Let’s start with the reference to Emily Dickinson. She wrote a poem called “I Like a look of Agony.”
I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it’s true—
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe—
The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.
The pursuit of excellence in almost every arena of human endeavour is, in most if not all cases, a story of sacrifice, dedication, and often suffering. In perhaps no other area is this more manifest than in road cycling, especially in the three Grand Tours: The Vuelta a Espana (the “Tour of Spain”); The Tour de France; and The Giro d’Italia. These 23 day road races (typically 21 stages and 2 “rest days”) define and arguably exceed the limits of human endurance. They take a central idea in cycling — that a little suffering is good for the soul — and take it to a level that verges on the religious or the insane. Hence the reference to Dickinson. During the toughest climbs in the late stages of one of these 3 week orgies of suffering, there is no place to hide, disguise, or mask the efforts of these supremely gifted athletes. In some cases, great cyclists have been “broken,” their spirits eviscerated by their failure to endure.
Cynics argue that this is all the more reason to believe that drugs and doping are rampant in cycling precisely because of the extreme demands of the sport, but I often think of drugs in cycling like morphine on the battlefield: it might help the pain but it cannot remove the unmanning effects of exposure to death anymore than drugs can make one feel better about the ride up Mont Ventoux or the penultimate and ultimate climbs on Stage 20 of this year’s Giro: the Passo del Mortirolo (11.4 km at 10.5 % gradient and a maximum of a mind-numbing 22 %) followed by Passo dello Stelvio, the highest mountain the Giro d’Italia ever uses with a summit of 2758 m (9048 ft) and the second highest paved mountain pass in Europe. There is a level of self-imposed suffering on these climbs that no amount of drugs can alleviate: these climbs test the mind and will even more than the body.
Why focus on this topic in a blog oriented to performance improvement? Simply that what Ryder Hesjedal accomplished on Sunday May 27th 2012, represents one of the great performances in Canadian sports. Winning a Grand Tour is not like winning a golf Major or a tennis Grand Slam event; it is more like winning the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open, and The PGA Championship in the course of 16 straight days. Or running and winning an event that is 3 marathons each day for 21 consecutive days. That Hesjedal, a Canadian born in Victoria B.C. won the Giro is something like a Canadian soccer team winning the World Cup, in Italy. Just surviving the Giro, Tour de France or the Vuelta is an accomplishment.
Last year the magazine Walrus published an article in July/August 2011 titled “The Pain Principle: Cyclist Ryder Hesjedal is one of the best athletes in Canada. Can he suffer enough to become the best in the world?” Now we know the answer.
It’s an overcast spring day in the middle of Basque Country, Spain, and a thirty-year-old British Columbian named Ryder Hesjedal is near the head of a convoy. Behind him: forty European station wagons, three ambulances, two helicopters, eight cop cars, twelve sedans, nine motorcycles, and 125 bicycles. Of particular concern to my companion in one of the station wagons — a Belgian former cycling champion named Eric Van Lancker, once bigger in his home country than weissebier — is the fact that there are twenty-six bicycles, nineteen sweep motorcycles, and a pace car ahead of Ryder Hesjedal.
On the station wagon’s dash, Van Lancker has tacked two sheets of paper. They differ in content, but are linked thematically. The first is the list of the day’s teams and riders, a compendium of professional cycling’s elite: Leipheimer, Horner, Vinokourov, Klöden, Sánchez, and the Schleck brothers, Andy and Fränk. The second is an expressionist representation of human trauma, which is in fact a herky-jerky profile of the day’s 150-kilometre course. The biggest topographical spike, rising at a 25 percent gradient, is the one Ryder Hesjedal happens to be negotiating right now.
Hesjedal is on the verge of becoming one of cycling’s Brahmins. In 2009, he won a stage of a Grand Tour, the Vuelta a España, something no Canadian has managed for more than twenty years. In 2010, he came second in the Amstel Gold one-day classic, and finished an unexpected (and astonishing) seventh in the Tour de France. Much is expected of him here in Basque Country, or Euskadi, as the local terrorist group calls it.
