I know Belgians who are not so tough. There. I said it. I will add that wearing the lion of Flanders on your chest/hat/socks will not make you tougher either. It has no mystical powers. At some point, Belgian-ness (and what about Wallonia?) became shorthand for toughness, for hardness, and while shorthand is good at conveying general meaning, there is so much more to hardness than simply riding around on crappy roads in cold rain. There is also more to being Belgian.

I am not tough. Let’s just get that right out of the way, even though I’ve pretended to be tough here on RKP and on group rides around town. My over-blown ego inspired me to crow about how cold it was or how much snow was falling or how far I went, but I’m not tough. I get cold, and I quit, and I fail to do rides I devise for myself because they’re too hard. I am tougher than some, but a long way off of some (many) of the people I know.

As the weather shifts toward raw and cold here in my New England home, I am, once again, faced with the limits of my own will. I peek through the blinds at the gray morning, feel the draft at the edges of the window, shiver in the core of myself, but still resolve to ride. Except when I don’t.

The people I know who are actually tough don’t talk about their toughness. They do long, long rides, by themselves, and you don’t find out about it except sometimes by accident. They ride in horrible conditions, but don’t blog/tweet/Strava the results, like so many virtual trophies. They ride the way they ride because they love to ride, and not to impress other people or rack up stats. Their egos don’t need to put their every effort on exhibit.

It’s natural to fetishize toughness when you’re a cyclist. Cycling is a hard sport. The hardness of the ride is an obvious way to measure it. The world is big, and we are small, and we rage against it and scream our lungs out trying to move the needle on existence.

Honestly, I am not even the toughest person in my own home.

All of this quickly devolves into cheap shorthand and ego-stroking bravado. The truth is, hardness is an elusive quality. Hard is the thing you haven’t done yet. Hard is the thing you don’t believe you can do. Dream about it, stalk it and hunt it down. Look for it in the dark. Seek it at the edge of your endurance.

You will find hardness occasionally, but you will not be able to mount it on the wall like a twelve point buck. Hardness has no fixed symbol, no permanent status. Hardness is not uniquely Belgian, nor the province of the fast and furious. Some of the hardest people I know are old and slow, strong and quiet.

The days are still shortening here in New England. The jet stream is yet to push the arctic air that makes up our winter far enough south to really test our mettle. But it is coming. It’s hard to know what kind of winter we’ll have, how much snow, how many truly frigid days.

I will try to be tough. I will go out and look for it, except on the days when I don’t because I just don’t have it in me.

Photo © Matt O’Keefe

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  1. Chris


    You have got an incredible way with words and an uncanny sense of timing your posts that I feel like we have been on the same rides. Keep it up.


  2. peter lin

    The hardest part for me is dressing properly in cold weather. It’s tough to enjoy a ride below 15 F with a NE windchill. Toughness is over-rated when your water bottle freezes. It crosses over the tough line and right into stupid 🙂

  3. LesB

    Don’t know where I fall in the toughness scale, but cycling brings out the toughest in me.
    Pre-cycling, this level of toughness was for other people.

  4. Nick

    Your words make me think of hardness almost like an old oak tree. Quiet, resolute, affected by the changing seasons but standing true no matter what’s thrown at it, a deep strength, consistency, and steadiness.

  5. Bryan Lewis

    Yo, Robot. We could have a mutual support society. Text me when you feel like wimping out on a cold day, and I’ll trash-text you into throwin’ the leg over.

  6. Paul

    A close friend of mine & I we’re just talking about this same thing last night. 15 years ago, we would just put on the layers and go out in 20 degree weather without even thinking about it. As years went by, eventually what we never thought about we started to think about. Slowly over time a rideable temperature has risen to the high 30’s and we don’t even think about going out in wet weather. I know I’ve softened over time. I think becoming a parent has a lot to do with it. Riding always has its dangers but they get amplified in winter. Things like black ice, lower visibility, drivers not expecting to see some guy on a bike when it’s flurrying. Nowadays, when I open my window and see my breath and the grass white with frost, I see it as an opportunity to go downstairs,throw the bike on the trainer, click on the iTunes and catch up on the music I haven’t listened to in years. Maybe I haven’t gotten soft…perhaps just a little wiser. The jury’s still out.

