There is a certain freedom to be found along this path.

The Liberty of Suffering

by / / 38 posts

The bicycle has always been a symbol of Freedom. Not just for us as children, extending the boundaries of our stomping grounds by an order of magnitude, but for humans from a societal standpoint. From the first days of its invention, we have sought out its limits, delighting in the process of finding the upper boundary on how far it can take us. The Tour de France is an example of that, but so is the Transcontinental Race. I am delighted to report that we have not yet found that boundary. Nor, do I believe, have we arrived anywhere close to it. We might have to find another planet first. A bigger one.

For me, the bicycle represents freedom on many levels, several of which I am certainly not consciously aware and therefore will not discuss here. The freedom from being attached directly to the ground is the most obvious; the bicycle gives me the illusion of being free from gravity’s relentless pull. As an introvert – I believe Cycling is intrinsically appealing to introverts – it gives me the freedom to retreat into myself and regain the energy upon which I have drawn during the daily social interactions as life and my profession run their course. But mostly, it gives me the freedom to indulge in the single-minded pleasure of suffering.

In William Fotheringham’s latest masterpiece, Bernard Hinault and the Fall and Rise of French Cycling, Hinault points out that Cycling may well have involved pain, but he chose it; fundamentally it was always for du bonheur, du plaisir (for the good life, for pleasure) – if he didn’t want to hurt himself, he didn’t. And it is a simple as that: suffering for the good life, for the pleasure is a theme sewn deeply into the fabric of our sport. There are more difficult walks of life than this that we choose.

Cycling is as hard as you choose to make it, but it helps things along if the road you’re riding is batshit hard. Which why I love riding the forest roads in the North Cascades near Winthrop, Washington, not to mention the incredible scenery and solitude that these roads afford the suffering voyager.

This is a gravel haven unlike any other gravel I’ve found in my velo-centric travels; clay, granite, sand – they all have their challenges in different conditions. Winthrop boasts an arid climate in a region assumed for rain – but this area is bordering on desert, where the lands are so dry that lightning strikes routinely cause devastating wildfires. The gravel here is sand-based (a geologist might be more specific), which is different from the granite-based gravel I ride in the valleys south from there. Which is to say it barely holds together enough to keep a bicycle from breaking through the upper. During a dry year like this one, it even falls short of that mark, allowing the bicycle’s tire to cut through the surface like a blowtorch through butter, to quote our favorite Gentleman Spy.

Even the flats and modest rollers can be as much a drain mentally as physically; diving from one side of the “road” to the other in search of traction. Add a few interminable pitches of 20-30% gradient on a road surface gouged deeply by torrents of rainwater that can’t be absorbed by the land when the rains finally does come, and you have some seriously technical riding that will test the limits of your fitness as well as your capacity for suffering – not to mention your conviction of choosing a Graveur in favor of a Mountain Bike.

A humble three-hour ride covering a meager 40 kilometers and 1000 meters vertical scrapes out the inside of your lungs like Mary Poppins on a cocaine-fueled Spring Cleaning spree. I did such a ride on Saturday, leaving our small camp with shoulders burdened with the stress and worry collected during the progression of modern life, such as it is. The suffering consumed me entirely, leaving no room for any thought outside of pushing beyond the next rise, and the next one beyond that. All ancillary thought was driven out, cleansing both my spirit and mind.

Some of the stress and worry has returned, as it is wont to do. But only those which weigh heavily enough to warrant their return. The rest – the majority – has evaporated and I am left feeling light and free.

The road is where my spirit lies, but the dirt is where I find my soul; suffering is liberty. Vive la Vie Velominatus.

// Cyclotourism // Defining Moments // La Vie Velominatus // Le Graveur // Mountain Biking

  1. If only there were some gravel roads within cooee of here… and I live in the country!

  2. Velominati FB page, and I quote ” 1000 meters vertical scrapes out the inside of your lungs like Mary Poppins on a cocaine-fueled Spring Cleaning spree.”

    Mary Poppins on coke. Funny stuff right there, thats before I even read the article.

    Introverts of the world unite !

  3. Poppins railing lines and hoovering out the lungs – love it!

    Reminds me of ‘Operation Vacusuck

  4. @rfreese888

    Poppins railing lines and hoovering out the lungs – love it!

    Reminds me of ‘Operation Vacusuck

    From suck to blow

  5. I don’t hold much for the suffering/masochism aspect of cycling these days, but I sure can relate to the freedom and release of stress ideas you’ve so eloquently encapsulated. Nice work, Frank.

