The Man With The Hammer

The Man with the Hammer strikes Merckx as Thevenet passes him to take the Maillot Juane

Cycling is a unique sport in the sense that suffering is a badge of honor.  Greg LeMond once said, “It never gets easier, you just go faster.”  Cyclists love to suffer – it’s a badge of honor.  Bernard Hinault claimed that as long as he breathed, he attacked.

At a primordial level, cycling is about the locus of control.  Cyclists love to suffer because they choose to suffer.  Because it challenges your mind.  As Jens Voigt – my all-time favorite cyclist – says, “When you go hard, your body says, ‘STOP!’ and your mind says, ‘BODY, SHUT UP!’ And, sometimes it works!  And then you GO!”

Cycling is about the glory of suffering, which is something few other sports can say.  The men and women that race the Tours de France (yes, there’s a women’s race and no, they don’t play it on Versus, and yes, it’s every bit as exciting as the men’s race) suffer for 21 days, 6 hours a day, over the most challenging terrain and awful weather you can imagine – and they race hard.  Through this suffering, one develops a third-person relationship with your legs.  You become detached from them, I suspect because they cause you so much pain that you don’t want to associate with them.  Cyclists don’t refer to their legs and “their legs”.  Cyclists refer to “the legs” as though they are a separate entity from themselves.  Something to tame but not to control.  We can control our mind, but we can not control our legs.  “We’ll have to see how the legs are today.”

Cycling folklore speaks of “The Man With the Hammer”.  He is a man who lurks around any corner and will unexpectedly bop you on the neck with his hammer.  He will cause you to go from smoothly spinning your pedals to pedaling squares and putting your bike in “reverse”.  The Man With the Hammer strikes when your mind takes more from legs than your body can provide.

Most endurance sports refer to this as “bonking”, but a bonk is something you can control by eating and measuring your effort.  But in cycling – because we don’t control our legs – we percieve this to be out of our control.  Cyclists can avoid him temporarily, but all cyclist are hit by him at one point or another in their careers.  Eddy Merckx on the climb to Pra-Loup when he lost the Yellow Jersey to Bernard Thevenet.  Bernard Hinault when he lost the Yellow Jersy to Greg Lemond at Serre Chevalier.  Lance Armstrong when he nearly lost the 2000 Tour on the Col de la Joux-Plane.

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32 Replies to “The Man With The Hammer”


    This is why I ride.

    I want to push my boundaries, and I can’t do it from my office, with my fucking chair, and my fucking laptop, and my fucking clients. I can’t do it from home, because of my very own wife (she really isn’t a velomihottie… she is the cycling antichrist, who’s favourite phrase is ‘that fucking bike’) and my adorable, lovely, beautiful two children. But I can do it from my bike. When I get on it, and I clip in, I like to imagine my personality disappears – all rational elements, all empathy, all emotion, all control just… goes. Instead, it is replaced by roadslave, an entity that is focused on riding hard, riding well. I’m a science fiction fan… go read Jon Steakley’s “Armor” and read about Felix and ‘The Engine’, the machine he becomes when he goes into battle against the bugs that protects him and saves him against all probability because the ‘engine’ is so ruthlessly efficient…. that’s me, in my own little world. I love the idea of a world in which I can refer to ‘the legs’ as a separate entity, with pride, with awe… until then, I’ll keep trying to ignore the pain, to keep pushing, and to harden the fuck up.

  2. Well written, roadslave. And thanks, Frank.

    I played a lot of sports growing up and then played just one in college. I was focused on that sport for around twelve years, every day, no matter the weather or how I felt. I practiced a lot of hours alone, honing my skills that would help me during the games, which was a team sport. I LOVED practicing on my own, knowing it would pay off.

    After college I did a little of this, a little of that athletically. I even joined a fucking gym. Ugh.