  7. Peter. Leach

    Robot wrote “… hard is the thing you haven’t done yet. hard is the thing you don’t believe you can do …”

    Let’s leave thoughts of toughness until we’ve done at least some of them.

    Until then, “… some of the hardest people I know are old and slow, strong and quiet. .. ”

    Thank you, Robot

  8. armybikerider

    For me….in my mind anyway….I find myself asking “why?” Why ride through the muck…the cold and wet? Why subject myself and my bike to those nasty conditions. I don’t race and ride my bike out of pure enjoyment. I mean I like to ride fast…push myself….feel the burn in my legs and lungs, and there’s nothing better than the tired sense of satisfaction after a hard 100K on Saturday and especially repeating the ride on Sunday at a faster pace. But if I miss a ride or 2 due to the weather, what’s the harm?

    I find myself facing this quandary every fall when I wrestle with the idea of buying a set of rollers. With the early sunset I can’t ride during the week and I miss it. But do I miss it enough to get some rollers…..or am I content with only riding on the weekends. After-all, I “only” do this for fun! I guess I’m not that “tough.”

  9. Michael

    I guess I am a fair-weather tough guy. I’ll ride in temperatures in the teens or single digits without a thought (but with thick gloves and a prayer I don’t flat), except on the days when that feels too cold. Then I’ll go ride rollers. Some days I have ‘it’ and some days, nope.

    This posting comes in the week that Jan Kirsipuu finally hung the bike up for good (as a racer). He retired a few years ago and couldn’t stay away. Instead, he rode in Asian races mostly, doing the tough stuff just because he couldn’t not do it. Estonians can be as tough as Belgians, I guess. And he was the only ‘other’ guy to wear the yellow jersey in 1999. Maybe the real winner that year?

  10. christopheru

    Sitting in the corner of the basement are a pair of studded tires, just waiting for the snow. I cannot wait.
    A couple of years back, I discovered the pure joy of riding in the winter. It is not tough, or rather does not have to be tough, but does take a very different mindset and approach to that which I had before.
    It is a slower thing, a more consistent thing. Sometimes it can be a very difficult thing. It can also be fun.
    Immense satisfaction can be had poofing (for lack of a better word) through 15-20cm of powdered snow on a MUP after a good snow fall when it is -10 outside. I smile every single time I look down and see my jacket has iced over. Frost on my helmet makes me smile.
    Does enjoying this kind of thing make me tough? No, I don’t think so. I do know though that it makes me happy, and prevents the off season blues better than any trainer I have ever owned.
    It is outside, it is in the sun, and that makes it much less tough than riding a trainer (at least to me).

  11. DavidA

    I dont thnink Belgians are any tougher then other bike riders but having lived and raced there for 4 and 1/2 yrs you just get used to the roads and speed and aggression and riding in 53 x 17, 19 in Jan. and Feb. Having to wash up in a bucket of water after a race or a ride if you have indoor plumbing(yes….I said indoor plumbing or showers) We put cyclo-cross tires and fenders on in the winter and slithered our way up to Holland on icy roads to ride the Dutch cycle paths that were kept bone-dry in winter and out onto the polders for several hours of circuts were you had to learn to ride in an plooi or waaier (echelon) in order to keep from being blown off the road by the wind. The speeds were always 3-4 kph faster and the gears several cogs higher and you just got used to getting your ass kicked until you could ride with those boys on their roads. The weather is wet and rainy, and there is always sand and grit in your mouth, chain and cassette. Its a differant definition of hard is all. Plus working in an industrial factory all day for most guys and having to really spin hard for 30 mins to make your work-legs feel good again…its all what you get used to doing at a higher level that makes a person tough. We are all hard in our own way.

