A few days ago, Chris Froome took the lead in the Tour de France by attacking over a mountain summit, and then putting some space between himself and the rest of the riders on the descent that followed. I’ve been thinking about this for a bit, and that’s why it’s taken me a while to write a post about it.
I’ve always been in awe of pro cyclists. I’m not so much in awe of their power, speed and climbing ability, or even their skill (although all that is pretty amazing), because it’s all stuff that can be trained and learned. Anyone can be a good competitive cyclist, as long as they have the opportunity to start from a young age and the commitment to work hard to achieve their goals, but there’s that extra something that separates the good cyclists from the best in the world.
In Lance Armstrong’s book, It’s Not About the Bike, he claims that, all else being equal (and presumably that includes the amount of banned substances the riders have in their systems), the winner is the one who is willing to suffer the most, and I kind of understand what he’s saying. To be a really good cyclist, you need to be willing to push your body hard, to train in all weathers, to sacrifice other things you might want to do to make time for training. If you want to be the best in the world, you have to be more willing to do that than anyone else.
But it’s more than that. When Lance talks about suffering, he’s talking about during the race itself. The winner is the rider who ignores his body’s protests, who pushes on despite the pain, who doesn’t give in to the desire to ease up for a few moments and rest.
The winner is also willing to take risks, and this is why I was initially so in awe of Chris Froome for taking the lead on a mountain descent. He said afterwards that he wasn’t familiar with that particular descent, and yet he pushed on as if he had intimate knowledge of every twist and turn, even as if he knew every crack in the tarmac, every variation in surface texture that might make him lose control. At any moment, he could have lost control and crashed, and at the speeds he was travelling, a crash would have been nasty, and potentially fatal. I was in awe of his courage.
And then I realised what I was missing. It wasn’t that he knew he could crash and die, but he’s so dedicated to his sport that he was willing to take that risk to win. He knew he could crash and die, but while he was descending that mountain, he didn’t care.
I understand that because I’ve been there.
When I read Lance’s words about suffering, and understood them, I set out to test his assertion and see if it worked for me. I was out cycling on my own when another cyclist decided to get on my wheel without asking. (‘Getting on a wheel’ is what road cyclists do when they tuck in really close behind someone else to reduce wind resistance and have an easier ride. The pros do it all the time in races, but when you’re out for a nice ride on your own, it can get really irritating – not to mention potentially dangerous – if a random stranger decides to ride really close behind you.)
I’d caught and passed this particular male cyclist, and rather than being embarrassed by being passed by a woman on a heavy steel bike and wearing sandals, he decided to make use of me being in front of him and get on my wheel. It’s difficult to pull away from people who do this because you’re in the wind and they’re not, and I often use it as a chance to take a break for a bit. I stop and get my breath back, look at the view for a while, maybe take some photos, and give the other rider plenty of time to disappear up the road. But this particular day, after reading Lance’s book, I decided to test the suffering theory. I crouched down as low as I could to minimise wind resistance, grinned a little to myself, and pushed on.
For the next 15 minutes or so, he stayed with me, and I kept increasing the pace a little more each time my body adjusted to the new level of effort. After several kilometres, I heard the telltale ticking of a freewheel behind me, and glanced over my shoulder to see he had stopped pedalling and was dropping back. My body ached when I got home and cooled down, but it was worth it for the elation and excitement that lasted for the rest of my ride.
And I believe it’s that elation and excitement that was key to Chris Froome’s brave descent. Any hard exertion causes endorphins to be released into the body – they’re part of the ‘fight or flight’ system that enables us to survive by keeping going even when we are terrified or in pain. I’ve done off road mountain climbs many times, and taken the descent dangerously fast because my body was flooded with endorphins and the prospect of crashing seemed like something to laugh about rather than a real danger.
Perhaps that’s what happened to Chris Froome on Stage 8 of the Tour de France. Perhaps it’s what happens to all the best pro cyclists. Perhaps, when they’re flying down an unfamiliar descent, or riding at 70 km/h an inch from someone’s wheel, the very real dangers of what they do seem irrelevant, or like something to laugh at rather than feared. Perhaps they’re all high on the body’s natural substances!
Of all the things I could have done in life, but didn’t, not taking up cycling at a very young age is one of the things I most regret.
(Photo: A cycle race. This one is somewhere in South Africa, but the backdrop looks rather similar to Spain.)