Cycling: Sport of Masochists (and the Sick, the Poor, and the Stupid)

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I began cycling five years ago and was quickly drawn into the competitive world of the sport. Soon I was training many days a week, and began to set goals for myself in local races. Still, at that time it was all fun and games. I enjoyed the training. I got to escape from the city and ride long miles at a comfortable pace.

However, now that I’m competing at the national (and occasionally international) level, the fun and games are a thing of the past. I look forward to races, and I mostly enjoy the travel involved, but training has become an unmitigated pain—literally—in my arse. The stronger and faster I become, the more I have to hurt during training, in order to make myself better. It’s a horrible, vicious cycle (no pun intended).

Cycling’s funnyman commentator, ex-pro Bob Roll, wrote wryly about how tough biking is on the body: “It is better to drink turpentine and eat creosote than eat PowerBars and drink CytoMax. You’ll get sick. Sick is good. Good health is bad for a bike racer. If you are healthy, you aren’t training hard enough. Healthy, wealthy, and wise is for ambassadors and Republican presidents, not bike racers. You NEED to be sick, poor, and stupid.”

The more experience I gain as a professional cyclist, the more I agree with Bob. The basic tenet of cycling training (as for many sports) is to break down the muscles so they rebuild stronger and more able to handle the stresses that will be inflicted on them. The training process that we use to break down our muscles consists of up to five hours of endurance training a day (or even more, for men at the highest level of the sport). The stronger you get, the harder you have to push those pedals for hours at a time…and the more it hurts!

I am constantly tired and sore, and often succumb to colds and flus. I used to think this seemed wrong—shouldn’t athletes be healthier than the general public? After all, I eat an extremely healthy diet, I get tons of sleep, and I spend my days exercising in the fresh air. However, most cyclists I know agree that feeling constantly run down is simply normal; they realize that, as Bob Roll said, “If you are healthy, you’re not training hard enough.”

Now, the part of his maxim referring to poor and stupid is easy to figure out. Pursuing a sport that requires a lot of training time, but in which there’s hardly any money (I doubt that there are five women in the entire U.S. who make enough of a salary from pro cycling to support themselves, and I think there are less than fifty men who do so) is an obvious recipe for ending up poor. And if you’re riding your heart out, but not getting paid enough to cover food and rent, then you’re either a masochist, or you’re stupid. So there you have it: pro cyclists are, on the whole, sick, poor, and stupid. You may not start out that way, but that’s the way you’re more’n likely gonna end up.

Everyone wants to believe that her sport is the most challenging, the most difficult, or the one offering the greatest ultimate test of the human mind and physique. I’m no exception. I would argue that road cycling boasts the toughest competitive events in the world of mainstream sports. (Ultramarathons, triple Ironmans, and cross-Channel swims are definitely super-tough, but exist—from my point of view—outside the mainstream. Plus, they’re the kind of event crazy people do once or twice or maybe three times a year, right? Not every week from March to September). Certainly, I would admit that there are sports requiring more skill than road cycling: soccer’s fancy footwork; baseball’s hand-eye coordination; gymnastics’ explosive power and precision. Pedaling a bicycle on mostly paved roads with few obstacles obviously does not compare to these sports in terms of the technical ability and skills required.

However, I believe there’s no sport out there that requires the constant endurance of suffering to the extent demanded by cycling, both in training and in racing. Training for hours at a time—mostly alone—in constant discomfort if not outright pain—is very demanding, physically as well as mentally. After a certain point, there are no new skills to master, no tricks to learn, no shots to perfect. It’s just constant, grinding work with no distractions. Racing for three to six hours a day, often for many days in a row, is also challenging in a way that goes beyond the requirements of other sports, as I see it. Of course I’m biased, but I think cycling is the hardest competitive sport there is—perfect for masochists, or the otherwise sick, the poor, and the stupid.


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