A Meditation on The Pain Cave

09.10.2009 | 12:00 am

I planned to do a short ride. On the flats. After all, yesterday I did around 5000 feet of climbing. Tomorrow I will do around 3000.

So it was clearly a good idea to do a nice short spin, focusing on high cadence and low torque.

But it was so hot outside. And one thing every cyclist who lives near mountains knows is: you can climb out of the heat. Seriously, it’s always ten or fifteen degrees cooler in the canyon, and maybe even cooler as you get toward the summit.

So when I had to decide — turn right and head toward the flats in the valley, or turn left and head to the canyon — I turned left.

Which meant I would not be doing an easy spin.

New Plan

By the time I got to the mouth of the canyon, I could tell something: my legs felt good. Unusually good. Like they wanted me to see what they had.

I stepped it up. Still felt great. Went to a higher gear. Wanted more.

By the time I got to the toll booth, I was in my big ring, about three cogs down the cassette. That is not a common gear selection for this ride.

But for whatever reason, that’s where I wanted to be.

This Pain Is Mine

I generally climb the Alpine Loop in the second and third gear, shifting up to third and fourth when I’m standing. Today, though, I rode in fifth and sixth. At a cadence that seemed higher than normal.

It hurt. It hurt gloriously.

I think other cyclists who love climbing will agree: There is nothing quite so exquisite as pain you have elected to suffer, and manage to keep right below the threshold that breaks you. You are controlling chaos. You are mastering your body. You have the time trialist’s smile: a weird grin with teeth exposed and clenched.

Mostly, this is a combination of reacting to pain and wanting to get as much air as possible. But sometimes there’s a little bit of smile in there too.

You are pushing every single thought — except one — out of your head.

And that one thought is an important one: Can I push harder and still not snap? If the answer is “yes,” then you push harder.

It’s surprising, really, how often the answer is “yes.” More often than you think.

When the answer is “no,” however, the sense of gratification is immense. Unless — and until — the answer becomes, “no, and you can’t hold this pace for long either.” Then you have to evaluate. Is that your inherent overcaution? Or are you really about to pop?

Today, I was certain, once, that I had hit that point. I had popped. I slowed drastically, the sense of disappointment settling in.

But then I stood up, and I went again. And I had it in me.

Big Day

“Today,” I thought, “I am turning in the ride of a lifetime.”

And you know what? It’s entirely possible that I did. Right now I weigh 156 pounds. Much lighter than this and my power starts dropping off pretty fast. I’ve been riding a lot this last few weeks. So I may, right now, be the strongest cyclist I have ever been.

But I have no idea whether I was actually the fastest I have ever been on this climb. I had no electronics with me (other than the electronics that shift my gears, I mean). So maybe I just turned in a 57-minute Alpine Loop summit. Or maybe I just turned in a 1:02. Either is possible, and neither matters very much to me.

What matters is how I felt. And I felt very fast indeed.


When I reached the summit, I pulled into the parking lot and rode around the perimeter for a couple minutes in slow circles. Happy. Proud. Throat very raw.

I pulled a bottle out of a cage to take a drink and realized: I had been so focused that I had taken only one tug the entire climb. I made up for lost time (and fluid) and began the descent.

Usually, I attack the downhill of the Alpine Loop pretty hard. It’s so fun. But today, I just coasted, conservatively. I just didn’t have anything — energy nor intensity — left in me. I felt well and truly exhausted. Spent. Empty.

It’s a good feeling.


  1. Comment by gcam | 09.10.2009 | 12:16 am

    Hey fatty good ride..
    “Since every pleasure’s got an edge of pain, pay for your ticket and don’t complain.” Bob Dylan

  2. Comment by ann | 09.10.2009 | 12:17 am

    Two things I love about the metaphor posts: poignancy and truth

    “I’ve been riding a lot this last few weeks. So I may, right now, be the strongest cyclist I have ever been.” –

    yeah, in more ways than one – more than even two.

  3. Comment by mtnboy | 09.10.2009 | 12:41 am

    Dude, as we’d say in Cape Town, Epic Win!!!!!!!!

    You really put so accurately how i feel about a climb, any climb. So thanks! Go Fatty!!!

