I’m still not sure how I ended up here. I recall riding my bike along the 101 in California, stopping to fill up a water bottle, and then nothing until I woke up here. I’ve spent the last 5 days cooped up in what I imagine is the remnants of a medieval torture chamber, only there are shredded bike shorts hanging from the walls. I don’t have a bed, it’s just a slab of wood. Oh, and my bike is here, bolted to a trainer in the middle of the room. Every once in a while a tray of “food” is slid under the door, although I’m not sure I’d call it food. It’s primarily a plate of rusty nails, a jar of angry bees, and a glass of some kind of bubbling concoction. I figured if I shake the bottle enough I can knock the bees unconscious and get a few down. I’ve managed to mix the nails and whatever is in the glass together and get that down too. It burns pretty badly though.
On this day, instead of the plate of food the door was opened, and an older man walked in. He glared at me for a few moments, and then waived in what looked like a few trolls. They scampered over to my bike, unbolted it from the trainer, checked the tire pressures, and walked it out of the room. The man told me to follow him. I obliged, although I was more than a little freaked out about this whole deal. As I followed, he began explaining, in rather broken English, where we were going and what was going on.
The man’s name is Grunter Von Agony, and I am in a place called Sufferlandria. The creatures who had taken my bike earlier were his Minions, and they certainly weren’t like the ones from Despicable Me. Grunter and the leaders of Sufferlandria had been watching me for some time, and I was chosen because I had displayed “desirable” skills on my bike. Today, I was to participate in a road race against professionals from all over the world in the Tour of Sufferlandria. Oh, and it would be an all female field… except for me of course.
Obviously I tried pointing out a few flaws in this whole scenario… First and foremost: I’m not some super cyclist. I’m just an amateur who enjoys a good, tough ride. I’m also a male, and I was sure a legion of professional females were going to kick my ass up and down the road. He promptly told me to shut up and trust in the suffering. I wasn’t really keen on finding out what he meant… but I figured not shutting up would probably be worse, so I clammed up.
I was eventually led out to the service area and handed my bike. Around me pro women were having their bikes tuned up, getting their legs rubbed with embrocation, and generally getting psyched up for the race. A few shot me nervous looks, and I could hear some mutters of “there’s the Sufferlandrian.” I looked around behind me confused, since I was sure they were talking about someone else, but I think they were talking about me. Again, I’m not particularly imposing: tall, skinny, have an afro, not a professional. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out why they were worried about me, so I just shrugged and followed Grunter to the start line.
When we arrived, he handed me a radio and an ear piece, explained the race (a neutral start so I could warm up followed by 4 stages, a short opening stage, 2 longer stages, and a team time trial to finish), and told me to follow his instructions. “Prepare to suffer,” he says. “Yaaaaay, I can’t wait” I thought. I climbed on my bike, looked around at the field of genuine bad asses, and took a deep breath. The clock hit zero and we were off.
My first instruction: “Sit in, take it easy.” No problem! I could hang out in the peloton and just let them drag me along, piece of cake! I have to say it was a little awkward at times, I’m 6’4 on a bike with a 60cm frame, surrounded by women who were mostly much smaller than me. I looked over at one point and there was a woman who was maybe 5′ if she was wearing 6″ heels! But the awkwardness was quickly forgotten, these women were not slow, and I am not fast, so I was rapidly realizing my “piece of cake” thought was in error. I started to feel my legs want to slow down, but then I got a friendly reminder through my earpiece: “Suffer!” Thanks, Grunter, I got it. I dug deeper and stuck with the group.
Thankfully, the stage was mostly flat, and eventually my legs began to feel better. I was adapting, and I could see the finish in the distance. So I figured I’d go for it, and I attacked. I pushed hard and managed to break free and score a stage win! My celebration was short lived though, once they showed me the race leader’s jersey I promptly regretted my decision. Normally it’s a fancy colored jersey, but ooooh no, in Sufferlandria, it’s a friggin’ straitjacket. Great. But hey, I won the stage, and the locals were pleased… although you couldn’t really tell. They basically just look miserable all the time.
