Words: Graeme Fife | Date:
When Simon Mottram, Rapha’s founder, set about the task of compiling his original business plan, he soon realised he needed a way of explaining his conception of cycling’s power and majesty. The result is Graeme Fife’s essay, Glory Through Suffering, republished today.
The history of cycle racing abounds with stories of endurance, will power and sheer courage on an epic scale. The capacity of bike riders to drive themselves relentlessly day after day through the pain barrier and way beyond makes them a breed apart. They redefine heroism in sport. The suffering is gratuitous, the mileage they cover Herculean, and both make a crucible in which a unique character is forged: an apparently cheerful indifference to the pain inflicted by bike and road, suffused with the transcendent desire to conquer both.
The greatest battle is not physical but psychological. The demons telling us to give up when we push ourselves to the limit can never be silenced for good. They must always be answered by the quiet the steady dignity that simply refuses to give in. Call no man brave, say the Spanish, say only that on a particular day he showed himself brave. Such strength of character radiates from every bike rider who has shown the requisite courage not to yield, has won his dignity, day after day.
The true test of any rider’s mettle is the road. How much punishment can you take on a bike? You will only find out after you hear the voice in your head saying no, no you’ve had it, any more of this battering and you’re going to weaken fatally, and yet, for some reason best left to God and guesswork, carrying on anyway. Every time that happens, into a savage headwind… on the sharp knocks of the Chilterns… the will-sapping hauls of the continental monsters, the experience is part of a continuum, the repeated battle against surrender.
No crowds cheer us lesser mortals up the big climbs, but the mountains are open and mountains are rarely if ever finished with you. No matter how often you climb them, you never beat them: each time you start at the bottom, from scratch. Reputation will not take you up a climb. The physical battle has always to be repeated. Through every repeat, mental strength accumulates.
The Tourmalet, lassoed by mist, 2000m up in the Circle of Death, where Apo Lazaridès climbed off one day to wait for the others for fear of Pyrenean bears. The dreaded Mont Ventoux, Domain of the Angels. Col du Galibier, the Giant of the Alps, ’premier cru’ to the ’vin ordinaire’ of the rest. That’s where you can follow the Tour, into the thin air, up the relentless hairpins, your tyres hissing across the tarmac catalogue of Tour riders who made the same journey.
Suffering is one thing; knowing how to suffer is quite another. You look at the dizzying peaks and say to yourself: What? Up there? Mad notion… and the experience of the hardest most exhilarating cycling you can ever accomplish is on you. The great gauntlet on two wheels, the triumph of inner resolve over disbelief.
For the mountains are the extreme case, where you really find out about yourself, in the scary realms of physical and mental exertion to the limit. Remote altitudes of geography, unplumbed depths in your spirit. Even local folklore recognises the weird forces at work on the cyclist chancing his fate against horrible gradients. Up here, they say, is where the black-hearted ogres of bad luck hang out: the Witch with Green Teeth and Hammerman, quick to pounce on any slippage in your resolve. Bogeymen personifying the mysterious factors which can freeze your nerve with the lonely prospect of failure.
That’s why we speak of heroism in cycling: it’s elemental.
This is the ultimate proving time. The spells of mind-numbing dysfunction when your head fills with disconnected trivia and only the wheels, still responding to the pedal stroke, like the cogwheels in your brain’s clock, seem to have any logic about them. Mechanically you mutter: if the road goes on, so can I. As Brian Robinson, first Briton to finish the Tour de France (1955) said to himself: I looked at the other guys and thought, they’re the same as me – if they can do it, I can. Good reasoning because there’s no ducking the argument. It’s simple: I can’t go on. I must go on. I will go on.
And through the bleak period when your wandering mind gets obsessed with the idea that you’re finished oh, it happens – you persist and you are learning the core lesson of cycling, just as every true rider learnt it: on this road, in this duress, you live in the moment with all your force, in the intensity, the fullness of the moment. Do you know a better definition of exhilaration?
Riding up the Col de la Core one blistering hot afternoon (First Category, Pyrenees) I was passed by a string of Française des Jeux riders. As their last man went by, dangling off the back, he gave me a wave Courage. We all suffer. Keep going.
But if something hurts so much, how can it be enjoyable? At the point where physical stress begins to take you beyond what you imagine to be endurable, you enter new territory of understanding, an expanded psychological landscape. The camaraderie of the hard road is as much in sharing that insight as in the laughs you have, riding in good company. The bike is the perfect vehicle to take you down those secret corridors of illumination. The pleasure comes when you grasp just what has happened inside your head and spirit. It doesn’t stop when the bike stops, when you reach the top of the col or peel off at the end of the ride, so tired you can hardly think or stand straight. That’s where the pleasure begins. The self-knowledge.
Behind glory lies the misery of training, the slog of getting through bad days, the torment of going at less than your best and the absolute conviction that giving up is never an option. Herein lies the heroism of this beautiful sport the inner revelation that makes the cyclist impervious to ordinary weakness because every ride he has ever made exposes him to that defeatist voice; he has known it, faced it and conquered the fear of it, again and again and again.