Learning the Bonk

Learning the Bonk

We were nearly 50 miles into what was supposed to be a 50 mile ride, not far by my standard of the time, but I was coming back from a shoulder injury, and it was the hottest day of the year so far, and what with the ride being near the Central Coast, just east of Lompoc, temperatures were already in the 90s, baking the fields of lettuce surrounding the little hill we were on, and that combined with my time off the bike meant my endurance wasn’t what I thought it was, plus we’d screwed up a turn, taking us off course for a good dozen miles; though we were back on course, our error was going to see us finish later than expected and I couldn’t figure out how we could still be so far from our finish based on our route sheet, a reality that utterly scrambled me.

What I didn’t know was that the organizer of the charity ride didn’t know much about cycling and they had given us the route to a metric century. This might have been tough for anyone to figure out on the course due to the simple fact that they had given us turns but no intermediate distances.

I couldn’t figure out much, honestly, because I was bonking.

My girlfriend looked down at my bike and noted that I had yet to drink either of my bottles. “Take a drink,” she said.

“I don’t need a drink.” In my memory, correctly or not, my teeth were clenched.

She suggested it again. Somehow she got me to pull over. When I rested my thigh on the top tube—bare titanium—it was hot to touch. I believe she employed a ruse, suggesting that she needed to stop in the shade. She took a few bites of a bar and sat down on the broken asphalt. With little else to do, I put my bike down and then sat down beside her. The air was utterly still beneath that oak. I was so dehydrated the Gatorade in my bottles seemed soda sweet.

My next memory is of me crying.

For as many times as I’d bonked in my life, I hadn’t seen that one coming and it broadsided me like a dump truck with no brakes. Given the conditions of our relationship at the time (we were so on-again-off-again we could have doubled for a strobe light at a dance club), I spent that year and a few successive ones confused about much of my life. Part of what confused me is how gentle she was being with me.

What I know now is that I was also depressed, one that would deepen over the next three years to the point that I began to explore ways to ease the burden of those around me. That’s how depression can go.

That my depression was indistinguishable from my carbohydrate-depleted state says much less about me than it does about depression and the nature of bonking. From where I sat at the time, the two were indistinguishable. And only now am I beginning to appreciate how lessons from one can inform the other.

My first bonk was little different from my first depressive episode. Sure, that bonk only lasted part of a single day, as opposed to six months, but once I got off the bike, I was emotional, testy; my body language spoke of defeat. I scowled. Everyone around me was an ass, and I know that’s not statistically possible. I wasn’t terribly nice to my (different) girlfriend at the time, a woman smart enough to see my needs better than I could, and sweet enough to act on them.

On both occasions I didn’t know what was happening for the simple reason that I didn’t know what either bonking or depression were. It’s hard to identify something you’ve never encountered. And without understanding what was happening, I didn’t know how to improve my situation, at least not at first.

Bonking isn’t what I’d call a useful tool, but it has taught me lessons. Having done it so many times, I can feel one coming long before it arrives, and that gives me a chance to brace myself, to pull away from the stress of the effort I’ve been giving, to downshift to a pace I can sustain and to feed myself with whatever is handy. I’ve bought a Coke because I know that in addition to the energy I’ll get from the calories, my mood will brighten thanks to the caffeine and sugar. It’s a patch, to be sure, but a patch only needs to be good enough to get you back safely.

Another grand truth I’ve learned thanks to the bonk is that when I can’t take a pull, I can’t help you; put another way: If I’m not able to meet my needs, I’m nearly useless to anyone else. It’s why self-care is so critical; make sure you’re fed and hydrated so you can help others.

Among the uglier truths I’ve encountered is that there are people who want you to bonk in the way they are most comfortable dealing with. They want you to announce you are bonking, rather than wait to have to figure it out because you’re falling off the back. They want you to have enough food so they don’t have to share theirs. They also want your bonk not to be more severe than not taking pulls. Blow badly enough that the whole group has to slow to get you home and someone will be irritated, guaranteed. I’m not sure if it’s worse or better, but some will just ride away.

Perhaps the best thing the bonk has taught me is how to see it in others and how to be more empathetic. I once saw a teammate’s head start to drop, his line start to waver and then, of course, he began to miss pulls. I suggested he sit at the back for the remaining miles and then, as we rolled into town, I told him what to do when he got in the door, right down to eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich over the sink; I actually contemplated going home with him to make the sandwich for him, but I thought that might seem weird. I didn’t think the advice was that big a deal until he walked up and thanked me the next time I saw him.

That I still make an effort to hide my bonk from the riders around me is a relic of my racing days, back when I had to exude nothing but tough. I’ve lied to friends and told them I was feeling strong even as I thought I was going to get dropped. However, when you have no opposition, there’s no good reason not to communicate. Who knows, someone might help you.

