You are moving, but not without pain. Where is this pain coming from? Your back? Your legs? Your mind? You are ashen, gray. This would be apparent if there was a mirror handy, but there is actually nothing handy. You are upright and moving forward and that is all. This is survival mode.
There are many ways to enter survival mode, most of them a result of your own naivete, poor planning or naked hubris. How far is 100 miles? How many is 10,000 climbing feet? How many bottles do I need for this ride? Where will we get food? Did anyone check the weather? These are all questions that presage survival mode.
Sometimes circumstances contrive to take you there. The weather man has a jour sans. Mechanical forces array against you. Road construction disturbs your route.
Uttering the phrase, “I’ll probably be fine,” is what passes for an express ticket to survival mode. You can get there via bonking or crashing, or by simply failing to train up to the level of your aspirations. Here a foolish pride bleeds you dry as your friends chat amiably and you die inside.
In the Spring, on an unseasonably hot day, I showed up for a 70-mile cross “race” on a borrowed bike with one water bottle. Quite what I was thinking, I could not explain to you. It was laughable.
There was nowhere on the course to refill my one bottle. To add to the mirth, I crashed in the first twenty miles, and though it wasn’t a serious spill, the ensuing 50 miles of pounding turned my spine into a length of barbed wire. There was no comfortable position, no possibility of relief out of the saddle, no power to be derived from the muscles of my lower back. As the rest of my team settled into their groove and hammered through the final climbs and trails of the day, I dehydrated, too.
Fortunately, I had been in survival mode before, so when, suddenly, I became enraged about being dropped on an unremarkable hill in the last 15 miles, I knew where I was. Because you get used to pain on the bike, because you become inured to suffering, you sometimes don’t know how badly off you are until you lose control of your emotions.
The best rule for surviving survival mode, if indeed you feel compelled to finish whatever ride you’ve started rather than packing it in as a sane person might, is only to speak when spoken to, and to limit your answers to the barest minimum. In this way, you can keep your pain to yourself and not get it all over your companions.
A few weeks back, a friend of mine found himself in this particular spot of bother at D2R2. An early crash shook him up. Then he had double leg cramps. With over 10,000 feet of vertical gain, this is not a ride you want to cramp on. We spent probably the last 25 miles with him just doing the best we could, hanging back, taking our time. I was impressed with the way he continued to push on each climb. He dug down into some deep reserve, the reserve we all have but seldom are brave enough to access, and he finished.
We often say, here at RKP, that “to suffer is to learn,” but if you’re not careful you can turn that into a pseudo-tough-guy cliche. It’s all well and good to push at your limits, but you’ve also got to pay attention. You have to take the time to learn.
In the most practical sense, you can learn not to make so many stupid mistakes. You can learn to show up on the right bike with the right supplies. You can also learn not to overestimate your abilities. In this way, the more you suffer now, the less you suffer later.
But then, there are other lessons available. I believe there is value in learning to sit with pain, both physical and emotional. Low-blood sugar and dehydration will put you off emotional kilter. They will introduce you to chemically-inspired, irrational rage. The bonk is sometimes called “going to meet the man with the hammer,” but you can also become the man with the hammer, hammering yourself, hammering friends.
There are also the ego-crumpling effects of being the weak link. You feel you’ve let your friends down. Disappointment mingles with shame and anger. It’s a party you’d rather not be on the guest-list for.
A bike ride, though, is logistically insignificant compared to everyday life. Naivete, poor planning and naked hubris don’t confine themselves to in-saddle time. You get stuck in traffic. You pay attention to politics. Someone says something to you that rubs you the wrong way. You get ill. Your kids get ill. Your parents age. Your parents die. You lose friends. So much of it is beyond your control, and so little of it goes to plan. Big events and small distractions. Life on life’s terms. Just like on the bike, you find yourself, occasionally and unforeseeably, in survival mode.
And hopefully, just hopefully, something triggers in your animal brain. You have been here before. You know how to do this. This is practical reality, where riding and life merge and become the same. What you do is no longer an activity, a hobby. It’s a tool for living a better, calmer, more peaceful life. It is a proxy and a simulator, and all you have to do, in survival mode, is just keep rolling.
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Image: © Matt O’Keefe
Someday Lance Armstrong’s story will be told on the big screen. It’s too juicy a tale not to be developed into movie candy. It’s got all the stuff Hollywood loves: There’s the fame, greatest-ever success, hard-driving type-A character, the underprivileged youth and the transformation from brash upstart to seasoned professional by the ultimate proving ground: Cancer. And after escaping the jaws of death—literally—he then cheats career death by being exonerated at the end of a federal investigation. Remember, this is Hollywood, where the facts are as flexible as the colors on a painter’s canvas.
Here’s the thing: When the day comes that someone is asked to write a treatment of the story, they can’t do it straight. Or at least, they shouldn’t do it straight. Because Armstrong’s story is writ large, like puff-of-smoke skywriter large, for the story to capture the truly epic triumphs and tragedies of his life, it must be set as a Greek tragedy.