I expected some sort of special treatment for my performance, which was a mistake, as I was promptly told I’d have to ride my bike to the next stage. Great… Grunter did tell me I could take it easy, but I only had a few minutes to get there because I had wasted time throwing up in the trashcan. Not a sympathetic bunch.
By the time I arrived at the second stage, they were lining up for the start, so I didn’t have a whole lot of time to get ready. Thankfully, they untied my arms so I could hold onto the bars of my bike, but straitjackets aren’t really the most comfortable things on earth. I lined up again, and off we went. This time, the ladies weren’t playing around, and they promptly began attacking me right off the bat.
I’ve watched enough bike racing to know that as the holder of the leader’s jersey, you have a responsibility to manage attacks that could be considered a threat. So, again, I was really regretting that decision to attack on the previous stage. I had to chase down the attacks as they came, and they were a’ comin’! Grunter did kindly let me know a few times that I didn’t have to stick with some of the groups I went after. Although he let me know this AFTER I damn near sprinted my guts out of my mouth trying to catch them. I’m fairly sure this was all intentional, as he’d kindly remind me to “Suffer” every once in a while. I’m certainly not sending this guy a birthday card… if he even has a birthday.
Unlucky for me, a racer attacked who was a threat… and she was FAST! I was told I didn’t have to help her, and I could just suck her wheel but to not let her out of my sights. I was also told she was a world Time Trial champion, so good luck. If I thought I had emptied myself before, clearly I hadn’t. It took more will power than I knew I had to stick with her, all while mentally negotiating with my body so it wouldn’t start a revolt. At one point she pulled out something to eat while hammering away, which made me quite a bit jealous, since I probably couldn’t have spelled food at the time… but then she promptly dropped it. I would have felt bad for her, but I was too busy feeling miserable myself.
We rode solo for what felt like forever, so I turned to check and see how much distance we had. None. We had no distance. I guess I should’ve worked a little harder, since we got caught. Which meant more attacks… oh, and we hit a particularly hilly part of the course. Grunter piped up again: “watch #22”. Ok, the grade feels like a million percent, I’m putting everything I have into the pedals, and now I have to keep another rider in my sights. If I wasn’t so deep in the pain cave, I’d really friggin’ hate this guy. I stuck with her as the road got steeper, and steeper, and steeper.
We eventually crested the worst of the hill, and I could see the finish. As a cycling fan, I also knew that seeing the finish meant SPRINT! Everything was screaming at me to stop, my legs, my lungs, my heart, everything, but I gutted out as much power as I could… and I lost. I also lost the leaders jersey, which I was initially happy about because riding in that thing sucked, but after hearing Grunter during an interview I knew I had to get it back. Lots of talk of gouging eyes, and dancing on chamois, so I wasn’t sure I wanted to find out what would happen if I lost. Of course, I was told that I had to ride to the start of the next stage, again… I would’ve kicked a puppy at that point for a ride on a team bus, and I love puppies. I was again allowed to take it easy on the way over… which I was overjoyed to hear.
I rolled up to the start line for stage three, only 1 more stage to go after this, but on the ride over I was told it would be “hilly.” Wasn’t really sure how to take that, “hilly” as in a mild crest, or “hilly” as in climbing the Alpe d’Huez a half dozen times? I figured I’d just mentally prepare for the worst, and be pleasantly surprised if it didn’t suck half as bad. Another reminder: “Be prepared to suffer”… I was well aware of how this thing worked by now, thank you very much.
By now, the ladies didn’t seem too pleased that some scrub was showing them up, so they attacked early and a break formed. Considering the questionable looks I received from the locals as I was riding to the start, I figured I should go with them. Grunter let me know I needed to actually work this time, so I did. I felt pretty proud of myself, having very little experience in a paceline before, sitting in when I could, and pulling when I was expected to. Until one of the racers really started pouring on the pressure and blowing our paceline to bits.