  6. I flat out love dirt roads. Here in the deep south they’re a combo of red clay, sand, and gravel. If it hasn’t rained in a while they can be loose gravel and sandy and that’s tough. Too much rain and they’re like riding thru peanut butter. Not easy. But when they’re just right… still not easy but they’re a blast to go fast. And the steepest grades in county are to be found on the dirt roads.

    I’d also love to see Mary Poppins blow thru my house on a cocaine-fueled spring cleaning spree!

  7. Spot fucking on Frank.

  8. Great and timely piece! I did 170 kms on Sunday. It was hot and humid and windy. It was a sufferfest almost from the get-go. But it was a ride that will make the next 170+ ride seem easier and the one after that.

    Speaking of suffering and gravel, I’m signed up for the Hibernator 100 in Laona, WI in October – 160 kms on gravel roads through the Nicolet National Forest. Can’t wait. It’ll be an epic ride on new roads and all gravel. Suffering guaranteed but also massive pleasure.

  9. As an introvert – I believe Cycling is intrinsically appealing to introverts – it gives me the freedom to retreat into myself and regain the energy upon which I have drawn during the daily social interactions as life and my profession run their course. But mostly, it gives me the freedom to indulge in the single-minded pleasure of suffering.

    Up until now I never truly understood why I consistently forego those late nights out on the town in favor of riding at dawn’s first light. I always thought it was the taste of the crisp moisture in the air, the sound of stillness interrupted only by the hum of my tires gliding along the road, or the way the sunlight peeks through the trees to signal a new day and a new beginning. It’s all of those things, sure, but there was also something intangible I could not quite put my finger on. The way you so eloquently put it is exactly how I could never get my one track mind to think about it. Perfect.

  10. This is excellent, nice work Frank!

    My riding for the past few months has only been about freedom and fun, too busy completing a long-term project to dedicate any time to multi-hour rides. Variety is good and while I felt guilty at first, now I’m thrilled that I get to ride a bike daily. Life is good, plus if I stick with this for a few more weeks, the project should be in good shape and I’ll get my weekends and evenings back.

    There is definitely a huge difference between those who ride a bike and those who Follow.

  11. This quote must have surfaced here before but seems relevant. Cycling and freedom.

    Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” Susan B Anthony 1820-1906

  12. Follow gravel enthusiasts in a coast-to-coast ride on the TAT, join them if you can:

    http://sbwxtat.swallowbicycleworks.com/

  13. “cleansing both my spirit and mind” perfectly put . Cycling has soothed my soul over and over and over again, its the perfect escape from shit storm life can be .

  14. I love the suffering. I love when the suffering ends.

    For the record, Mary preferred the hallucigens…

  15. I’ve always loved the east slope of the Cascades. And now I love gravel, too.

    The VMH and I are signed up for the Winthrop Gran Fondo on 26 September. If she gets over a recent knee injury in time and the whole North Cascades doesn’t burn the fuck down, we should be getting in 3km of climbing over there that day.

  16. I hurt myself today

    To see if I still feel

    I focus on the pain

    The only thing that’s real

    I know you know who wrote it, but Johnny sounded best when he sung it, and sometimes on the ride that’s all there is.

  17. “The suffering consumed me entirely, leaving no room for any thought outside of pushing beyond the next rise, and the next one beyond that. All ancillary thought was driven out, cleansing both my spirit and mind.”

    So beautifully written. I’ve had these rides in the past and could use another one right about now. Thanks for another great post.

  18. @DeKerr

    I hurt myself today

    To see if I still feel

    I focus on the pain

    The only thing that’s real

    I know you know who wrote it, but Johnny sounded best when he sung it, and sometimes on the ride that’s all there is.

    I never can manage to have this as an ear worm on rides. Pity, but “head like a hole” has a better cadence.

  19. @DeKerr

    I hurt myself today

    To see if I still feel

    I focus on the pain

    The only thing that’s real

    I know you know who wrote it, but Johnny sounded best when he sung it, and sometimes on the ride that’s all there is.

    This.

    I quite often find myself singing this out loud on rides, particularly if it’s hammering down with rain and I’m about to start a steep climb.

  20. @LA Dave

    “The suffering consumed me entirely, leaving no room for any thought outside of pushing beyond the next rise, and the next one beyond that. All ancillary thought was driven out, cleansing both my spirit and mind.”

    So beautifully written. I’ve had these rides in the past and could use another one right about now. Thanks for another great post.

    Amen. This is so true. Over the course of a long ride so many thoughts ruin through one’s mind but in those last 25 kms, there are no more thoughts beyond turning the pedals, shifting gears and focusing on the road. You are 100% in the moment seeking nothing beyond reaching home.