    Will walk with a smile all day!

  4. Comment by buckythedonkey | 09.10.2009 | 1:52 am

    I’m unable to ride at the moment so I rely on sights, sounds and the occasional piece of prose to keep me going while my bones mend. Thanks for the lovely article, oh shallow one.

  5. Comment by Metric Jason | 09.10.2009 | 4:04 am

    Thanks for bringing us along for another inspiring “ride of a lifetime.” Love the simplicity of this one. I’m still addicted to my fairly minimal electronics and the numbers they produce, but there’s so much to be said for just going by how your body feels. I’ve definitely become much more aware internally over the last couple years as I’ve ridden more and tried to push myself to improve.

  6. Comment by Jenni Laurita | 09.10.2009 | 4:42 am

    Install the MotionX app for your iphone, then you’ll always have electronics with you- it’ll do your track, speed, etc. I think there’s a free lite version too.

    Awesome post!

  7. Comment by Andy | 09.10.2009 | 5:22 am

    I hope it keeps a smile on your face for at least a week. It would do that for me.

    Great ride, well told as usual.

  8. Comment by Mike Roadie | 09.10.2009 | 5:27 am

    Huzzah!! Epic!!

    No better feeling in the world…..and one I haven’t felt in a while (maybe passing a few souls with triple rings during the RAGBRAI climbs??)….

    Maybe becuase it was 09/09/09?????


  9. Comment by BikecopVT | 09.10.2009 | 5:45 am

    I have often found that the best rides happen when there is nobody around to whitness it and no electronic gadget to “prove” it. You just know…that was a great ride.

    Enjoy the ride Elden.

    Fight Like Susan!

  10. Comment by Rob L | 09.10.2009 | 5:52 am

    Awesome, that sounds like an awesome ride! One of these days soon I will get one of those “road” bike things.

  11. Comment by Al | 09.10.2009 | 6:34 am


  12. Comment by Jackie Lee | 09.10.2009 | 6:42 am

    The more I read your blog the more I am amazed by you. What a well told story of a truly amazing ride. I look forward to experiencing rides that take me to that place. Thanks for sharing, and inspiring.

  13. Comment by dieselmike | 09.10.2009 | 7:05 am

    You put cycling suffering into such beautiful words. Loved this post.

  14. Comment by Mikeonhisbike | 09.10.2009 | 7:06 am

    If you usually climb the canyon in the 2nd or 3rd cog what kind of gearing are you running? Just curious. When I rode the loop I had no gears left most of the time.

  15. Comment by Weiland | 09.10.2009 | 7:16 am

    Must be the Orca.

  16. Comment by NoTrail | 09.10.2009 | 7:17 am

    That sounds like such a great ride. And to think, all I did yesterday was mow the lawn. But it was already very overdue so I felt my own ‘good feeling’.

    And tonight … I ride.

  17. Comment by ChefJT | 09.10.2009 | 7:33 am

    Sweet sounding ride. Of course at nearly 100lb more than you, I’d have probably had a different account of the ride. But the number is coming down gradually!

    Thanks for a great image!

  18. Comment by ChefJT | 09.10.2009 | 7:35 am

    PS. Its pretty cool to see my face in the banner photo from Philly! Tx again.

  19. Comment by justrun | 09.10.2009 | 7:55 am

    That IS a good feeling. And even I, the newb (as the kids say) know that.

  20. Comment by Lowrydr | 09.10.2009 | 7:59 am

    Dang, after just posting on the SingleFly post. Begging for you to send me the Orca you have to go and get it out and ride it. Of course I knew you would anyway.

    Nice read Fatty(<yea right).


  21. Comment by Fuzzy | 09.10.2009 | 8:32 am


    I think I have just read what, for me, is the best Fat Cyclist post I have ever seen.

    Thanks Mate!

    Luv ‘n Stuff
    Fuzzy from the UK

  22. Comment by turndacrank | 09.10.2009 | 8:35 am

    Sitting at a desk all day blows, but at least I have posts like this to read. Am now looking forward to crushing my usual ride tonight.

    Go go gadget-heavyweight horsepower!

  23. Comment by 100poundsago | 09.10.2009 | 8:41 am

    “What matters is how I felt. And I felt very fast indeed.”


