At the top of the Ghisallo climb, in Bellagio on Lake Como in Italy, and outside the Madonna del Ghisallo chapel is a statue of two riders. The first is raising an arm in triumph, alongside the second rider who has fallen. Glory and suffering. Cycling epitomized, so much so that ‘glory and suffering’ is the motto of that luxury cycling apparel company, which has appropriated the message of the statue for its branding (along with a popular Italian cocktail) – “…an online emporium of performance roadwear, accessories, publications and events, all celebrating the glory and suffering of road riding.”
All pro races contain suffering, much more than us mere mortals can appreciate or experience. But some are tougher than others, and we are entering the spring classics season in Belgium (and nearby) where the races involve a particular type of suffering. This is the realm of the hard men, the toughest of the tough who succeed against the odds, and the wind and the rain and the pain-soaked cobbles, all the while being tormented by rabid fans in heightened states of hysteria and frenzy (likely augmented by strong beer and calorifically-frightening local delicacies).
As fans, we appreciate and respect hardness. We want to see suffering and to see it overcome. Suffering and glory. But suffering is a dead end street. There is an end point to suffering, after which it simply becomes masochistic. Beyond this point, we as fans become party to – dare it be said- simple exploitation for our own amusement and edification.
At the Tour de France in 2011, we were witness to a particularly cruel incident of suffering – the crash by Johnny Hoogerland where he was knocked off his bike by a French TV car and catapulted into a barbed wire fence. His injuries were horrific, but Hoogerland got back on his bike and struggled through to the finish, a genuine hard man and a hero. But what does it say about cycling that this incident did not result in immediate medical attention for Hoogerland and special dispensation so that he did not need to finish the stage and could be allowed to start again the next day? These are the same rules that dictate that if riders do crash, if they cannot continue then the race proceeds without them. If they can make the finish, somehow, in pain and agony, then they can start again the next day in a stage race. As well, the riding conditions faced by the pro riders have in many cases been well over the border of responsibility as race organizers have pressed on despite the weather. There have been many cases similar to Hoogerland’s in pro cycling’s history but they are typically celebrated as ‘epic’ rides.
Pro sports are struggling with how to deal with the suffering of their participants. American football is probably facing a crisis with the peak of legitimized violence that it has reached. Hockey is also having to deal with the immediate implications to players from concussions as well as the long-term results of such injuries, particularly from the – frankly bizarre – practice of fighting that has yet to be banned, despite the weight of the arguments against it.
Many sports are resistant to change because of long histories of the ‘rules of the game’ and the traditions involved. Such sports betray their working-class roots. In cycling, for example, before the 1970s it was a chance for the working class to escape the routine of manual labour; for many the rigours of a professional athlete were less than the conditions they might face on a farm or in a factory. But this is no longer the case with the rise of the middle class as well as the improvement of working conditions for the betterment of all. Exploitation of the working class, in the classical sense, has diminished significantly in recent decades, but exploitation in sport (despite many changes for the betterment of players, not least in the increase in remuneration) has not always kept pace.
In cycling, it is not immediately clear what changes should take place to put some sort of limit on suffering, although focusing on the conditions out on the road, whether due to weather or route choice, would be a good place to start (in the latest brouhaha over tabs on forks and saddle positions, the UCI, unfortunately, seems more interested in its stated goal of “the preservation of the culture and image of the bicycle.”). But the broader point of this post is to suggest that there should be an end point that prompts changes to be made. ‘HTFU’ and other such slogans are all well and good for bragging (and blogging) about with your riding buddies, but we should recognize that there is a limit line – and that we may not be entirely aware when that limit line has been crossed. Other sports, like football and hockey, may indeed have crossed that line and are struggling to find their way back. If there are no limits, then we are guilty of not respecting the long-term well being of those athletes who provide our short-term gratification. We might think that being cyclists ourselves means that we are somehow tapping into a grand narrative of suffering and glory with our own meager efforts. We are not.
As we ponder the current state of cycling today, it is still worthwhile to look back at cases of epic suffering and the hard men who put themselves into the deepest and darkest of pain caves for our entertainment. One such hard man was the Italian racer Fiorenzo Magni and you can read all about his three consecutive victories at the Tour of Flanders by following this link to Pez.