He is now at the climax of the first stage of the six-day 2011 Vuelta al País Vasco. It is a major event, and a prelude to July’s big show in France. Van Lancker, piloting the station wagon with one hand, watches the race broadcast on a GPS unit mounted on the dash. Hesjedal decides to make a statement: Twenty-fifth place. Then, magically, tenth. Then eighth. Then fifth. He slithers like a tasered garter snake through the knot of cyclists at the top of the hill, hurls himself over the lip, flings his handlebars forward. It’s a minor act of heroism that nevertheless leaves Van Lancker baffled: “Yes,” he says, “but why not start the hill fifth?”
Moments later, we pull up to the mess of the finish line, in the medieval town of Zumárraga. Somewhere amid a gaggle of cyclists, I catch sight of Hesjedal. He lifts his leg over his bike, hands the machine over to an assistant — and shrugs.
The gesture startles me, because I’ve seen it before. I’m almost physically yanked into a Grand Guignol memory from my childhood, in which I walk into my parents’ sun-dappled bedroom, brought there by screaming. My father lies on a bloody sheet, so badly ripped up that bone glistens white through his skin. Leaning over him, my mother vainly tries to patch the wounds with gauze. Earlier, during a bike race, he had reached for a water bottle. He had misjudged the move, lost control at speed, and slid along the tarmac, tearing up his left flank. For one brilliant moment, he stops wailing, looks over at me, and hitches his shoulders in a ridiculous, inscrutable shrug.
A circle closes. Everything about cycling is contained in that gesture, including its reigning truism: to race bicycles is to drink greedily from a bottomless chalice of agony. The sport and its heroes are only knowable, and then just barely, once you come to understand that suffering is cycling’s currency. And what that currency buys is the occasional — the very, very occasional — moment of exquisite glory. Mostly, it purchases tough breaks and tougher questions. Much like the one Eric Van Lancker asks of the rider before him. And by “Why not start the hill fifth?” he is really asking, “Is Ryder Hesjedal willing to suffer completely?”
A man from British Columbia finishes top ten in the Tour de France, he should automatically be in the running for Canadian athlete of the year and all the other “best of” accolades handed out to bobsledders and ice dancers and Sidney Crosby. Currently, maddeningly, Ryder Hesjedal is not a star. Cycling, when it isn’t about doping, is SportsCentre filler, something to show right before the Frisbee-catching seal, or the lawn bowling carp. Canada has had bicycling royalty before (Steve Bauer, who finished fourth in the 1988 Tour de France), and we have a stable of excellent riders now: Svein Tuft, Michael Barry, and Andrew Randell. And yet Canucks Zamboni drivers enjoy greater name recognition.
Even in cycling cleats, he lopes, surfer-style. In his racing kit, he is lean and tall and comes to a point at his extremities, like Jack Kirby’s early illustrations of Mr. Fantastic. His torso is absurdly long, and a lifetime spent on bicycles has warped his body to the point that he is no longer capable of standing upright. In profile, his body forms a subtle, curving S, while his shoulders look wide and mock strong. (Cyclists, like velociraptors, are unburdened by upper body strength.)
I ask how he’s doing. “I’m feeling good,” he says. “The sun is shining in Basque Country.” He swirls a dark liquid around in a small plastic cup: “Just a little caffeine. And then a bike race.”
The first thing you notice about professional cyclists is that, with few exceptions, they appear to live their internal lives in a heavily padlocked tomb of mental anguish. They are at once astonishingly young and improbably ancient, a result of the fact that they are paid for their agony. They are modern-day ascetics, working in the open-air monastery of the mountains of Europe, with helmets as tonsures, spandex as robes.
There is thus a detachment in their manner that suggests the real world — our world — exists to them only as storybook legend, trapped as they are in another realm, with no corollaries, no points of contact, no common ground. They experience their lives through the tiny aperture of cycling; the aperture is so small because the light is so fierce. They have felt and done things on the farthest shore of the possible.
Professional cycling is the toughest sport legally practised in the developed world — and by a long shot. It’s tempting to bevel that statement by acknowledging the very real hardships of the NHL, the NFL, or the UFC, but that just seems pointless, especially after observing a routine Grand Tour crash, in which an athlete wearing little more than a leotard hits asphalt at sixty kilometres an hour, leaving a slick of epidermis in his wake. (As I write this, the cycling world is mourning the young Belgian Wouter Weylandt, who died in a crash on May 9 during the third stage of the 2011 Giro d’Italia.) Concussions, paralysis, lower back pain, saddle sores, mouth dryness, chafing — all of the above. And while this puts cycling at least on par with contact sports in terms of violent physical duress, it is resolutely not what makes cycling exponentially more difficult.
No other sport demands the same time, pain, and work ethic. You cannot race a Grand Tour without being in supreme physical shape, so fit that you are actually eating yourself, and must consume the same amount of food and liquid as nearly three grown men — which amounts to about 6,000 calories a day — to stay alive. During a warm weather race, a cyclist will lose three kilograms, and must chug five litres of restorative liquid, or it’s game over. (Try that twenty-one days in a row.) Cycling doesn’t have a bench. It doesn’t have time outs. The boys don’t celebrate a good day’s racing at a Hennessy-sponsored nightclub.
The one thing all the statistics and studies and scientific assessments can’t deliver is cycling’s great intangible. By this I mean the transformation of agony into fuel, an alchemic process that is supernatural in its properties. For instance, to climb a fifteen-kilometre mountain pass at an average grade of 10 percent and a mean speed of twenty-five kilometres an hour is to sustain almost forty minutes of screaming pain without a second’s respite. The reward for being the best isn’t that one takes less pain; rather that one is able to absorb more. The nature of this process is revealed at the precise instant that we come to know ourselves completely: we learn how far we can push ourselves, and the true mettle of our character. But that knowledge isn’t properly intelligible, nor is it transferable. To mangle Laurie Anderson’s aphorism, writing about cycling’s meta-state is like dancing about architecture. It is a private knowledge, forged in pain’s stables, and belongs to men who are not served by articulating it.
…Hesjedal and I are picturing the changes to his body, between, say, 2002 and 2010. Years of riding and training see his physique squeeze, bend, warp. We watch the saddle rise on his Cervélo R3 racing machine; we see his handlebar stem extend, so he drops lower, becomes more streamlined. He is leaner, he is longer — a road racer’s posture, not a trail rider’s. He is not comfortable in any meaningful sense of the term, but rather optimally positioned, working the centimetres down to millimetres with different mechanics over successive years. Bones rearrange themselves, cartilage melts away, organs scurry for space.
His body changed; so did his mind. “With Postal, I was thrown into the deep end,” he says. He doesn’t say so, but that team, which became Discovery, was mired nose deep in the poisonous culture that has come to define cycling. Indeed, the history of the sport doubles as a history of illegal performance enhancement. From cocaine to poppers to steroids to erythropoietin; as medical science delivered wonder drug after miracle cure, cyclists jacked them into their bodies to gain even the slightest advantage. Barry Bonds juices, and he hits a baseball farther, with greater ease. A cyclist dopes, and it allows him to race faster, which means harder, which means a few extra slices of agony on his already unpalatable pain sandwich. He suffers more, and he suffers better. Doping is a porthole into greater pain, which is both the sport’s essence and its undoing. Most tragic of all, cycling’s dopers weren’t the weak-kneed wannabes and under-talented hopefuls. They were the toughest men in sport, and the best athletes in the world.
…Cycling, after all, is the toughest sport in the world. A rider must give up his body to the agonies of pedalling for days and months on end. He must give up other things: his youth, a part of his essential character, the broadness of a lived life, all for the focused brilliance of his sport. But in these certainties, questions remain. If one is “frustrated with fifth,” does this mean one is unwilling to go as far as it is necessary to go, into the grey areas where Adam’s Whereabouts doesn’t peek? One can be forgiven, also, for wondering if winning morally beats winning by any means necessary. In a sport that demands giving everything away, must not one give everything away?
Ryder Hesjedal doesn’t think so. He thinks he can win on his terms, and he is riding to do so. “You have to not be able to do it a hundred times to be able to do it a few times,” he told me the night before, sitting in my room, his face scrubbed with exhaustion. “I’m at the point where I’m riding the best I ever have, and I know it.” He was telling me that he is methodical, not explosive. He is the man who was the boy who whipped a lacrosse ball against a basement wall for hours on end, “until it was perfect.” Process, focus. And an unshakable belief that cycling’s suffering is a form of metaphysical purity, that it must be free from taint. If he’s lucky enough to last, he will come fifth a hundred times. Then, maybe, he’ll come first.