They say it never gets any easier, cycling. That it always hurts, you just get faster. By they, of course, I mean Greg Lemond, with his famous quote, and then subsequently every cycling blogger with an hour to spare and a blank page to fill.
But he was wrong, was Greg.
I say this from the vantage point of a rank amateur not fit to tighten the man’s Sidis.
But he was wrong.
Here’s what happens.
You make the decision to start taking road biking seriously. This involves kitting yourself out with the basics and buying a Garmin. You then start to care about mileage (or kilometre-age?) and push yourself to rider longer, further, and faster.
This hurts from the moment you roll through your front gate to the dishevelment of your return. If you haven’t reached dishevelment you need to go and do another hour. These early days, you see, are about bending and breaking your body into shape.
The more you do this the more you build your strength and endurance.
For quite a while (months, years?) the Lemond maxim holds true: it continues to hurt like a bastard but you get faster. You either accept this as an acceptable pay-off or you chuck the bike in a skip and take up golf. Or cooking. Or maybe drinking.
But past this point, if you’re still riding, it slowly changes.
Eventually you develop a deep well – and I apologise in advance here for using a technical cycling term – of magical cycling juice. You can draw on this, dipping in to control the hurt.
The juice is made up of one part pure strength – a hard-earned base of endurance – and two parts experience and skill.
Because you’ve spent several hundred hours of your life staring at Tarmac, you can read the road. There comes a point when a bump or curve in the asphalt automatically translates into the most efficient use of your muscles.
The Dalai Lama, when he’s out for a Sunday morning group ride with his fellow monks, calls it Zen. You might know it as rhythm, or flow.
Get this right, and the feeling is magical.
Back when you were a beginner you never knew this feeling existed. You were too busy enduring pain and thinking of ways to make it stop. But once you’ve had a glimpse it gets addictive.
The flip side, still, is the pain.
Because with your muscles, and your experience, and your many hours and miles, you know how hard you can push. How deep you can go. How much you can hurt and still make it home.
You are an expert in self-harm. When the pain comes it’s worse than it ever was, but it comes as peaks followed by the troughs of pure joy where the road works with you. Then you touch gloves and go at it again.
What Greg Lemond should have said is: “It sometimes gets easier, for a bit, before suddenly getting very hard, and then easy again, and alternating between the two. And you also get faster.”