  21. Cycling, quite simply is my anti-depressant and my alcohol. It is my wonder drug and cure all. Shit, it will even kill the common cold, no lie!

    Anyway, I envy your gravel mecca @Frank. As great as our road riding is here in East TN (where I’m nearing my final days) the miles of gravel we could be riding are all DOE controlled, protect by threat of jail or even lethal force!! Fuck that….

    The little bit of gravel I know of and have ridden is the purest of the cycling medicines. Especially when taken solo or, maybe with one good mate.

    I hope my new home to be has something great in store for my two wheeled addiction…..

  22. @wiscot

    Great and timely piece! I did 170 kms on Sunday. It was hot and humid and windy. It was a sufferfest almost from the get-go. But it was a ride that will make the next 170+ ride seem easier and the one after that.

    Speaking of suffering and gravel, I’m signed up for the Hibernator 100 in Laona, WI in October – 160 kms on gravel roads through the Nicolet National Forest. Can’t wait. It’ll be an epic ride on new roads and all gravel. Suffering guaranteed but also massive pleasure.

    I rode in roughly the same conditions as @wiscot a bit north of him Sunday at the Ganther Race the Lake event; 144+km around Lake Winnebago. Challenging to get a good paceline going with my starting wave, and did too much work too early. Then the hills, heat, humidity and wind hit up and along the Niagara Escarpment east of the lake, and from about kms 115 to 125 found myself in a windmill farm riding false flats into the wind by myself.

    Man with the hammer was there big time; at one point I almost got off the bike just to get off — but didn’t. At the end of the stretch there was an aide station with a volunteer manning a garden hose, and a big spray to my unhelmeted head and a good jersey soak brought me around to a fairly strong finish — passing people, pulling a small group, taking the sprint (well, I was pretending it was a sprint…) Ended up 12th of 45 in the my 60-64 age group, which I felt tolerable given my lack of consistent riding this season.

    It didn’t escape me during my my bad stretch that I was passing through the small towns of Calvary and Mt Calvary in “the Holy Land.” Although my suffering has no standing compared to the real Calvary….

  23. @Oli

    I don’t hold much for the suffering/masochism aspect of cycling these days, but I sure can relate to the freedom and release of stress ideas you’ve so eloquently encapsulated. Nice work, Frank.

    A reader shared this article with me the other day, a great read about enjoying the less painful aspects of Cycling, which are many.

    http://www.pezcyclingnews.com/features/lees-lowdown-cycling-is-fun/#.Vc9f6LJViko

    As much as I love the suffering, I love a nice pleasure ride and indulge in those a lot during the winter.

  24. @Dave R

    Spot fucking on Frank.

    That looks very familiar!

  25. @wiscot

    Great and timely piece! I did 170 kms on Sunday. It was hot and humid and windy. It was a sufferfest almost from the get-go. But it was a ride that will make the next 170+ ride seem easier and the one after that.

    Speaking of suffering and gravel, I’m signed up for the Hibernator 100 in Laona, WI in October – 160 kms on gravel roads through the Nicolet National Forest. Can’t wait. It’ll be an epic ride on new roads and all gravel. Suffering guaranteed but also massive pleasure.

    Marko is doing the Heck Epic this weekend; are you popping up for the Heck of the North Oct 3?

    http://www.heckofthenorth.com/the-heck-epic/

    http://www.heckofthenorth.com/heck-of-the-north/

    If my schedule allows, I’ll try to pop out for the Winthrop Grand Fondo in a few weeks over this way.

    http://rideviciouscycle.com/events/gran-fondo-winthrop/

  26. @Harminator

    I love the suffering. I love when the suffering ends.

    For the record, Mary preferred the hallucigens…

    All y’all always assume I’m just being silly, but all my writing is strictly factual.

    @Gianni

    This quote must have surfaced here before but seems relevant. Cycling and freedom.

    Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” Susan B Anthony 1820-1906

    That is a fantastic quote.

    @Vince

    As an introvert – I believe Cycling is intrinsically appealing to introverts – it gives me the freedom to retreat into myself and regain the energy upon which I have drawn during the daily social interactions as life and my profession run their course. But mostly, it gives me the freedom to indulge in the single-minded pleasure of suffering.

    Up until now I never truly understood why I consistently forego those late nights out on the town in favor of riding at dawn’s first light. I always thought it was the taste of the crisp moisture in the air, the sound of stillness interrupted only by the hum of my tires gliding along the road, or the way the sunlight peeks through the trees to signal a new day and a new beginning. It’s all of those things, sure, but there was also something intangible I could not quite put my finger on. The way you so eloquently put it is exactly how I could never get my one track mind to think about it. Perfect.

