A Case for Suffering: The quest begins
I am on a quest for suffering and delight. I hope you’ll join me.
Sometimes I wake up with a belly full of motivation, the anxiousness of getting on the island that is the bike, able to erase any nagging grumbles from the stomach. The rhythmic whipping of the cranks is, sometimes, the only motivation I need.
Then there are the times when crawling from the bed feels like premature extraction from the womb. It’s a cold, dark world out there. If I finally do make it into the ether, I might find myself turning squares on the power of bitterness.
But either way, I end up pedaling. Ultimately, motivation is all about imagination. Sometimes the vision of crossing the line, hands raised in triumph (or doing whichever is your preferred victory salute), is readily available and amply dosed in the frontal folds of my sleepy cerebrum. Any means justifies that end. But during those days when I’m not feeling my most imaginative, the hardman in me has a hard time finding his way out of bed, let alone into a cold chamois.
I’ve just come through a difficult cyclocross season that saw me unable to be as imaginative as in past years. That likely had something to do with the previous year, when I was fueled by barrels of broken-hearted fire. Nothing seemed worthy of doing except expressing my anger, sadness, and confusion through desperate competition. I rode for the cathartic wash that came from blaming my former love for my best-ever performances.
In 2011, I headed to the Tour of the Gila for a spring whipping; crushed was the state of my frame after five days of relentless attacking, wind, and agony. I wasn’t well prepared going in; I left stronger and fiercer than ever before. My ability to hurt people, and be hurt, was enhanced by a summer spent raging up climbs, generously supplemented with attack-filled racing, as I looked for worthiness in my whole being. I ripped through the ’cross season — nearly capturing a masters world championship title until an errant chain drop 100 meters from the line spoiled an otherwise sublime day in Louisville, Kentucky.
There can be pleasure in pain. There can also come pleasure from pain. Sometimes, a dark hollow can lead to the brightest vistas.
Almost two years have passed. My last ’cross race of this season came and went uneventfully in Louisville in February. I was ready to pack the bike away one minute, and in the next found myself witnessing one of the most exciting single days of racing on American soil, as a swollen Ohio River threatened to drown the coronation of four of the best cyclocross racers on the planet in Sven Nys, Marianne Vos, Matthieu van der Poel, and Mike Teunissen. In that moment, I couldn’t believe I would have to wait months to compete again. The cyclocross world championships struck an inspirational chord in my cycling soul. It helped me reimagine what cycling should be: unadulterated exhilaration.
I’ve always been a fan of novelty and diversity in my riding. I’ve been known to take pleasure in suffering. Without a pro contract telling me which races I need to compete in, I’m on a quest to find the most grueling and enjoyable, the most unique and challenging, single-day bike races I can find. I’m relying on the tireless and often thankless efforts — and outright creativity — of race organizers to fulfill my need (and, hopefully, that of many others) to ride the most demanding and inspiring races that can be imagined.
In Colorado, we have some of the most iconic monuments of the pro-am realm. There’s the Bob Cook Memorial Mount Evans Hill Climb, in its 48th year. The course has never changed: Start in Idaho Springs at 7,540 feet, turn right at Echo Lake, ride 28 miles toward to sky — and the 14,264-foot pile of rock and rubble called Mount Evans. Beware of mountain goats and sheep, and, of course, breathe deeply and often.
I’ve done this race a number of times before, and even had myself a sprint finish for victory in the elite category, while firmly in the clutches of a hypoxic daze. Yes, this was two years ago when I was riding on fury. No, I didn’t win. I lost by three inches. I guess that’s why I need to go back and race it again.
We also have the mother of endurance mountain bike races, the Leadville Trail 100. I competed in this race for the first time in 2012, after sitting in assorted press rooms in France covering Le Tour the month prior to the race. I was in Bellegarde-sur-Valserine¬¬, sweating in the French sun, consuming bread and cheese, far, far away from the molybdenum mines of the Sawatch Mountains, when I received an email from the mothership: “We can send someone to Leadville this year. Would you like to do it?” There was no way I could say no, despite the fact that my buttocks had gone soft riding cheap plastic chairs in sundry makeshift media tents.
I finished; I got a coveted buckle. But my personal victory was riding every inch of the course — not a single dab to the ground on any section. Was it the fastest way to the finish line? No, and it hurt like hell, especially on the infamous Powerline climb on my return to town. But my addled mind didn’t really give a shit about what was easier or faster. It conjured up a test, a layer overarching the minor challenge of racing through the mountains 10,000 feet above sea level for 100 miles. If I wasn’t able to ride as fast as I’d like, at least I could make it as hard as could be. Likely it was a result of delirium-induced masochism, nothing more. Why do we like to make ourselves suffer? It’s a question I’ll turn to in the coming months in this column.
Last year gave me a taste of the “wicked hard.” This year, the racing that I’ll do has to meet a certain criteria: mainly, it has to be marginally absurd and definitely difficult, while still being beautiful and captivating. If a seasoned cyclist chortles when they hear the distance, that’s a good sign. If pros and amateurs can race the same exact course, that’s a nod in its favor. If I fear it, I know it’s for me. Take, for example, my late May line-up.
A friend convinced me that Dirty Kanza is about the most fun you can have on two wheels. Gravel roads, 200 miles of them, in Kansas, on June 1, un? Let’s see, marginally absurd and assuredly difficult. Most people’s faces contort when they hear it described. I’m in.
Not long after, I received an e-mail from the office of tourism in Flanders. It seems the Tour of Flanders — originally run on May 25, 1913 — will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of the 324km race with a re-creation of that epic, undulating, absurd parcours. I was invited to cover the events surrounding the celebration and, of course, partake in the self-flogging. If this didn’t meet my criteria, what would? Cobbles, bergs, wind, and jetlag, shaken and served on a buttered chamois — this is the recipe for pleasurable pain. I hope. The fact that the two races are separated by six days — and seven time zones — bodes well for ramping up both the sting and farce in equal measure.
And that’s just May. What else will hurt me this summer? A lot, I predict. Each of us has a different relationship with suffering. I’m on a quest to strengthen mine, give it the attention it deserves, and communicate with it so we come to an understanding. Any good marriage is about hard work, open dialogue, and strong partnership. I do, suffering.
Editor’s note: Velo managing editor Chris Case has spent enough time racing parking lot criteriums to know there are far more enjoyable ways to spend time racing a bike. In his quest to find pain and pleasure in equal measure, he has sought out the most unique, challenging, and captivating competitions to test his mind, body, and equipment. Follow along with his experiment to race the best and most difficult courses, the iconic and the emerging, the most punishing and most promising, on- and off-road. Live vicariously through him, poke fun at him, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @leicacase. Questions or concerns for his well-being? Send him a note at firstname.lastname@example.org.