    Around seven years ago on my way to work I realized I was a total dick, waiting for buses and trains to come. What a waste of time and an unnecessarily long commute. I spent way too much money converting my old mtn bike into a road-like bike. Stupid. I also realized all those bastards on road bikes were just crushing it, flying by me as a I chugged along. I sorted out my standover height, since this is the only thing you need to have to fit a bicycle well, and picked up a used Cannondale.

    At first I was a commuter. Then I started to ride on MUPs for fun. Then I found some ancient Performance shorts with a fleece chamois at a thrift store. $2…and I’d joined the Lycra Legions, though with a gross second-hand chamois.

    As I sit here in 2010, with 2011 approaching, it is hard to believe how far I’ve come. I ride daily, going as long as my schedule allows me. I have found my lifetime sport, something to challenge me and something I love being committed too. It keeps me young, keeps me healthy, and keeps me straight with all the Rules I have to follow.

    My Cannondale is still too big for me, but as my first road bike, still is revered. It’s my bad weather bike these days. Thankfully I have some nicer, and better fitting, road bikes I ride on other days. Carbon & steel, with my eyes on a Ti frame in the near future.

    I’d like to think I’m a Velominati. Either way, winter is coming and another seasoning of riding outside in all weather conditions should continue to help me in the process of HTFU as I continue to progress in my develop as a cyclist. I can’t imagine my life without cycling, bicycles, The Rules, and all those miles in quiet solitude. This grand sport has given me a new passion, both on and off the bike.

  3. @Ron
    Very well said. Sentiments I share. Your arc to cycling is eerily similar to mine. I am grateful to have found a sport which caters to both the social animal and the solitude seeker in me; which provides opportunities to compete against others and to compete against myself; which keeps me healthy without breaking me; in which my body type is an advantage rather than an impediment; which I can do until I am too old to do anything; which I can obsess about in the company of other obsessives; which is beautiful; and which, almost best of all, means I have a perfect excuse to never, ever, set foot on a golf course…

  4. Really awesome article! As Vince Lombardi once said (not sure this is the exact quote but it’s close), “a man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he is, is that moment when he has worked his heart out and lies exhausted on the field of battle – victorious”.
    While most sports have a discernible opponent, it’s a bit of a dichotomy for ‘cyclists’ because, unless you’re actually paid to race, the only opponent you really ever face is yourself and your own limitations. So… to achieve that victory, you have to essentially kick your own ass or face allowing those limitations to stand over you, victorious, as you lie defeated. As the outside world looks upon us as little more than masochists on two wheels, only other cyclists understand that continuing on as every fiber of your being screams out for you to give up and call for a ride home is what makes a ride great. It’s not the miles ridden or the meters gained… it’s riding until you’re sure you can’t ride any more but continuing on anyway and still making it to the end of your route that allows us to lie exhausted upon our field of battle basking in the warm glow of victory.

  5. I really like this article – I refer to my legs as “machines”, glad to know I’m not the only one to be so detached from them; my friends think I’m nuts.
    I love that feeling where on a good day I feel I could just ride and ride forever, even after 5hrs, I think, ‘if only I had some more food on me I could go just a bit further’ but I know that if I did try to go further without that food, I’d bonk and it’d be a longer recovery. I’m always amazed how at that point nothing hurts, and I think wow, I love riding my bike!!
    Sadly don’t get out for many long rides as its winter, and as much as I’ve been riding and coming home soaked through and cold (I know, harden the f*ck up, right), but I’m pretty excited for warm sunny days of longer rides and no more frozen toes!

  6. Yeah, mate. Funny how that feeling comes across. And it nev hits until you’ve been out for hours…finally your body says, “Right, you’re obviously nit listening to me anyway, so I’m just going to shut and wait for you to wrap up. Catch you later.”

    We call that sensation, La Volupte.

  7. I’ve gotta say I’m absolutely loving trawling through the archives one by one and coming across gems like this post…if the legs weren’t stiff & sore already from today’s exertions (and it wasn’t 10.30pm) I’d be keen to suit up again and get out there!!