Naturally, the primary overlay would be with Oedipus. Rejected by his father at birth because the Oracle at Delphi told him that any son would kill him, Oedipus was adopted by Polybus, the king of Corinth. Armstrong’s birth name was Gunderson, you may recall. While still a young man, Oedipus learns from a drunk that he isn’t the son of Polybus and Merope; rather, he was adopted by them. In consulting the Oracle at Delphi all he learns is that he is destined to kill his father.
Like all proper Greek characters, Oedipus believes he can escape his destiny. He mistakenly believes that what the Oracle has told him is that he is destined to kill Polybus and marry Merope. So he sets out for Thebes. Here Hollywood frames young Armstrong’s journey to Thebes as his development first as a triathlete, then as Olympic cyclist, then as pro. Armstrong’s victory in the World Championship road race is the vanquishing of Oedipus’ father, King Laius. Even without knowing, he begins to fulfill the prophecy.
We then shift gears to the myth of Prometheus and the April day in 1994 when three Gewiss riders swept the podium at Fleche Wallonne. Armstrong is said to have been fourth in line when the three Gewiss riders pulled away from the storming peloton. That humbling, followed by Michele Ferrari’s notorious post-race statement about EPO not being dangerous sets the stage for Armstrong’s 1996 victory at Fleche Wallonne. Armstrong has been accused of adopting the European method of training in that he worked with Ferrari. The overlay here is that he, like Prometheus, stole fire, in adopting their methods and winning a classic.
Naturally, such a feat couldn’t go without punishment. Testicular cancer replaces the rock to which Prometheus is chained. And his liver that regenerates each night after being pecked out during the day by an eagle? Chemotherapy. But our hero, like Prometheus, is immortal and doesn’t die while enduring a punishment that would kill any mortal. Recall that Armstrong’s chances for survival were less than 10 percent.
Now we shift back to Oedipus. In his journey to Thebes, after unknowingly taking a step toward his destiny by vanquishing his father at a crossroads, Oedipus encounters the Sphinx. Bear in mind the Sphinx asks a riddle no one has answered correctly. Ever. Sound anything like winning seven Tours de France? The Sphinx is so stunned by Oedipus’ correct answer—mon dieu!—that it throws itself into the sea, where it dies.
Does that remind anyone of the emotional tenor of the response ASO and all of France had to Armstrong’s 2005 win? Let’s call it hand-wringing of mythic proportions.
It is at this point that Oedipus consummates the act for which we still know his name in its adjectival form—Oedipal—when he marries his mother. Much has been made of the similarity in appearance to his mother of Armstrong’s various romantic attachments. Ahem.
Now, the way the myth goes, Thebes endures a period of extended infertility. Sound familiar? Of course, Armstrong’s life takes an odd turn in that his infertility ends. But for many years, he, like the city of Thebes, endured a barren, uh, land. There’s another way to read this, of course. The field in question is the field of competition. His lack of wins due to being out of competition is the fallow field.
What Oedipus doesn’t understand is that he is the cause of infertility. The unavenged death of King Laius is the source of the city’s pestilence. And it is here that our hero’s travails take an eerie turn. Oedipus, in a move that can only be described as hubris, decides he is going to solve the infertility problem. In his quest to learn its cause he finds out that he did, in fact, kill his father. That he did marry his mother. Jocasta, his wife/mother, by some accounts, kills herself. And by some accounts Oedipus is blinded, either at his own hand (isn’t that rich!) or by a surviving servant of King Laius.
The import here is that in fulfilling his destiny Oedipus also exceeded it. Thebes was destined to suffer because he was destined to kill his father and marry his mother. It can be said Armstrong was destined to return to competition because he was destined to miss it. He was destined to be concerned for his legacy with the rise of Alberto Contador. That he believed he might improve on his legacy was Armstrong’s hubris. He had to return and in that he had to fail. Had Armstrong never returned to competition it seems probable Landis would never have felt a need to open his mouth. In the myth, Oedipus’ blindness is both literal and metaphoric. Hubris is characterized as behavior that is tone-deaf to the events around the person. Anyone reading Lance Armstrong’s Twitter feed for the last two years can be forgiven for thinking that he’d never heard the name Jeff Novitzky. One of the qualities of hubris is to be out of touch with reality.
Ultimately, the hubris sufferer falls from grace. For challenging the gods the protagonist is humiliated. Before the cycling world knew the name Novitzky, Armstrong’s reputation among most cyclists was sterling. The difference is that the investigation that was sparked by him coming out of retirement has caused many of the cyclists who were his most ardent fans to conclude he was doping as he competed. The cycling world has turned on him, and in that blind Oedipus’ fate of being led through Greece by his daughter, Antigone, rings a note of truth.
Painting: Oedipus et Sphinx by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres