Riding through the pain

I remember watching a live broadcast of Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France.

I don’t recall what year it was, maybe his third or fourth victory, perhaps. This particular day, the course went over one of the great mountain passes; as I recall, it may have been the Croix de Fer, or possibly l’Alpe d’Huez. Or maybe it was some other steep mountain pass, I really don’t remember anymore.

What I do remember, though, is Lance starting his climb at the base of the mountain as the best riders in the world were spread out in front of him. One by one, he caught each of them on that ascent. And one by one, they struggled to keep up with him, before each one cracked and fell hopelessly behind.

Of course, some people looked at performances like that and assumed he must be doping, like so many others. Others said it was his muscle structure, that he somehow had more strength and endurance than anyone else on that course.

But the best explanation I’ve heard is that he was simply willing to endure more pain than anyone else. It wasn’t that he didn’t feel it; it’s just that he didn’t let it stop him.

And that makes sense to me. You see, I’m the same way.

I suffered a serious knee injury when I was just a kid in junior high school. Unfortunately, surgery didn’t fix it, ending my football career and leaving me with a trick knee that had me in almost constant pain.

For the next few years, I had a standing prescription for pain killers, as I tried to convince someone — anyone — that there was still something wrong with my knee. But the orthopedist who did my surgery couldn’t admit that he might have failed; instead, he told my mother that I was faking it to get the pills.

Fortunately, she didn’t believe him. But that night, I went home and handed her my bottle of pain medication. And I never took another one.

Not a few years later, when another orthopedist finally fixed the problem my first doctor had insisted didn’t exist. Not in my 20s, when I fractured my back — without causing any permanent damage, thank God.

Not a decade later, when I misjudged a corner while riding through a high-speed turn, and ended up with severe road rash from my ankle to my chin. Not over the past decade or so, when that first botched operation resulted in a severely arthritic knee.

And not this past year, when a freak beachfront bee encounter put me in the intensive care ward for a couple days, and on a long, hard path to recovery.

It’s not that I don’t feel the pain. I’ve just learned to ignore it.

When I stopped taking pills for that knee, I had no choice but to learn another way to cope with then pain. Eventually, what I learned was simply to tolerate it.

Just focus on something else, and get on with my life.

It’s not like I’m a superhero or some bizarre freak of nature. It still hurts. It’s just that I made a conscious effort not to think about it. And eventually, that just became second nature to me.

Of course, that doesn’t work with everything. A sharp, unexpected pain — such as a back spasm, or a sudden injury — always breaks through whatever defenses I may have, and gets my immediate attention, just like it would anyone else. And emotional pain, like losing a loved one, can bring me to my knees.

But chronic pain, or pain I can anticipate, like the kind you experience on a hard ride, I just don’t think about.

And that’s made me a better cyclist. Because it’s given me the ability to just keep going, no matter how tired I am, how strong the wind or how steep the hill. As long as I have the strength to keep going, a little pain won’t make me quit.

Like back when I was first leaning to ride hills, for instance. I realized that I could spend my entire riding career confined to flat courses, or I could just suck it up and learn to climb.

It wasn’t easy, as any beginning climber can tell you. But eventually I was able to ride every hill on my usual riding routes, no matter how long or how high.

So I set out to conquer the ultimate challenge.

There was a hill in a nearby state park; not that long a climb, really — maybe a half mile or so. But the road was so steep, most cars struggled to get over it, and I’d never seen another cyclist even try to ride it.

And that, to me, made it irresistible.

One bright sunny day, after a good warm-up, I started up the base. I only made it about halfway up before I cracked. But I kept going, inching along, already down to my lowest gear, pedaling one stroke at a time. By the time I was 3/4 of the way up — where the hill really got steep — my legs were nothing but rubber, and my heart felt ready to burst.

But I kept going.

Finally, about a hundred yards from the summit, with the road so steep I still couldn’t see the top of the hill, I was so far past the breaking point that I could barely turn the pedals. So I started thinking to myself, “Don’t quit.”

Each time I pedaled, every time I turned the crank, “Don’t quit.”

“Don’t. Quit.

Or at least, I thought I was thinking it. But I must have been saying it out loud, because when I finally topped that hill, about a dozen people standing at the top broke out in spontaneous applause. I caught my breath, waved and rode off, embarrassed as hell.

But I realized in that moment that I could accomplish anything I wanted on my bike, if I was just willing to work hard enough, and accept the pain that came with it.

Which is just as true for life as it is for cycling.

 

Just Williams recommends Cyclecraft, the U.K.’s official bible for all things cycling — and questions why it teaches cyclists to take the lane, but the country’s driver’s manuals don’t teach drivers to expect it. Good question. Town Mouse discusses her E-number, while raising her count for roadkill and arseholes encountered while cycling. Evidently, it’s not just cyclists who have to deal with arseholes, and not just in the U.K. According to Streetsblog, Metro wants to reconcile with cyclists. Will-I-Am (the other one) spots a semi heading upstream to spawn. I wonder how many lives this could save here — and how many battles could be avoided in the ongoing war between cyclists and drivers. A writer in Petaluma questions if more bike lanes are making the roads more dangerous. Finally, the Irish Times — no, not the pub on Overland — questions whether a more Continental approach would encourage more cyclists. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get on my bike and ride until my legs fall off — not literally, I hope.

2 comments

  1. disgruntled says:

    Arseholes are everywhere, sadly. Even on bikes …

    Most of the statistics show that the more cyclists there are on the roads, the lower the proportion of accidents, at least in the longer term. But maybe there is a short-term spike in the numbers as everyone digs their bike out of the garage and relearns the rules of the road the hard way – it will be interesting to see if the numbers settle down

    In London, when the bike numbers went up sharply in the last two years, the accident figures actually went down – even in absolute terms.

  2. I’m calling BS on the “willing to accept more pain” hypothesis. No one who is a former competitive endurance athlete would assert that unless they’re trying to land a seat next to Bob Costas, idiot supreme, at the next Olympics.

    Cycling, running, swimming – the big 3 of endurance sports – are full of insanely aggressive and pain tolerant people. I have run through obscene degrees of pain, and yet I’m no world beater. I couldn’t even make it to states.

    Those sports are full of people who will ride till their dead in order to win – witness the willingness to take such degrees of EPO that their heart stops. You really think that the top guys won’t ride until they drop in order to win.

    They rode the best they could, aware that they had to ride the next day, and they couldn’t hang. It has almost nothing to do with a difference in determination.

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