    Those are some beautifully put thoughts right there as well!

  27. @VeloSix

    Cycling, quite simply is my anti-depressant and my alcohol. It is my wonder drug and cure all. Shit, it will even kill the common cold, no lie!

    I think that so true for most of us. Eating better, drinking less, not getting fat, all to be better on the bike. Personally, I’ve never talked to a shrink or taken any antidepressants. True, Friday nights and pints were my medication for many years but still, it was not Friday and Saturday nights. I had to be sharp for a Sunday ride.

  28. @frank

    Instantly took your meaning as this quote. “He’s trying to lead you down the path of righteousness. I’m gonna lead down the path that rocks!”

  29. @PeakInTwoYears

    That was hard to read man. 25-yr old fire fighter lost among others.

  30. @universo

    Yeah.

    I’m wondering whether I’ll get to go for a particular ride on a particular day, and people are dying to save the town.

    Disconnect.

  31. @PeakInTwoYears

    Well this is just fucking awful.

    http://www.king5.com/story/news/local/wildfires/2015/08/19/okanogan-county-town-evacuated-due-wildfire/31987159/

    Fucking hell. This article was written in Winthrop, at the Old Schoolhouse Brewery. Fuck I hope that whole place is saved in the end. This is absolutely heartbreaking in the most visceral sense.

    In fact, on our way out of town, we ate at Kelly’s and three volunteer firefighters were there eating and talking about the fires. They were started by an electrical storm which we experienced in our tent. On my ride (I even saw some small fires starting when I was on the top of the climb). One lady was there talking to the owner that her husband had come up from Wyoming to help fight the fires. I’m worried for all those people now.

  32. @PeakInTwoYears

    @universo

    Yeah.

    I’m wondering whether I’ll get to go for a particular ride on a particular day, and people are dying to save the town.

    Disconnect.

    Indeed. And I’m worried if our favorite campsite is going to be burned; we stay in the forest on Tiffany Mountain that burned down 10 or 20 years ago; we were talking about how nicely it’s growing back, finally starting to show some good new growth…

  33. @frank

    There’s always been fires, right? But there hasn’t always been a year-round “fire season.” Over here, there’s been a fire burning in the Hoh Rainforest, for fuck’s sake. I’ve read that fires there historically happen every 500-1,000 years, and there have been three in the last forty years. I wish I’d taken my boat over to Seattle for some kayaktivism recently.

    I wish for the best for the Winthrop-Twisp area and the people who live and work there. Haven’t spent time there yet, just driven through a few times to a place I hunt up in the Pasayten, out of Loomis. Such gorgeous country there, between the Cascade crest and Hwy 97. And so vulnerable.

  34. The road is where my spirit lies, but the dirt is where I find my soul; suffering is liberty. Vive la Vie Velominatus.Truer words have not been spoken. For me, a cleansing of the mind and soul!

    Thank you Frank!!!

  35. @frank

    @wiscot

    Great and timely piece! I did 170 kms on Sunday. It was hot and humid and windy. It was a sufferfest almost from the get-go. But it was a ride that will make the next 170+ ride seem easier and the one after that.

    Speaking of suffering and gravel, I’m signed up for the Hibernator 100 in Laona, WI in October – 160 kms on gravel roads through the Nicolet National Forest. Can’t wait. It’ll be an epic ride on new roads and all gravel. Suffering guaranteed but also massive pleasure.

    Marko is doing the Heck Epic this weekend; are you popping up for the Heck of the North Oct 3?

    http://www.heckofthenorth.com/the-heck-epic/

    http://www.heckofthenorth.com/heck-of-the-north/

    If my schedule allows, I’ll try to pop out for the Winthrop Grand Fondo in a few weeks over this way.

    http://rideviciouscycle.com/events/gran-fondo-winthrop/

    Nah, the Hibernator is the same weekend alas. Got the Door Co century and the Maywood Iron Racoon Ride in the next few weeks too. Looking forward to each and every one!

  36. Road, Trail or trainer– If I can find the time in my insane schedule… I’ll turn the cranks. But there’s still something about flying by the farmland out here that is relaxing.

  37. For those of us lucky enough to be in the Pacific NW, there is a wonderful gravel event on the Oregon coast. https://www.athletepath.com/oregon-coast-gravel-epic/2015-8-29

    I rode it last year and had a blast. There is much time to be spent suffering in the process. It helps to look up and see beautiful scenery everywhere.

    Sadly life’s schedule won’t allow me to ride it this year, but I will try to catch it again.

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