It has become my custom to, four or five times a year, ride out with the sole intention of meeting the Man with the Hammer.
The Man with the Hammer is part and parcel of the folklore and mythology of cycling. He lurks in the shadows, hides behind bushes, peeks from around corners. He is ruthless. Unpredictable. His only goal is to hit you on the neck and cause you to falter, empty, and stop on the side of the road, defeated. And when your mind takes more from your legs than your body can provide, and your legs go from smooth, circular strokes to pedalling squares, exhausted with 80km to go before you get home, you know that he has visited you. You are in good company, however, for the Man with the Hammer strikes evenly: Eddy Merckx on the climb to Pra-Loup when he lost the Yellow Jersey to Bernard Thevenet; Bernard Hinault when he lost the Yellow Jersey to Greg Lemond at Serre Chevalier; Lance Armstrong when he nearly lost the 2000 Tour on the Col de la Joux-Plane. All are visited by the Man with the Hammer at one point or another in their careers.
So why ride out with the specific intention of meeting him? I think that cycling is a unique sport wherein suffering is glorified as a badge of honour. Pain, in this sport is not a byproduct; pain is the main adversary, and winning is merely a reflection on how well one handles it. Cyclists choose to suffer, you might say, because it challenges their minds. And so, cycling becomes less a physical sport - because everyone's body eventually gives up - and more a study in the locus of mental control. A study in adversity. Because adversity is the only meter stick by which we can take an accurate measurement of our own mettle. Adversity presents us with challenge and it is in challenge that we find the opportunity for change and for growth. Thus, in cycling we seek to create adversity such that we may truly define ourselves.
Absorbed in our daily lives, we often overlook the importance of adversity. The importance of being challenged; of willingly, intelligently, courageously facing that which needs to be faced. The average individual thinks of their life in cycles of good times and bad, and often preoccupies their time by worrying about when the next bad cycle will come around and how best to avoid or postpone it. The truth is that in holding a mirror to our actions in difficult times we see ourselves as one of two people: the individual broken by their trial or the individual who overcomes it with passion and sincerity. The first lives in fear of the changing of the cycle; the second, who knows that only in adversity will they be transformed – much like the block of Carrara marble that was transformed into the statue of David, youthful and heroic, frozen in time at the moment between decision and action - awaits it.
Paradoxically, adversity is what builds the backbone of a strong individual (intellectually, or emotionally, or, sometimes, quite literally, in a physical sense) and, yet, overcoming adversity requires these very traits. So how do we work our way out of this paradox? It would seem that it is the job of every parent to educate their children how to face adversity. Society, too, has a part to play in providing strong role models for young people to aspire to, to emulate. For it is a small number of people that instinctively know how to face adiversity. The multitude requires being shown how to approach a difficult situation not with apprehension and fear, but with an eagerness to see what they will learn about that particular situation. And about themselves. For adversity rouses us from the comfort of the familiar and the safe and confronts us not with who we think we are, vain creatures strutting about full of pomp and circumstance, but with who we actually are, in our simplicity and fragility.
In this way, I would then argue, it is adversity that is the opposite of success, rather than failure. Through adversity, we learn about our weaknesses and shortcomings and can take steps to address them, whether we fail or succeed. In success, we become forgetful of the difficulties we have faced and, slowly but steadily, we metamorphose into Icarus, flying too close to the sun on wings that were never made to soar so high. In success we become distracted by our whims; we fall prey to our own beliefs about our abilities and begin mythologizing them; we live secret lives as gods. In short, we set ourselves up for the disappointment that will inevitably come when faced with a difficulty that cannot be immediately overcome. In this milieu, that’s played out endlessly all across the face of the planet, over and over like a farce whose humor and novelty has long worn out, the words of Heraclitus still ring true: “Sometimes, the way up, is the way down.”
Thus people, like civilizations, must, through the adversity they face, ground themselves. Too often, success overinflates itself due to a lack of goals, or goals that are too vague or too wild. People, nation states, civilizations: is their highest point their golden ages? Or is that merely the yield of the dreams that were dreamt in difficult times? The yield after a people have worked their way out of a long hardship with worthwhile goals, and a commitment to those goals with the maturity and the hope derived from wise action. It is these times of adversity overcome that are romanticized and not the days of easy lounging or little effort. It is these times of adversity overcome from which a civilization’s myths and fables arise; from which their heroes and paragons emerge.
I have come to appreciate, through cycling, that adversity is not the end of a story, of a cycle, but, with courage, vision and willpower, the beginning of a greater one. Certainly it is easier to live easy, but that ease, without difficulty yields less enjoyment, has less sweetness. Because we judge the good times against the adversity we have faced to get there.
Nowadays, we know what causes this: a deadly combination of being tired, not eating enough, not drinking enough. We can postpone the arrival of the Man with the Hammer, with our advanced nutrition and knowledge. But even with this understanding, I go out, a few times a year, and let myself get dehydrated, starve myself and I look forward to the moment when the Man with the Hammer comes. I reacquaint myself with this old enemy and invite him in, with open arms, and make him my friend such that he is no longer a dreaded villain. No: he becomes a constant companion; one with whom you carry silent conversation is the darkest hours of a ride. His teachings are subtle: there is a moment of insane purification in being completely depleted and still having to carry on. He reminds me that I can push beyond my limits, and that the only thing between home and I is the will to act. He reminds me of what I am made of when faced with difficulty.
To you, old friend!