And that day beneath the oak? We sat there for what seemed an hour. I ate a bar, drank until the Gatorade no longer seemed sweet and eventually became myself again. Though our relationship blew apart as irreparably as a dropped lightbulb, I linger on how patient she was, that she was strong enough to be gentle with me.


Still from The Triplets of Belleville courtesy Les Armateurs.


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  1. Mike

    I cannot say I have ever been depressed, in the clinical sense, but I, like the rest of your readers, have bonked. In my job, I regularly work with people who are have moderate to severe depression. I have learned to recognize it in others but it has been difficult to empathize, not because I did not want to empathize but because I lacked a real point of reference. If the bonk/depression analogy holds up, then I have had at least a glimpse of it. Thanks Padraig.

  2. Les.B.

    I don’t know how I’d have reacted if I hadn’t known what a bonk was the time that I bonked.
    Since I did know, I merely inhaled the 5 energy gels and 4 crackers I had on me. Which was enough to get me to where I needed to go.
    And it was here at this website that I had learned what bonking was, so I have you to thank for that.

  3. Neil Winkelmann

    Superb writing. Thanks for this story.

    My best bonk story involves dude named Tom Cobcroft. Way back when, I took him on a 60km loop from the town we lived in. He wasn’t an experienced cyclist, but young and fit. Unbeknownst to me, he hadn’t eaten since the previous afternoon (long story). We crested the last hill (which he struggled up, throwing up I-don’t-know-what). He said to me at the top that he couldn’t make it back to town. I said “you’re joking. We can see it from here, and it’s all downhill, except for the last 3km which is flat!” We coasted the downhill. When the road flattened, he took two-or-three half-hearted pedal strokes, stepped off and sat under a tree. He refused to go any further. I had water for him, but no food. I rode back to town without him, and fetched the car. Loaded it with Coke, chips and chocolate and went back to rescue him. To this day, a bonk that prevents one finishing the ride as planned is known as a “Cobcroft”.

    (There is another story where a buddy was so bonked/wasted towards the end of long ride, he started to periodically put is head down on his arms (he was using aero bars) during descents. I came alongside him and asked him why. He admitted that he was so tired that we was just trying to take a quick nap.)

  4. Robert

    I’ve told this story to many fellow riders so why not here:

    My first bonk was on on day 3 of a 6 week ride from Calgary to Los Angeles in 1988. We all like to give “Millennials” the gears over their lack of preparedness, but when you are 22 you know nothing, regardless of what generation you are from.

    By day 3 into a block headwind leaving Calgary we had just made Lake Louise, loaded mountain bikes with camping gear, tents, and flappy k-way jackets and track pants. This was long before the internets, and long before people really talked about hydration and fueling strategies. We were making it up as we went along.

    It was predictable, you go in the red for three days, and not understand your body combusting north of 5000 kcal a day, and the needle will point to “E”. For it us (2) it happened simultaneously which is interesting considering I was built like a human coat hanger and my friend was built like a human bulldozer. The visual field grew narrow and featured stars on shiny objects. We pulled in to a restaurant, which was lucky, ate a tremendous amount in a short span and then decided a nap was in order in the parking lot behind.

    I can still see the snow piled up on our sleeping bags as we awoke to snow in the Rockies in May, which was another epiphany: you mean the weather out here is not the spring we left in Ontario??

    oh so young.

    As for depression all I can say is you try to make friends with it.

    1. Author

      “When you are 22 you know nothing, regardless of what generation you are from.”

      Now there’s a remarkable truth.

    2. Robert

      I mean it in the nicest way. A sense of wonder can enable the best things. And doing what people tell you is not a good idea also can lead to the best experiences.

  5. Todd

    Wow- for reasons I will not go into in great detail here, your words resonate with me on both fronts. I have experience with depression and bonking and I too have recognized (it took many years of going through both to achieve this recognition) that I have lived long enough to feel one or both coming on… as a cyclist/athlete/competitor/stubborn bastard… I have pushed myself down to the places that are almost to deep to come up from and where what makes sense in the moment is the worst possible thing to be living inside of- Each time, in various ways, I have come back up to the surface and realized how far I had gone and then I am haunted by the reality of where I had just been, able to look back on the ugliness. Just yesterday I learned that a long -time peer and colleague had decided that his circle would be better off without him in it. He is gone, they are still here, we are still here; with all the anger, sadness and crude moments of levity that cycle through one’s heart and mind in times like these. I have been fortunate enough to have people, at my various low points, that may or may not know how instrumental they were in helping me navigate the murky silt of my soul. Many years ago I came to a place where, for me, removing myself permanently from the equation is no longer an option- I wish the friends and loved ones I have lost had gotten there, I wonder sometimes why I am still here and they are not…. mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, sons and friends- they swerved too wide on roads too narrow and I can’t understand and in ways I don’t want to understand, can’t afford to be in a place to understand because I was always lucky or blessed or whatever and I never got dropped, never lost my way- all the way. Reach out, listen, offer what you can when you see someone suffering- it might not change a thing…or it might change everything.

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