A friend recently asked my advice for how to prepare for the longest ride he’d ever done. My approach is somewhat unorthodox when it comes to this sort of thing; I like to train to ride a lot farther than the event itself, and whenever possible, throw in a handful of sessions with my old friend, The Man with the Hammer. I suggested he do the same, just to make sure he understands the alchemy of combining total exhaustion with the reality of still having a long way to ride. Based on his response suggesting the idea somehow contained a bad taste, I assume he didn’t take my advice.
I didn’t invent this technique. De Vlaeminck was known for his marathon training sessions involving a diabolical mixture of V:00 am starts and distances of 400km in preparation for his favorite race, Paris-Roubaix. Fignon was known to head out for day-long rides with little or no food in his pockets with the express intent of meeting the Man with the Hammer.
The Man with the Hammer holds a special place in the mythology of Cycling; ruthless and unpredictable, he lurks about in the shadows, ready to strike at any time. Most fear him, but I have been bopped on the head by him so many times, I start to feel lonely for his visits after a few months. I sense him in the nape of my neck long before he draws his hammer down with his judgement. On long solo rides, when the mind retreats into The Tunnel, I often find myself carrying silent conversations. Perhaps it is he to whom I speak in those dark hours.
His presence as a constant companion may not be as insane as it sounds. Explorers have often spoken of feeling that another presence was traveling with them; the early teams who attempted to scale Mount Everest had difficulty reconciling the numbers in their party due to the convincing sensation that another had been with them. All three men in Shackleton’s party who crossed the island of South Georgia independently confided in their captain that they believed a fourth to be traveling with them. This, I am certain, is the great spirit of the Man with the Hammer. We must not fear him; though he may be ready to strike, he is a benevolent spirit.
There is something purifying in being completely depleted and still having to carry on; it flushes your transgressions from you in a cleansing flood. Don’t avoid this; seek it out; every rider should endeavor to experience his visits at least a few times per year. They remind you that you can push beyond your limits, that the only thing bridging the chasm to a goal is having the will to act.
Whenever I find myself weighed down and questioning myself, I head out on my bicycle with no food in the pockets and with the express intent of meeting my old friend, the Man with the Hammer.