Book excerpt: The Art of Cycling: Philosophy, Meaning, and a Life on Two Wheels

Retired U.S. national team racer James Hibbard explores cycling's fetishization of pain.

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the new book The Art of Cycling: Philosophy, Meaning, and a Life on Two Wheels by James Hibbard and published by Hachette/ Quercus.

Hibbard is a California-based writer of fiction, nonfiction, and screenplays. He is a former UCI professional road racer with the Shaklee and HealthNet teams, and was a member of the U.S. national team.

The book is described as “a meditative love letter to the sport of cycling … it traces the journey of a former professional racer regaining his love for the sport and shows how cycling can shed new light on age-old questions of selfhood, meaning, and purpose.”

The body is not a thing, it is a situation: it is our grasp on the world and our sketch of our project.

—Simone de Beauvoir

Even more than other sports, cycling has always fetishized pain. Not just the suffering of physical exertion, but also the pain of crashing and enduring scorching summer heat and freezing rain. Etched into the collective memories of the tifosi — the rabid fans of cycling — are not just glorious wins, but also the more personal victories over the elements or the misfortune of a crash: Tyler Hamilton winning a stage of the Tour de France with a broken collarbone; Andy Hampsten’s famous Giro d’Italia win on the snowy Gavia pass; even the seemingly superhuman Eddy Merckx collapsing after setting the world hour record and swearing he’d never attempt it again, owing to the sheer physical pain of such an effort in the thin air of Mexico City.

From the stark images of dust-covered riders in the showers of the Roubaix velodrome to gaunt climbers with sunken cheeks cresting freezing Alpine summits, and even the British rider Tom Simpson’s death from exhaustion on the slopes of the famed Mont Ventoux, cycling aestheticizes suffering, transfiguring hollow faces and bloody bodies into something beautiful and ripe with meaning, making it possible to imagine that your struggles too are in the service of some greater, mythologizing purpose.

As a young rider, it was this sort of heroism I desperately wanted to emulate, and I projected myself into the world of cycling I saw on grainy VHS tapes. All of the English-language tapes came from one source: World Cycling Productions and the commentators, Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen presented a world filled with heroic attacks, brave descending, and chivalrous sacrifice for a team leader in difficulty. Riders didn’t simply climb, “they danced on the pedals,” as they ascended moonscape mountain roads far above the tree line; in this world, riders didn’t merely hurt, they “dug into their suitcase of courage.” And so, with this as my touchstone, hard training rides in the rain, or remounting after a crash just to hopelessly chase the field for hours, were suffused with this same sense of bravery and heroism. In bike racing, I’d finally found a domain in which pain meant something.

With the grand stage of cycling as my standard, most people’s idea of fun struck me as little more than a distraction, and as a teenager, the hardships of cycling came to be the most pleasurable thing I knew. I’d often go to the velodrome, warm up, and do three or four one-kilometer efforts so hard that I’d have to recover for an hour or more before mustering the will to undertake the next effort. Concerned as I was with pain, tribulation, and overcoming, my version of the sport had little to do with the hobbyist ideas of riding for self-betterment or physical fitness. Suffering of this magnitude seemed destructive and, in all likelihood, bad for one’s health. I repeatedly forced my body beyond its limits, and at least once a year could count on falling heavily in a race. Day in and day out, I hurt so badly that I simply assumed it had to be taking, not adding, years to my life.

James Hibbard in a Team USA cycling kit, wearing multiple medals

A near-daily companion, I studied the pain of the bike, slowly coming to learn its infinite gradations and subtle variations; the creeping gnaw of fatigue over the span of five or six hours of hard riding as opposed to the acute staccato agony of a short, frenetic one-kilometer time trial on the velodrome which seared my lungs and flooded my bloodstream with lactic acid. There’s a telling term used by riders to describe going over your physical limit: turning yourself inside out. As strange as it may sound, this turn of phrase captures something fundamental about suffering on the bike; you’re not simply exerting yourself as you would digging a hole, chopping wood, or slogging through a physical chore. When you’re suffering on the bike, you’re bringing to bear the full depths of all you are and have ever felt.

Making little differentiation between physical and emotional pain, I thought surely that those who felt more and deeper should be able to hurt more. It seemed that there was but one currency of suffering and that I should be able to translate all of my emotional pain into the physical realm. Like the artists and writers of existentialism, I imagined externalizing my feelings through the bike — somehow validating all I felt but had no words for. The suffering of racing and hard training not only brought me into the present, but also deadened the emotional pain which I could never seem to make sense of, and at its most fundamental, the sport seemed little more than a contest of who could endure the most.