  24. Comment by Joel | 09.10.2009 | 8:46 am

    It’s been far too long since I’ve done serious climbing, but you nailed everything I love about it.

  25. Comment by johnEboy | 09.10.2009 | 8:52 am

    You described my ride yesterday perfectly. Thank you! Only my climb was 23 minutes not 57.

    Curious where you start the timer in AF Canyon. The toll booth?

  26. Comment by George | 09.10.2009 | 9:07 am

    156 lbs!!!
    …and you still call yourself “Fatty”?
    I am inspired to go out immediately after work.

  27. Comment by Joyce | 09.10.2009 | 9:20 am

    Fatty, I outweigh you! Does that make me The Fatter Cyclist? Can I spell that Phatter?

    Ride on, with glee!

  28. Comment by Kathy McElhaney | 09.10.2009 | 9:27 am

    You live near the wrong mountains – SoCal riders go over the Santa Monicas and descend to the cooler air near the Pacific!

  29. Comment by Carlos | 09.10.2009 | 9:33 am

    You have pictured the feelings we get from climbing as no one else!

    This and your comparison of descending as the closest we humans can get to flying are great images.

    You should change your name to the Cycling Poet. You should be ashamed of calling yourself Fatty at 156 pounds.

  30. Comment by Frank | 09.10.2009 | 9:44 am

    Even though we don’t have mountains here at the Jersey Shore I know exactly how you’ve felt. Recently my Edge 305 decided to commit suicide, jumped off my bike and right into the path of a truck so for my ride last weekend I was without any gadget. I was very angry and had lots to think about so I rode hard from the start. To my surprise I just kept going harder and fell into a rhythm, almost a trance, and kept going all the way to the house. This must have been the fastest I’ve ever been on that course but that doesn’t matter to me at all. My legs were shaking and I had to sit down for a while afterward but it felt great. I just hope I can get there again soon.


  31. Comment by Heather | 09.10.2009 | 9:55 am

    You have such a gift for tellng a story. I felt like I was on the ride with you. And it is truly an amazing feeling to push the limits of mind and body… Ride On!

  32. Comment by bikemike | 09.10.2009 | 10:00 am

    to the pain!

  33. Comment by dug | 09.10.2009 | 10:04 am

    bikemike, i’m not familiar with that one.

  34. Comment by Onan the Barbarian | 09.10.2009 | 10:47 am

    So I may, right now, be the strongest cyclist I have ever been.

    I’ve felt that way before, usually after a few beers. Then reality (and maybe a tree or two) slaps me in the face.

    Never underestimate the stopping power of a tree.

    /The last time I was at 156 lbs was when I was in 7th grade.

  35. Comment by ricky | 09.10.2009 | 10:55 am

    there’s nothing quite like exquisite pain!

  36. Comment by Rob M. | 09.10.2009 | 10:59 am

    I enjoyed reading about your ride. It reminds me of my best climb ever.

    I’m not a climber but just once everything came together. I was in my best shape (mid week RAGBRAI ‘07), had just left a lengthy stop at a rest town, the ascent was just the right angle. I kept climbing faster and changing gears all the way up.

    I was actually riding faster than I normally do on the flat. The feeling still brings a smile to my face.

    Enjoy your smile.

    Thanks for sharing. And, thanks for putting me on the banner photo from Philly. Remembering I am a member of Team Fatty Philly also brings a smile to my face.

  37. Comment by Col | 09.10.2009 | 11:00 am

    Isn’t “to the pain” from the Princess Bride?

  38. Comment by Clydesteve | 09.10.2009 | 11:01 am

    …You have the time trialist’s smile: a weird grin with teeth exposed and clenched.

    Mostly, this is a combination of reacting to pain and wanting to get as much air as possible. But sometimes there’s a little bit of smile in there too.

    I would like to say something clever & enigmatic in reference to these sentences. No time for that, but know, Elden, that this resonated with me.

    Nice essay.

  39. Comment by BC | 09.10.2009 | 11:23 am

    I feel your pain, no really I do! I did the same ride this morning. But for me it was the first time to make it to the top.

