Reasons for riding II: the pain game

The masochists among us can’t do without that sweet feeling of pain. Cycling at full intensity is a good way of achieving it.

Taylor Phinney

Taylor Phinney riding through the pain to finish in last place, 37 minutes down, in Monday’s stage six of Tirreno-Adriatico.

There’s a moment on a cold day’s ride when those wearing fingerless gloves reach a breakthrough. Fingers, which for the past hour have been screaming out in protest at the pure, inhumane effects of windchill, suddenly become happy again.

The pain of cold is replaced with a strange coping mechanism which makes your hands feel like they are clutching heated handlebars. Red hot and made of steel.

Similarly, there’s a moment during high-intensity efforts, when your chest feels like it’s going to explode; your lungs screaming in agony, gasping for air. It’s a strangely enjoyable state to find yourself in, and when the initial pain is overcome it’s possible to control it while still hammering out maximum-intensity efforts.

In Part I of this series we talked about the serene, almost trance-like state that cycling can often take us to. But here, we talk about a much less sophisticated, but no less addictive, attraction – Pain. And it’s a strange drug.

It probably has something to do with endorphines, or the ever-so-slight masochistic streak that can be found in many riders, but pain has a strange draw that keeps you coming back for more, despite your best intentions.

An excellent article in today’s Wall Street Journal, which explores the motivating factor behind Taylor Phinney’s determination to finish a stage of Tirreno-Adriatico, despite feeling horrible, being 37 minutes down on the stage winner and frozen to the bone, puts it rather well. “Bike racing is a sport that fetishizes suffering,” it reads. “Anyone who’s done it talks almost mystically about painful days on the bike, about the serenity achieved by pedaling through the agony.”

Of course, this is by no means limited to cycling – any high intensity sport can deliver its participants to the brink of despair, bumping up against the threshold of pain repeatedly until, just as it becomes unbearable, it actually becomes enjoyable.

The beauty of cycling, however, for all but the pros and those who take it very seriously, is that when the pain becomes too much, or when the coping mechanism has stayed at home, we can lift our heads, ease the intensity and accept that today isn’t your day and instead focus on enjoying the ride for its own sake.

And when such days do happen, we can revert to reason for riding #1.

David Rae

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  1. Love a bit of pain I do (have even signed up for the Chiltern 100 again!). Rowing was the sport that first introduced me to utter pain and exhaustion. The last 200m in a 2000m race was just fighting to keep the legs going whilst they turn to a painful flavour of jelly. You meet quite a few ex-rowers cycling which probably reflects the continued need for the endorphin fix. Something that you don’t find to the same degree in most other sports.
    I am currently on my way to Lapland for a few days of winter activities. Gotta give cross country skiing a go as that definitely has the pain appeal as well as a touch of cold.

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