(Translated: Convicts of the road)
I love this phrase. It was originally coined by a French reporter back in the 20s, referring to the fact that cyclists during the Tour de France suffered like the convicts on a Cavalry, from start to finish, touring around France on a bicycle was hard. Back in those days they were riding thousands of kilometres, over all sorts of terrain; unsealed and barely traveled roads, up and through mountains. What’s more amazing, is that they were doing all of this unsupported. That means no team cars carrying spare bikes. They had to carry their own spare tyres, food and anything else they might need along their way... Henri Pélissier, a cyclist of the time said “You have no idea what the Tour de France is. It's a Calvary. Worse than that, because the road to the Cross has only 14 stations and ours has 15. We suffer from the start to the end. You want to know how we keep going? Here… (showing a bag) That's cocaine, for our eyes. This is chloroform, for our gums." I shouldn’t need to say that this isn’t why I love the phrase.
Although much of this I don’t do—the drugs and the Tour de France—I do carry most of my own spare tube, tools and food. However, I reason I love this phrase is because I use it in a more innocent way. I take it to mean that as a cyclists I feel like I’m convicted to the road, convicted to ride it and suffer on it. But in a good way. Like an addictive drug, I crave it, and am a prisoner to that feeling—both the suffering and the enjoyment, it’s all part and parcel of cycling. Thankfully, there are mostly positive benefits from this imprisonment.
nb. Whenever I’ve tried to explain the enjoyment gained from suffering, all my non-cycling friends don’t get it. So here is another attempt: suffering to a cyclist means to work really hard. It’s like a hard cardio and weights session for the legs all rolled into one, or one to several hours. With cycling you put your body through its paces and see how hard you can push yourself. If something isn’t hard and doesn’t make you work extremely hard, it doesn't feel like much of an achievement. Most rides are for training, not simply to go on a bike ride. So on that basis, many rides are designed to cause me some sort of suffering, and to suffer is to work extremely hard and by working really hard, you get better. Even when I try to go easy, I just want to push myself hard. It’s probably more of a competitive thing that purely a cycling thing. I can only talk about myself of course.
A little bit ago, I went on weekend break to cycle in Bright, this is when the phrase came back to me. Over said weekend I had tackled three of the Peaks in the 7 peak challenge, plus cycling up and down both sides of the Towonga gap, in all, according to Strava, I had ridden three rides over the three days, totalling 300km and climbing over 6,000m (vertical metres).
The phrase came back to me because even after a day of suffering on the bike, I just couldn’t wait to get back on the bike and ride. To climb some more. Even though my legs were burning and aching, I just wanted to ride. I’m convicted to the road.
There is something extra special about climbing and suffering up such mountains too. Upon reaching the top. When you’re there, at the top of such climbs, you forget about the pain that got you there—I guess like childbirth—the joy and sense of achievement outweighs it all... And it’s such an achievement when you think about it—especially your first few mountain tops—you’re riding where bikes were not meant to be ridden, and doing what many people couldn’t do.
What makes it all the better, is doing it with a great bunch of mates. It adds so much more to it. Sharing that suffering, trying to cause your mates pain by upping the pace, or trying to hold the wheel of another friend to save face. All this solidifies these friendships in a weird masochistic way. They say cyclists are a bit insane, and I can understand where that comes from, but at least we’re all mad together. Not many sports encourage suffering in such a way. Not many people enjoy that suffering, and trying to explain it is pointless, as I’ve found.
A quick word on Bright, it is such a spectacular place. I didn’t expect it to be so… so much like the French Pyrenees. So Alp like. Over the winter (or the European Summer) I went to Andorra and into the Pyrenees, and where I was in Bright, it really reminded me of it. It was just amazing to be out of the city and into nature.