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On Pain and Cycling

01 Jul 2003

Saturday was the hardest day I’ve ever spent on my bike. The ride wasn’t that epic — a rolling 80 miles in Marin without climbing the mountains. But the day was hot and the team I was with was hammering. We pacelined through the first 40 miles or so. On the way home, climbing White’s Hill, I exploded. I sat up as the team sped off and realized I had nothing left and was still 30 hilly miles from home.

I crawled back to the city, wobbling across the Golden Gate into 30mph winds. My vision blurred and a cramp in my hamstring knotted and released with each pedal stroke. When I finally got home, I was unable to lift my bike up the stairs. I rolled it around to the garage and stumbled into the house. Leslie looked at me and said, “Oh no.” I took a 30 second shower and fell into bed with a bowl of pasta. A few hours of deep REM sleep and I was feeling fine.

There is no question that cycling is a sport of masochists. Beyond the physical demands of riding, mental discipline is as important. To succeed, a cyclist must be able to ignore the searing pain of lactic acid pooling in leg muscles, a heart pounding out through the chest, and lungs unable to keep up with a deep oxygen deficit. And we crash a lot.

I saw this played out while watching the Dauphine Libere earlier this month. The US Postal cycling team used the 8-day stage race in the Alps as a tune up for the upcoming Tour de France. After four days of racing, Lance Armstrong proved to be on form by taking that race’s yellow jersey after a commanding time trial performance. The next day, while defending his position in the mountains, tragedy struck.

On a descent outside of Morzine, someone’s water bottle shook free and jammed between the rear wheel and frame of Armstrong’s Trek. Traveling at 70kph, the four-time Tour champion flipped over his bars and ground into the pavement, ripping open his elbow and hip. The team car was with him in an instant, set him on a spare bike, and pushed him off to catch the pelaton.

A few moments later, an astonishing scene was broadcast. Racing to catch back up, Armstrong was pedaling his bike a few inches away from the neutral medic car, as the race doctor leaned out, scrubbing the pavement out of Armstrong’s elbow. It was the perfect example of the pain and glory of cycling: a race leader, having slammed into the road at high speed, was pedaling faster than most humans could move a bicycle while a man in a car tore at his wounds. Cycling photographer Graham Watson captured the image. There is no trace of pain on Armstrong’s face.

I wouldn’t ever hazard a prediction for the outcome of this month’s three week race around France. But the battle will be a match of both strength and will. And I don’t know how Armstrong could be beaten. ​