  8. @Mikael Liddy – I was just thinking the exact same thing. It is a real treat to get more acquainted with this community of like-minded folks here by combing through the archives. Truly inspiring.

  9. @drsoul
    Yeh yeh. Good fun.
    I like that, as they should be, the articles are a set up for the main course – the discussion in the comments section. Unlike a lot of blogs, the articles live on long after they would normally die.
    It’s a more interesting and guided version of a forum.

  10. Reviving an old thread to share what I think is an awesome story from today. My son, Dash,10 years old, had a 1 mile race at school today against all the 5th graders, which is about 150 kids. He said that the first lap everyone was sprinting and he was near the back, but then they all started to die and he found himself in 2nd place on lap 3 out of 4 and he noticed that his legs were killing him. He said at that moment that he said to himself, “SHUT UP LEGS!” and passed the last guy and went on to win all by himself. Defintiely my son! Now my wife HAS to acknowledge that there actually IS some usefulness in my showing the kiddos all these cycling youtube clips!!!

    As Fronk said above, pre Shut-Up-Legs quote but paraphrased, “As Jens Voigt – my all-time favorite cyclist – says, “When you go hard, your body says, ‘STOP!’ and your mind says, ‘BODY, SHUT UP!’ And, sometimes it works! And then you GO!”

  11. @Roadslave525 I didn’t think anyone else in the world knew about “Armor”.  One of my all-time favorite books.  Maybe things.

  12. Not sure if this has been posted before but, can’t imagine that it hasn’t, especially from one of the PNWers. Anyway:

    Hammering Man, Seattle

  13. @Bespoke

    Not sure if this has been posted before but, can’t imagine that it hasn’t, especially from one of the PNWers. Anyway:

    Hammering Man, Seattle

    Beauty, are you in Seattle? Aside from being a secret homage to our patron saint, the SAM is a fantastic museum.

    Nice looking bike, even if you didn’t lean it properly.

  14. @frank


    Not sure if this has been posted before but, can’t imagine that it hasn’t, especially from one of the PNWers. Anyway:

    Beauty, are you in Seattle? Aside from being a secret homage to our patron saint, the SAM is a fantastic museum.

    Nice looking bike, even if you didn’t lean it properly.

    Hi Frank, no, unfortunately not right now. I did live there for a few months back in the 80’s – immediately post punk, although I wasn’t part of that movement nor there for that reason.

    Also, you would have recognized my bike from the V-cufflinks! This photo is a net grab, apropos with the bike, I thought. Would have posted a gif with the movement of The Man’s hammer if I could have found one.

    Certainly, if I am out your way (and I hope to be so soon), I will look you and other Velominati up.


  15. There’s some great stuff here im similar to probably a lot if people on here played so many sports over the years and loved them all. But now my bodys a bit worse for wear thought I would try a low impact sport so I started on my bike. Well now I love it so much I can’t live without it it keeps me saine because when I’m on my bike it’s me vs me in a titanic battle lol. I don’t call it bonking or the hammer for me it’s called the INVISABLE WALL some days it hits me from nowhere some days it stays away and some days I go through it and just keep going anyway. But it’s always there somewhere watching me waiting and I look foward to our next battle as slowly I get better and better.


  16. Sat in the Theatre Royal, Plymouth about to watch ‘The Man With the Hammer’ a play about cycling obsession… When my wife said she’d booked a night at the theatre I wasn’t expecting this!!


  17. I was hit by The Man With the Hammer this weekend (UK Sussex Cogal 2016). It was not nice ! I even dared calling it Hell in my report.

    Point is, it is part of cycling. At one point I started thinking the Cogal might put me off cycling for a whille, but when I assed the ride, I forgot the about the painful part. All I could think off is my under-par performance. Conclusion, there’s only one thing to do : train harder, apply rule #10, and try again.

    There lies the beauty of cycling, and maybe of cyclists. No matter how much pain is endured, it never is the last ride.

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