It might be human nature, but it’s especially apparent in athletes — to quantify suffering. One of the first things I noticed when I started road racing was the constant competition, not necessarily on the bike, but in the endeavor of describing suffering. Something that had always sounded so extreme, so catastrophic, became a matter of objective measure.
All bike rides have objective statistics, whether we’re aware of them or not. And, the goal is to always top what one may have previously considered “the hardest ride ever…” perhaps its in terms of mileage, in elevation gain, whatever. But it has to be objective — how else are you going to compete with someone unless you can have tangible evidence that just sounds like it was hard, if nothing else?
The first time I heard about the Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile gravel road race through (surprisingly) hilly Emporia, Kansas my reaction was something like, “That just sounds awful. And I love riding my bike.” But that was exactly it. The whole was to take an endurance ride and pushing it even further by adding the element of rough terrain and an absurd number of miles. And I’m sure every single rider out there suffers. There’s no way grinding along for 200 miles, in some cases over 20 hours, on gravel, in the blistering summer sun can be easy. Fatigued legs don’t are just the tip of the iceberg — the throat becomes scratchy yearning for hydration, the stomach has no choice but to accept the overload of sugar despite awful knots and cramping, and the mind…the mind is probably hurting the most. After all, our darkest thoughts really surface when the rest of our body is in survival mode.
Many would consider that race, or one of similar caliber, the pinnacle of suffering. But really, how do we quantify suffering? Every time you throw your leg over the saddle, you’re entering into the unknown. Our mental and physical beings are unpredictable. They play tricks on one another. And they don’t do this knowing we’re planning on riding 100 miles through the mountains, completely depleting our stores.
The most I have ever suffered on a bike cannot be quantified in numbers. I don’t use Strava, but I guarantee the Strava “suffer score” would be utterly meaningless. On Thanksgiving, like every year, I wanted to push myself into the ground to justify gorging on an obscene number of calories. I don’t race bikes anymore and my drive is rooted in experiencing the outdoors in the most authentic way possible — not training, not counting miles or watts. That said, riding a bike is still as familiar to me as walking down the parkway in my childhood neighborhood.
Surrounded by the San Juan’s, pristine blue skies and not a deceptive threat of weather in site, we set out to ride Red Mountain Pass. A good friend of mine known for concocting all-day suffer fests on the bike that are sure to put you in the hurt locker described Red Mountain Pass as, “The craziest/most dangerous road I’ve ever ridden,” going onto say, “I really don’t think I’d want to do it in the winter at all, even with a 1% chance of rain or any wind. It’s beautiful, but can fucking kill you to death.”
Literally. The mountain pass boasts more avalanches per mile than any other road on the continent, deeming it ‘the most dangerous road in North America.’
Despite the perfect forecast, the threat is still imminent with the 360 degree panorama of mountains covered in snow. Snow that has seen sun and been frozen again every day for several days. Switchback after switchback, the road hits an 8% gradient more often than not. It’s cold, it’s icy. An enormous rock could fall and literally crush me, a force of an avalanche could bury me or push me off the road, as there is no guardrail. There’s a crevasse that drops probably 700 feet into a gorge. Wouldn’t that be a way to spend Thanksgiving?
Concluding a two-week bout with the flu, I was physically weak before even getting on the bike. Dehydrated, undernourished, lungs still fighting to take a full breath…but those mountains. Their pull, always so magnetic. I told myself, “I just want to see this road. I don’t care if we make it to the top. I just have to see it.”
I could very well just drive my car if I just wanted to see it. But where’s the fun in that? Rather, where’s the suffering? From that moment I clipped in, heading towards Highway 550 from Ridgway, I knew my recovering body was going to hurt. The struggle was already present. But, it wasn’t a struggle that could be quantified by numbers. Beyond the excuse of recovering from illness, all objectivity became meaningless.
The only force pushing my body up Red Mountain Pass was the sheer magnitude of the surroundings — ice and rock formations so grand with the capacity to be fatal. I’ve experienced countless mountain passes, desolate highways, and beautiful roads…but it has been a long time since my stomach has dropped while looking over my shoulder.
For those moments, both the internal and external suffering dissipated — until my body simply said, “no more.” And it was this surge of pain I hadn’t experienced in ages. Not when I rode the 700-mile Tour of California route in one week, not even when I got hit by a car months before. Double visioned and dizzy, I made it back in one piece stripping myself down to my bib shorts despite the temperature being hardly above freezing. And I just laid on the cold pavement struck by more than the pristine ambiance of the San Juan’s.
I was struck by the unpredictably, pain, and acceptance of suffering. We can search for suffering in routes, in miles, in hours, but it’s when there are no preconceived notions and you reach the breaking point, unexplained, unannounced. That’s suffering. And that’s what keeps me going back for more.