A Note from Fatty: This is the second in the “I’ve Never Suffered So Much” guest post series, sent in by readers of FatCyclist.com. This series will go on for two weeks, more or less, while I travel for work. I hope you find these stories as fun and inspirational as I do.
“C’mon old man. Pedal faster,” yells my son, Rob, from the front of our tandem bike.
“I’m going as fast as I can,” I pant. Truly, we are only going four miles an hour and although it is an incline, it could hardly be called a hill. And true I am in my fifties and sweat is pouring off me, but I am hardly an old man.
Some might pass us on the trail and think that I am suffering. They would be wrong. Real suffering is when you have nothing left to give and you are still expected to go on. It is scary. It is frustrating. It is exhausting.
I experienced real suffering for the first time about thirty five years ago when I first began bike racing as a junior for the Santa Cruz County Cycling Club. I was seventeen, and excited for my first big training ride. We were planning a 100 mile ride which would make it the longest ride I had ever done. I was excited to be part of a team of four juniors. Racing together, doing something I love, and being coached to get better. That didn’t intimidate me. If anything, it energized me. I felt ready. I was healthy, hydrated and eager to be riding.
The first half of the ride was mostly flat with a few rollers. It was a beautiful Spring day and we started off great. Several club members and I set a brisk pace for the first thirty miles. We stopped for food and drink and I was thrilled to hear that I had kept up with the twenty plus mile an hour pace. Keeping pace with the more experienced riders gave me a feeling of confidence. Looking back I wonder if they were pacing themselves for the rest of the ride.
After lunch, the group split, and I was riding with the coach and four junior team riders. The second part of the ride involved some climbing but not anything steep or long. Sixty miles had been the longest I had ridden prior to this day. At about mile seventy, I started to feel the accumulated effect of the mileage and it became increasing difficult to keep up. My fellow team members were also slowing their pace, but still, they were clearly stronger than I.
As the coach finally slowed the pace he began to encourage us. “Just keep going. You’ve got this. You can do it,” he yelled at us.
I wanted to believe him as my body screamed to get off the bike. I would try and hold the wheel of someone but they would simple ride away. I was unable to hold on. The confidence I felt at the beginning of the ride was quickly giving way to frustration, self-doubt, and exhaustion.
On the last climb I couldn’t take any more. I got off my bike and began to walk it up the hill. It was all I could do just to push the bike, at what seemed like a crawl, up the road.
The coach stopped and said, “Come on Dave. You’re almost there. Just get back on the bike. You’ll be spending more energy walking your bike than riding it.”
After much persuasion I got back on the bike. I felt like a zombie. My coach grabbed my seat and starting to push me up the hill. I didn’t even care. I couldn’t imagine pedaling further. I was in agony. I couldn’t think of anything or anyone else. For the remainder of the ride, all I could think of was to stay on someone’s wheel. If I had felt better, or had ridden 100 miles previously, I might have noticed the coach watching us, gauging our abilities. I might have noticed that we had already ridden far more than the designated 100 miles.
The ride ended at the coach’s house and I sat or laid on the front lawn for an hour until I could move again. I realized I had to drive twenty minutes to get back home and I didn’t think my body could do that. As I rested I realized the coach had intentionally pushed us all farther than we thought possible. The ride that was to be my first century turned into 140+ mile ride. Because of good coaching and the support of other riders, I was able to expand my abilities and potential. Euphoria began to replace the exhaustion and my confidence returned.
Even though I only raced for a year, cycling taught me that I could handle adversity. I learned the importance of camaraderie and coaching when working for a seemingly unattainable goal.
Thirty plus years later, I’m coaching my son. He was in a car accident three years ago and suffered a brain injury. I thought biking would help him. I built him a tandem which forces him to pedal with me. The cadence of pedaling sends signals to his brain that his left leg is working. We ride whenever we can hoping to help him learn to walk again.
At first, Rob could only ride a block or two and I wondered if making the bike had been a mistake. Was I expecting too much? Would he ever be able to coordinate his legs to pedal? Rather than voicing my doubts, I kept trying and I kept encouraging Rob.
Now, we try to ride twelve miles on weekend days. We even rode with Team Fatty on the twenty-three mile course in the Livestrong Challenge in Davis this past July.
It is still hard work for me to get both of us up even a mild incline. To some, it might even look like I’m suffering. I’m not. I’m proud. His therapists insist that the biking is helping his strength, walking cadence, and energy level. I’ve found a way I can directly help my son recover. Right now, Rob doesn’t know that his body can fully recover. He is still struggling up the hill. He is learning that he can do more than he realizes. He knows he has my support. He knows I will continue to help him expand his abilities and potential just at my coach helped me. We have grown close in a way I didn’t think was possible a few years ago. We joke a lot when we ride. Rob always greets everyone on the trail.
On a ride a few weeks ago Rob asked, “Dad how old are you?”
“Fifty two. Why?” I responded.
“Fifty two and still cycling?” Rob said with mock amazement. “Let’s give the Grim Reaper the middle finger,” Rob urged me.
So, if you are ever biking and you pass a strange looking tandem and the young man in the front is making a snide comment to the rider in back, give a shout of encouragement. We’re not suffering, just extending our limits. Real suffering is when you have nothing left to give. Although I’ve found myself frustrated and exhausted, I know I am not suffering. I still have lots to give. At least enough to get us up the last hill.
Dave Thompson is a mechanical engineer and avid cyclist. He lives in San Jose, California with his wife, Amy, and his son Rob. He has been a follower of FatCyclist for three years.