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