When you’re digging deeper into Rock and Roll, you’re on a freight train headed straight for the blues.
– Jack White
The analog for this in Cycling is that as we dig deeper into cycling, we’re headed for The Mountains. Suffering is the altar of our sport, and Rule VV emphasizes the experience: the pain never lessens; the only indication we have that we are getting better is that the pain simply doesn’t last as long. Like some kind of voluntary Stockholm Syndrome, we find ourselves captivated by mountains, fantasising about riding roads that represent nothing but hours of misery.
I sat in a small dual-prop plane this morning, staring at the imposing and breathtaking view of the series of volcanoes that line the coast from Seattle to Portland. So beautiful, yet incomprehensibly destructive, I’ve never seen them in a row like this, a panorama only possible on a clear day aboard a small, low-flying plane. (I’ve got a thing for volcanoes.)
But this twisted mind of mine could hardly allow me the beauty of what I was seeing; in the valleys directly below the plane were wispy ribbons that cut across the hillsides in a complicated web; ribbons I knew to be mountain roads. Snow-covered dome followed snow-covered dome along my journey, scarcely noticed as I made a silent vow to worship these roads in the only way I know how: to submit to suffering upon them.
Which begs the question, why do we subject ourselves to this? We claim to love our sport, but the word “suffering” doesn’t convey nor imply pleasure. I’m not a religious man, so I’m making a lot of assumptions about the details, but when we say that Jesus suffered upon the Cross, I am fairly certain that we aren’t to take from that the idea that he found it to be in some way exhilarating, that he had a desktop wallpaper of his Cross #1 and a screensaver which rotated through all his Crosses – the ones for good weather and for bad, in different types of wood – along with up-close shots of the beautiful joinery work.
The difference is that on rare occasion, the suffering doesn’t feel like suffering. It feels like freedom, like control over ourselves in a way we can’t find off the bike. Yesterday morning, I stole out for a ride before work. Almost absent-mindedly, I chose the route that snakes its way north, climbing and descending along the Puget Sound coast. Summer mornings in the Pacific Northwest can be almost mystical, with the Marine Layer causing the lower-lying lands to be shrouded in fog while the higher areas are experiencing a spectacular clear morning with views of mountains on three sides and water on the fourth. This was such a day.
Ten minutes into the ride, I was rolling effortlessly along Shilshole Marina, ensconced in a blanket of fog. The masts from the countless sailboats formed hypnotic silhouettes as they gently swayed in the waves, tied to their piers. At the end of the marina, I swung right under the railroad tracks, and rolled onto the first climb of the day, the climb to Blue Ridge from Golden Gardens.
I settled into my rhythm and hit the first switchback moving faster than usual; I swung wide and cut into the turn aggressively so I wouldn’t sweep into oncoming traffic on the exit. I reveled for a moment in the fleeting pleasure that comes when I have to coast through a turn on a climb, then slipped the chain onto the little ring as the gradient kicked up and as the climb started its more determined journey to the top of the ridge.
This is where I always take my seat in the Hurt Locker; the middle section is not terribly steep, but the gradient fluctuates and the pavement is bad in places. As such, it doesn’t suit my ‘strengths’ as a (bad) climber, and here I ask the agent for an aisle seat in the hopes that the pain might be less suffocating there, but instead I find my normal seat in the back row, next to the overweight nose-breather.
I pushed through the steep section in a state of simple, one-dimensional suffering. This is the state consisting of the customary leg-burning, lung-searing pain that I feel every time a gradient kicks up. Where the suffering takes on some complexity is when the gradient eases and I am rendered powerless against the urge to drop the chain into a cog with a tooth or two less. But then something unexpected happened; rather than the usual onset of square pedaling, I found that while the pain levels stayed the same, the speed increased. That can’t be right, so I tried again, another tooth less. The same story, the speed increases. I don’t like to look down, but I forgave myself a quick glance to make sure something wasn’t amuck, like that my chain was missing or some such thing. Sure enough, there was a problem: I was so far down my block that I was about to Schleckacnical.
I did the only thing that seemed reasonable under the circumstances: I moved Sur la Plaque. Again, the speed increased. I swung onto the last stretch of the climb, where the gradient increases again. Out of the saddle, and I was over it before I even realized where I was.
As I reached the top, I broke through the clouds and was bathed in sunlight. The change in light broke the spell, and the magic was gone at once. As I began the descent, I realized that what I experienced was a visit from La Volupte; that was as good as I would feel the rest of the ride, if not the whole season.
She won’t visit again soon, but one short visit from La Volupte is enough to remind me that those fleeting moments are worth countless hours-long sessions under the iron crush of the Man with the Hammer.
There is a place where my soul rests, and that place is in the Mountains. To climb well is to walk for a moment where angels fly.