One rider’s journey from suffering to triumph – the REAL thing!

By Jennifer Sage On August 29, 2011 Under Outdoor Cycling, Tour de France

What a rider looks like as he emerges from the Pain Cave

“One rider’s journey from suffering to triumph”

That is the tagline for my Alpe d’Huez ride that I’ve presented at numerous conferences and Master Classes since 2003. It is coached as if the instructor is the voice in the rider’s head, and the students are the rider, a young domestique in his first Tour de France. The dialogue describes his thoughts as he suffers after dropping off the back of the peleton, and then as he climbs Alpe d’Huez and experiences doubt and pain, and wonders why he is doing this, why he chose this sport, and he thinks about quitting….and then of course, he finds his legs again and triumphs at the end and doesn’t finish last or get disqualified by the time cut.

I made that story up….but I am overwhelmed to have discovered that story in real life! I have found the personification of my rider! A real rider who is also a good writer, who is willing to share his doubt, fears, pain and joy. This is the story of a young American rider in his first grand tour, the Vuelta a Espana. This is the story of Taylor Phinney, a very strong rider, with a lot of recent successes and a lot to learn. And he knows it and is eating up the experience and sharing it with the world in his daily blog posts describing each stage. As of this post, he is third from the last on the General Classification (GC) – which means he is almost dead last out of 180 riders.

On August 24th, he rode stage 5 of the Vuelta a Espana and got dropped off the back. Read his description of what he describes as the most difficult day he’s ever had. If you have ever taken or taught my Alpe d’Huez ride in an indoor cycling class, you will immediately see the similarity. If you are planning to teach the Alpe d’Huez ride, use Taylor’s words to augment the dialogue. I even got emotional as I read Taylor’s description! You can feel his pain, you can imagine how incredibly difficult this must have been for him – or for any rider. And you can see the mental fortitude that was needed to get him through. Such powerful words, such a transformation that took place!

You should read his entire blog post, but below are some of his words that hit me the most because they echo the emotions I try to convey in the Alpe d’Huez ride. He even talks about their mini-paceline at the back, and getting a song stuck in his head, talking to himself (in both negative and positive ways), hating what he is doing, and then getting dropped by a few of the riders he was pacelining with at the back and how that felt just watching them ride away and not being able to respond. He describes hitting that last climb and trying to stay below threshold, and then that wonderful feeling of hope expanding as he reaches inside himself to catch up to the back of the pack, and he realizes he won’t be DQ’d! All of that is in the Alpe d’Huez dialogue!

Six of us fought through the cars, each taking turns at the front of our mini ‘breakaway-off-the-back’. We fought and fought but to no avail.

My head was all over the place.

Well, this will be your last stage Taylor, no way you’re making it back now. No, you have 5 other guys with you, if you keep it up, for the next 120km, you might just make it. But can I put myself through that? Yes, why couldn’t you? Man up!

It was the worst tease; knowing you have somewhere around 3 hours of pain and suffering. And even if you do make it, will you have done enough to be within time cut?

Don’t think about that, just ride.

And then 6, became 4. A Saxo Bank rider and a Skil Shimano rider began to distance themselves from the rest of us on yet another climb-that-wasn’t-a-climb. They didn’t attack, they simply just rode away, and were gone. So we were left with 4.

The next kms were a blur. My mind wandered from counting down the kilometers, to losing hope completely, to reminding myself to eat, to regaining hope, to feeling better on the bike, to feeling worse. I had a song stuck in my head; ‘I Gave You All’ by Mumford and Sons.

I questioned why I did this sport, I remembered what it felt like to win and what I have had to go through in the past to be strong enough for that big result. In reality, I had been in the position I was in today already many times before, in a completely different scenario, in a different country, in a different race. Cycling is about suffering, and you have to push your body further than it is willing to go. In the moment, I hated myself for what I was doing to my body although secretly I knew what I was doing was necessary if I wished to be better. I tried to trick myself into thinking that, hey, if there are 100km to go, then there are really 85km until the final climb which is two hours or so, and then 15km, and by the time you get there you will smell the finish so you’ll feel good… I will say, It did help…a bit.

As we approached the feed zone, a small piece of me desperately wanted to get off my bike and quit. When I say a small part, I mean most of my body. I was done, but I couldn’t quit. They can time cut me, they can rip my number off, but unless I’m in real danger of injuring myself, I’m not gonna quit.

Hours went by.

Just the dull pain of my legs remained a constant reminder that I was alive and not lost in a dream.

And then we were on the final climb. John Lelangue was in the car behind and informed us that we were cutting it close on the time cut, and would have to really give it on this last climb if we wanted to make it. I set the tempo, actually beginning to feel relatively OK. The climb was something like 8km and I made sure I didn’t go over my threshold. All of the sudden, about 4km into the climb, we rounded a bend and off in the distance, a couple turns ahead, we could see cars! And then we saw riders! The grupetto!!!

The tiny bit of hope I had kept all day was now amplifying exponentially with every meter we got closer to that lovely grupetto. You see, there are times when the grupetto finishes after time cut, but is allowed to continue due to it’s size. Usually, and I say USUALLY, if you are in a grupetto, you will be safe. As I cruised past the last of the cars, relief set in. I, along with my three dropped comrades, could finally breathe a sigh of relief. We patted each other on the back, and settled in.

…the finish, it was RIGHT THERE. I had been fighting so hard, for so long…all day in fact. I just couldn’t help myself.


Click on his other posts on his blog to get even more first-hand descriptions of what a rider in a Grand Tour feels, from suffering to exhilaration. Like this one on Limits.

If you have not taken or taught my Alpe d’Huez ride, the audio Master Class is available as part of the Tour de France package on the Indoor Cycling Association. I am going to add Taylor’s blog to the transcript for the ride, so instructors can add his painful description of the experience of suffering.

If you don’t know much about the cycling world, mark my words, Taylor Phinney is a name that will become more and more well-known. He has a famous cycling father (who has a Parkinson’s foundation) and he has already made a big name for himself in the U23 (Under-23) young rider category, especially in track racing. Taylor was the 2010 U23 World Time Trial champion and the US national Time Trial Champion. Now, he is in his first grand tour with Team BMC. I’m laying my money down that Taylor will be at the Tour de France next year, and that soon, everyone will know that name!

Taylor Phinney, thank you for being brave enough to take us cycling fans on your journey!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Moritz
    August 30, 2011
    12:25 pm #comment-1

    Jennifer, I agree that guy’s blog I must follow !

    And then Taylor also adds an additional track to category “suffering songs” in our playlists 🙂

  2. Jennifer Sage
    August 31, 2011
    2:36 pm #comment-2

    He does have some good song suggestions! He says Euro Techno is his favorite genre!

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