18 May 2014

Pass the thumbscrew, please?

I was reading a fascinating piece about the nasty psychological effects of sensory deprivation. There may be something of this when solo cycling over longer distances. I saw a coach and four horses approaching while cycling across Dartmoor alone as a teenager. When I looked up again it had vanished. Yet it was so real I could easily have described the coach driver. That was also my longest return ride by far and I was carrying a heavy cotton tent and kapok sleeping bag. Bath to Plymouth and back again the day after. The hallucination may have been due to a lack of sleep of course.

Riding when one is physically tired is a miserable experience. Doing it without enough food compounds the misery. Add saddle soreness to the equation and there is no worse hell on earth than being far from home and knowing exactly how far there is still to pedal.The sense of isolation within this bubble of pain and exhaustion is profound. Yet we do it for "the pleasure of cycling" and call it a sport.

Lest you think this is the normal condition when seated in the saddle it is quite the opposite with reasonable fitness and form. The sense of speed and achievement more than makes up for those few bad days. Though it is certainly true that self-inflicted pain is a major part of cycling above a certain performance level. There are those who seek out mountain passes and those who test themselves to the core with intolerable intervals. All in the hope of greater personal achievement at some later date. To be good you have to suffer. To become a champion you have to be willing to suffer the agonising fires of your own personal inquisition.

This is where the true isolation of cycling rears its ugly head. While you may share the triumphs with long jaded family members there are few witnesses to your having saved seconds on that fierce climb. Or having maintained some average speed over a certain distance. Which any ancient and rusting, oil-dripping moped could easily exceed with a fat, old drunk on board. One with his 50th cigarette of the day clenched firmly in his stubbled face on his way to buy more beer.

Cyclists do it largely for their own satisfaction. Nobody else knows, nor cares, as they constantly leave home to seek new boundaries to the tolerance levels of their own, self harm. They may sneer at the drunk who leaves a long trail of stinking blue smoke behind him but deep down they know the real truth. That cycling any faster takes long and often lonely hours in the saddle and repeated suffering. No gain without pain. Otherwise we'd all fit electric motors. Or ride motorcycles.

We can't even claim it is cheaper to cycle. Many spend far more on their stable of "racing" machines than the owner of a whole fleet of imported scooters! Even the garish "superman in shorts" polyester outfit can easily exceed the cost of a motorcycle if you flatter yourself you should dress like a well paid, tour pro.

To take up high performance cycling is to be repeatedly mugged in broad daylight. Beaten up by your own, inner demons. And incarcerated for years of solitary confinement in a torture cell entirely of your own making. One with an open roof. Where it rains and blows and snows most of the time without any hope of shelter. Thank goodness it is so much fun on those odd days when the sun and wind are both in your favour! And, can still afford the taxi fare home! ;-)  


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