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