“Attack!” Initially surprised by the lack of the word “suffer” coming through my ear piece, I pulled it together and dropped the hammer. Of course, the road immediately began to turn upward as I was working to gain ground, but I managed to pull out some space. “Suffer!” That’s more like it, Grunter… I put my head down, and focused on keeping the power up, and the suffering strong. But of course, I was trying to pull away from a bunch of professional bad asses… and they eventually ran me down.
Ok, I was back in the group, I could relax a little, was a thought that was obliterated in a matter of seconds. These women were hauling lots of ass up and down hills, and attacking left and right. I needed to stay in the front, following attacks, churning out power up the hills, and doing whatever I could to spin out some of the burn in my legs when I could. I was in pain… lots of it, but I managed to run down the lead break. I just had to hold on and out sprint her to the finish.
Except for the fact I didn’t catch the lead break, it was just someone trying to bridge to the break! We were both so deep into the darkness though, so we managed to run them down. I could see the finish line, I knew I had to really hammer it if I expected to get that straitjacket back. I tried to ignore the parts of my body telling me to stop and just put everything I had into the pedals.
I shot the revs as high as I could, and just buried myself… but it wasn’t enough, I lost, again. I was down 11 seconds to the leader, it was on to the TT where I knew I’d have to do about all the work to pull back the time and take the win. I expected to hitch a bus ride to the final stage, considering what was at stake, but I should’ve known better. I hopped back on my bike, and rode to the final stage.
When I first showed up to the first stage, I was about 5 steps past terrified. I was surrounded by pros, all much better athletes than I was, but my threshold for suffering was higher, so I was in the thick of it. For the first time I felt like I could do it, I could win this race. I was ready. I was dead tired, everything was sore, my shorts felt like someone dunked them in a vat of acid, and my eyes burned from all the sweat, but I was ready. I was handed my steed for the stage, a TT bike that was fast in 1987, and probably last serviced then, and told to line up. Grunter gave me one last “suffer” for inspiration. A man of many words.
Compared to the other stages, this was a breeze. Stick with my group… a ragtag bunch of troll looking creatures who certainly didn’t scream “fast cyclists”, get low, and go as fast as I could. I needed to pull back 11 seconds, plus add a few for the win. We lined up, listened for the countdown, and got to work.
I don’t know how long the stage was, I just know I was in a pit of despair for what seemed like hours. Grunter gave us updates as we hammered through the course, and we were eating away at their lead. 10 seconds, 9, 8, 7… eventually we were even and on the home straight. “SUFFER!” We hammered it, as hard as we could, all the way through to the finish. I was done, drained, a soggy lump of sweat and tears, but we finished.
Grunter approached me, as I was doubled over a trashcan, and shook my hand. I had won. I had pulled back the time and put seconds on the leader. I managed to destroy myself and beat a field of elite women in a stage race. It felt fantastic.
I was looking forward to celebrating, and followed Grunter as he led me through the crowd. We walked past the podium, past the press, past the fans (who still looked miserable), and back toward my room. The Minions bolted my bike back on the trainer, and handed me an 90s Walkman and a pair of headphones. “Listen, cool down.” For once Grunter didn’t tell me to suffer. I put the headphones on and pedaled, listening to the man on the tape walking me through some mental relaxation. It struck me as a bit odd, but I could feel my body relaxing, recovering, as I spun easily on the bike.
Then the tape ended and I collapsed onto my bed. I stared up at the roof. I had been in this place for 5 days and I just became its champion. I suddenly wasn’t thinking about making it back home. I enjoyed the suffering. I wanted more. I laid there, staring, wondering what was going to happen next. But I allowed myself a moment of reflection on the day…
“Hell Hath No Fury…” I muttered.