It seemed that the pain was only in my head — that I should be able to will myself to overcome whatever protective mechanism exists so as to prevent a human being from harming him or herself through exertion. I wondered just what combination of my mind and body was stopping me — why it was that no matter how hard I tried, I was inexplicably prevented from exerting myself past a certain point. Giving up seemed like a choice — a matter of volition and will — and it became possible to pinpoint the very moment a rider relented. Shoulders slump, cadence slows, and almost inevitably the cyclist’s gaze grows vacant before turning downward toward the chainrings of the bike; what seems to be a conscious decision is written across the face and manifested in a posture of defeat.

Even as I recall it now, the image of a rider relenting still elicits a contempt for weakness that feels out of character — a visceral mixture of shame and disgust — directed not merely at the weakness of others, but in equal measure at myself, for all the times when I too found that no matter how hard I tried or how much I wanted it, I could simply ride no harder.

Where do you live in your body?

It’s not difficult to comprehend how this understanding of suffering as a function of one’s will quickly takes on a moral dimension: I didn’t just win, I won because I was able to hurt more than you. Like the Christian mortification of the flesh through self-flagellation or the wearing of a horsehair shirt, being able to endure pain on the bike brings with it a sense of not just physical but moral superiority, and it becomes easy to look upon those who don’t know the hardships of the bike with a degree of disdain. You hear phrases like, “he just wanted it more,” which cast winning and losing in terms of character — a reflection of grit and tenacity — rather than more prosaic things like physiology, preparation, or genetic endowment, which no reasonable person would judge in a moral light.

It always seemed that there were essentially two options when it came to what I knew was going to be a painful effort; the first was to flee from it: to simply tell myself that it wasn’t happening and to put my mind elsewhere. The other approach was to face it head-on: to study the sensations and try to understand exactly what it was about them that I so wanted to flee from. Of these two, I learned that going into the pain was by far the better option. Fleeing — imagining that I was on a sunny beach or tucked into the clean white sheets of a warm bed — only made the pain more acute. So, rather than attempting to avoid the inevitable pain, I’d resolve myself to confront it directly.

When I was a child, I remember that as some sort of a philosophical thought experiment, my father had asked me, “Where do you live in your body?” and the matter of how to deal with pain brings this unanswerable question to the fore. Who or whatever I really was seemed separate from the sensations, and during time trials or VO2 max testing in the lab, I learned to look on like a curious spectator at the growing gnaw of exertion. “I” was a master located in my head, telling my body what to do and how — relentlessly spurring it on through the sheer force of my will.

Almost fundamentally incommunicable in all of its varied forms, there’s a poverty of language when trying to describe the experience of pain. From within the bounds of my subjectivity — my Cartesian self, locked in a bag of skin — it’s impossible to ever know how like or unlike my pain is from yours. From one moment to the next, the pain seemed different in its texture and intensity, and I would settle into the effort and examine exactly what these sensations were as they arose. What it was and how badly it hurt varied — depending not only on how long the effort was, but also from day to day — an endless litany of unknowable factors influencing how my body performed. I thought of anaerobic thresholds, blood lactic levels and how working muscles are using fuel and spinning off metabolic waste.

Riders usually talk about being blocked — dead legs that won’t open up — and thinking of it like this, fuel going in to produce energy and waste out through my body’s delicate biological plumbing, helped me to frame the sensations and endure the inevitable discomfort for as long as it lasted. After exceptionally hard, intense efforts on the track, I’d writhe in the grassy infield and gasp for air, often throwing up as all of the blood in my body was drawn from my gut to the muscles in my legs. The periphery of my vision would grow black and, unable to even remain balanced on my bike, I’d have to be intercepted by a coach or handler who would help me from my bike and keep me from falling over.

Strangely though, while this binary of flight on the one hand, and examination on the other, almost always applied when I was alone, there were other instances when none of what I’ve just described was applicable. When I was racing and fully absorbed in the tactics of other riders, or navigating my way through the peloton, the physical pain which had seemed almost unbearable often retreated to the background. Engaged with the task at hand, the discomfort of the effort fled to the margins of consciousness in something like the “peak experience” described by humanistic psychology when your skill level aligns perfectly with the demands of the task.

Here I wasn’t a dictatorial sovereign willing on my body from my head, instead I was both in and of my body — fully present in where I was and what I was doing.

Regardless of whether you’re confronting or fleeing from pain, there’s always the assumption that there is some essential you in your brain who is able to look upon the events of the body with either disinterest or engagement. But, fully absorbed in racing, I wasn’t escaping to either some place more pleasant or trying in any conscious way to face the discomfort — as a matter of necessity I simply had to apply my full attention to what I was doing and, when I did, it seemed as if the long shadow of pain which I’d tried to negotiate some way around or through had been cast by a figure so diminutive I never should have feared it in the first place.

Art of Cycling book cover

James Hamilton Hibbard is an American author, screenwriter, and former professional cyclist. His major-press debut, The Art of Cycling: Philosophy, Meaning, and a Life on Two Wheels (Hachette/ Quercus) is available for purchase online and in bookshops everywhere.