  12. John in Miami

    Very apropo post Robot. I am in South Florida and do not have to deal with the cold as you have written, but even then, every man has his limits. In the group that I regularly ride with are two buddies that call ourselves the Three Amigos. One doesn’t ride if it’s cold (colder than 60), one doesn’t ride if it’s too windy (more than 15-20mph) and I sadly admit that I will not ride if the street is wet, let alone even raining.

    I understand that riding is supposed to be fun even if you’re on a sufferfest kick. But me, I have other things I enjoy and being “that” tough isn’t in my nature.

  13. ChasC

    Tough is a state of mind…weather just an enhancement to what you are or are not willing to put your body through. We suffer because we can.

  14. SusanJane

    Jens Voit. Stuart O’Grady. Among others. The pros. The apexes of hardness. I can’t imagine all the cold and pain they have suffered. Of course, the rest of us are ordinary mortals.

  15. tjalve

    Racing does do funny things to a rider, I still have a newspaper clipping on the wall of Gordon Mcauley and Hayden Roulston at the Tour of Southland riding with fingerless gloves and bare legs as the hail buckets down on them and the roadsides are 2 feet deep in snow.

  16. scaredskinnydog

    Like my Mama used to say “Tough is, as tough does”.
    @Ken- careful dude or the Belgians are gonna sober up and come looking for you.
    p.s. thanks for another great post Robot and Happy Thanksgiving to all!!

  17. Tim

    Way back when, I swore I’d never get on a bike again if it was below seventy. Years later, after I’d drifted away from riding, it seemed like the water was going to freeze in the pipes, and I had to do something. So I put on all my modern plastic clothing and went for a ride, and I found cycling again. But I’m not so tough. The things that help me get out at night or in the cold are my Nite Rider Cyclone(the most liberating thing! I laughed out loud the first time I went for a ride at night with that thing). Lake winter boots, Pearl Izumi lobster gloves, and a thermos of hot red zinger(of course) to throw in the water bottle halfway through. The tough guys see the thermos in my jersey pocket and all cheer me for a great idea. So I compensate for not being so tough with creature comforts, and it helps…

  18. burnt

    I think the Belgians and the Dutch are the hard men and women. IMHO the worst conditions to cycle in are rain with a temp around 32F. Those folks get many more days of that than I do on my turf in Minneapolis. I ride nearly every day and I make it a point to ride if it’s going to be cold because it would be a shame not to be able to say I rode on the coldest day of the year.

    It’s a lot more fun to ride when it is -20F with a serious wind-chill than it is to ride when it’s raining and 32F (it’s cold here but it’s a dry cold 😉 ). I will stipulate that grumbly old guy is correct but even when properly dressed there is something that saps one’s will when it’s precipitating all around and the temp is near freezing. It’s one of the few times when it’s not a joy to be on one’s bicycle.

  19. Jamie Elsasser

    Living in Colorado,our bad weather conditions don’t stack up to Minn. or NE. We have a huge cycling commmunity, roads and trails get busy. When we have crappy weather, the roads and trails are bare. I guess it’s not about being hardman, but the solitude found with so many not getting out. There is some beauty in a gray sky, cold air and no “on your left”. The escape from work, reality for 2-3 hours, sometimes the weather dosn’t care. It’s like the surfer that will surf all year in any conditions, just being out there makes things help balance the three way teeter-totter. Great post. Keep warm.

  20. Utah Man

    I ride 3000 non-commuter miles / year, in all conditions @ age 56.
    But I’m not tough.

    My wife is tough.
    But she doesn’t ride a bike like me.

    For several years my wife (53) has worked 7 days a week, two jobs… so we can survive and not lose the house to forecloser.

    Her ancestry is Dutch, if that meas anything.

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