous to continue to my turnaround point….too many drivers out and degrading visibility. Upon turning around I realized I’d had a tailwind, and the snow was now pelting my bare face, hard. It didn’t matter. All I was concerned about was not getting hit. This was misery weather, but there was no suffering.

    Suffering is not being ok with the pain/discomfort/freezing. I think the hardest riders do not in fact suffer nearly as much as others. Rather, as Voigt intimates, they draw their strength from knowing others will suffer and they will not. Yes, they will hurt, they will feel pain, but they won’t suffer. The pain is welcome, it is good. We suffer when we don’t see the value in what pains us. Today I might have suffered, had I been out longer. I might have thought I was foolish to ride instead of ski. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I arrived home with the most bad-ass ice beard I’ve ever had, and a 60k ride in December in my pocket.

  7. blacksocks

    Robot, you’re earning a place in my heart with these posts…thank you!

    Among those I know who have the greatest capacity for suffering, the most defining characteristic is poise. The ability to see one’s purpose and place so clearly beyond the pain, and maintain a certain grace in spite of obstacles and limitations.

    As riders, we have all been to the threshold of our abilities, and measured ourselves against those who posses the power to go clear, and those who lack it…

    I know where I stand in that regard, and it is humbling indeed.

  8. Andrew Love

    I’ve always love that Kafka story, and knew that the message in the hunger artist has a direct link to the meaning that we find for ourself as athletes…

    As a 20+ year participant in cycling and speedskating (much of it in New England), this idea & Kafka’s words have rolled around in my mind, ideas falling like a chain across the cogs, or the perfect final inner turn to a 500m (sorry for the non cycling metaphor)..

    but today, I found the writer who really can stick in in that 55-11 intellectual gear, and make it cohere..

    thanks… brilliant word choices… better than I could have done… You ride effortlessly away on the mountain of ideas…. Maybe if I wasn’t a speedskater too.. all those laps in a circle have dulled my literary reflexes!

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