    A good friend’s battle with cancer and your blog motivated me to start cycling to get in shape. It wasn’t that long ago that the best I could do was the toll booth. Then I made it to the power station, the cave, the fork, Mutual Dell, Timponeeke and today to the top!

    I was hoping that the messages on the road would still be there. I wanted to see them myself. Thanks for the motivation and inspiration Fatty.

  40. Comment by Flying Ute | 09.10.2009 | 11:58 am


    Dug is being a smart alec. He knows every movie line out there. That’s why his comment is funny.

  41. Comment by Stephanie | 09.10.2009 | 12:29 pm

    This is why I love riding too!

  42. Comment by wing-nut | 09.10.2009 | 12:53 pm

    Almost all of my best rides happen without electronica. I found out that HRM and cyclocomputers and stuff only limit me as I concentrate to either pass some threshold or maintain an arbitrary number. If I have earphones Ifind I listen to music instead of my body and usually burn up too soon. Digital input becomes a distraction from the real reason I ride.

    Just me and the bike and I can ride like I feel. And usually—it’s all good.

  43. Comment by rich | 09.10.2009 | 1:35 pm

    Wow, perfect description of an awesome ride…..I don’t get to that point when climbing very often (usually it’s just suffering) but on the rare occassions that I do, it’s just like you describe….great post!!

  44. Comment by Carl | 09.10.2009 | 2:12 pm

    Loved the story and I just noticed how cool the banner from Philly looks!

  45. Comment by Joel P. | 09.10.2009 | 3:08 pm

    OK, as I was talking myself out of my afternoon ride, (I’ve been out 12 straight days I can skip one right?) I read today’s piece. Am now heading out to my bike. Thanks Fatty for the perfect description of an awesome ride.
    Joel P.

  46. Comment by DannyBoy | 09.10.2009 | 3:22 pm

    I am lucky to have any gear left when I hit the visitor center. I have a love/hate relationship with that canyon.

  47. Comment by curtis | 09.10.2009 | 3:28 pm

    this is why i ride a trackbike 90% of the time… it’s a lot easier to reach your pain threshold with one gear and no coasting.

    it’s also a lot easier to pass it, hehe.

  48. Comment by bjchild | 09.10.2009 | 3:38 pm

    That climb up AF canyon is my favorite climb around. It’s pretty cool how you just “know” whether or not it’s going to be a good effort by the time you pass the toll booth. My personal goal is to break 1 hr. from the toll booth to the top. Not quite there but it’s sure fun to keep trying and seeing improvement.

  49. Comment by chasquijordan | 09.10.2009 | 3:47 pm

    Hey Fatty, not sure if you noticed the guy in the FC jersey right before Lance’s group ride in LA. here’s the link: http://www.ktla.com/videobeta/watch/?watch=0777a0d9-18ad-4e30-aa61-c60cf5efbe69&cat=bf8d86ad-07d4-46d7-a6d3-6ddeece6d891&src=front&title=KTLA:%20Lance%20Armstrong%20Leads%20Bike%20Ride%20in%20Griffith%20Park

  50. Comment by Paulscarlett | 09.10.2009 | 4:38 pm

    top post fatty, awesome description

  51. Comment by Dr. Lammler | 09.10.2009 | 4:52 pm

    It’s time to take another look at the “Guy” and get your eyes checked.

    But thanks for the link and noticing the FC jersey.

  52. Comment by Andrea | 09.10.2009 | 5:47 pm

    I know all about hurting gloriously. I call it cyclocross, and around here it starts tomorrow night. I can’t wait!

  53. Comment by Redd | 09.10.2009 | 6:40 pm

    Hey, why does the guy in the center on this pic kinda look like you?


    and yeah, def a chick in that video!

  54. Comment by Derek | 09.10.2009 | 8:45 pm

    Great post man, you totally nailed the feeling! It’ll last a week for me after a killer ride.

  55. Comment by Tubenerd | 09.10.2009 | 10:28 pm

    You made me want to go on a ride after reading this. So I did. Thanks.

  56. Comment by Andy | 09.13.2009 | 7:09 pm

    Fatty — I want to come ride that loop with you sometime. Great post; while my hills in Ohio aren’t nearly as big (as mountains), the feeling is similar.


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