Autumn morning at Tempelhofer Feld.
Each 10-minute-ish lap of Tempelhofer Feld: shove in an aero position into a 20km/h headwind for medium amounts of discomfort along the southern section of the airport; on the west and north, sprint ten times in 10 second blocks of increasing intensity with 20 second not-slacking-off pace in-between; wonder if I will ever feel love again by the end of that, recover for the eastern section and do it all again. Four times. It’s not so much about absolute speed at the moment (though faster is nicer, and I’d love to be doing this on a road bike rather than my cyclocross bike) as it is about mental and emotional discipline to handle what is frankly unpleasant, and which I really, really want to bail out of every time. Physiologically, I’m not sure what it does, but I find I notice if I don’t make it one of my core training sessions. On the eighth sprint on one session my brain went “Hard No,” pulled the red Emergency Stop handle, which in retrospect, looking at my heart hitting 193bpm seemed to be a pretty sensible and clear message.
Finding new ways to enjoy suffering. This one is mostly “ugh.” Long, intense session training, out of the saddle, over-gearing (as much as possible on a cyclocross compact chainset) for an entire lap of Tempelhofer Feld. Recover for a lap and repeat. After, I found blisters on my thumbs from rubbing against the metal pins on the shifters. The data from my heart rate monitor and speed make their own series of hills and valleys, ascents and descents.
Three months ago, during Ramadan, I decided I needed more art goals. This morning I got up early and rode the Berliner Mauerweg for eight hours. 173 kilometres of cobblestones, gravel, deteriorating single lane concrete roads, forest trails (mixed with gravel and more cobbles, or sand), single track, sand everywhere, plus some rather luxurious roads and bike paths for the other slightly more than half. I’ve been thinking of this and other not-quite-art / definitely-art as Solo Endurance Works. Emma Pooley has been a big (remote / unaware) mentor for this, particularly the work I do on a bike, however it might (or might not) make itself as art. Either way, I’m pretty fucking tired, sore, exhausted, space out, possibly rather pleased with myself in the wash of all that raked over-ness. And there’s so much to say about history, the Berlin Wall (along which Germans should have to walk each year, like performing the Hajj), my own selfhood and my struggles with, which is the reason for this in the first place. Another time.
Embrace the Suffering.
Accept it and Suffer.
Make the pain your choice, and be happy about it.
Practice to ride like you care.
You have to really care about it, you have to really suffer. — Emma Pooley
- saddle position
- hand position
- over / undergearing
- stay calm
A year ago, during one of the very short periods of proper cold weather in Berlin, I was out doing my laps in it and thinking. I do a lot of thinking when I’m riding. Quite a bit is of looping through a rhythm as I breathe in and out to the circling of my legs, feet locked into pedals. It’s usually a 4/4, but cuts to a 2/4 when things get dire. Sometimes I go for a 5/4 so I don’t get too obsessive about it all. Another part is saying, “Please stop. Please stop. This feels awful.” That’s one of the voices in my head, probably mine, yapping. In turn, my thighs go through waves of wanting to vomit, like peristalsis moving from gut to legs; my lower back finds various positions to complain in, as do arms, shoulders, toes, hands. My saddle is up in my business, stabbing me in my junk. All skin on the windward side is inexorably being chilled to numbness, along with much of the leeward side of my arse.
My nose is keeping up a consistent drip, a rivulet of watery snot coating my upper lip. Eyes get in on the game too, and my mouth is pulled into what would be described as a “horrible rictus”. I try and remember to make it a smiley one. Apparently that makes suffering easier. “Oh God, I’m going to die. I can’t bear anymore.” goes me, as I keep going, round and round, soaking up aches and enduring the road hammering up into me, heaving cold air in and out of lungs.
So I was riding like that, pretty typical, and it was one of the truly cold days of January, there’s been a light dusting of fine, very dry snow, which ran along the ground beside me in the tailwind. The sun was low and doing that sublime winter thing where the air is iridescent, like it could almost be the arctic. This was around Tempelhofer Feld, the old airport in central Berlin, now a vast parkland. It was empty. I’d seen a couple of runners, and that was it. A 6.6km loop in almost 3 square kilometres in the middle of a city, empty. And I thought, “I should write about cold weather training and suffering and endurance.” Then it warmed up and we didn’t have much of a winter until this last week.
Winter in Berlin is broken compared to when I first arrived, almost a decade ago.
Below -5° extra layers offer diminishing comfort, especially if there’s wind raking the numbers even lower. Air feels like cold liquid. Effort doesn’t generate heat that makes it to the surface or extremities. During 90 minutes of riding, once the initial warm-up buffers against the cold, it’s a slow leeching of heat, sense, motors skills, thinking. My legs feel naked, my cheeks raw. The airport field empties somewhere around -5° also. A handful of runners, some uncomfortable commuters grinding towards heat death, if it’s sunny, one or two huddled out of the wind, sucking in what little warmth can be felt. The sun hangs low and weak above the horizon, far away. The air soaks up all its heat, passes none on.
I can feel my body locking into position, I try and shift more, get on the drops, get a little more aerodynamic, more forward and back on the saddle, occasionally stand up to shake some fatigue from my legs. All the while, nose goes drip, drip, drip. It’s a race between hypothermia and getting the laps in. Pretty bloody stupid.
Today, -6° and 25km/h wind flowing Finland and the Baltic, I tried to think into words the experience of getting through a session of this. Already I forget what it’s like. I remember arriving home, fingers and thoughts slushy and slow, getting into the shower to recover, after-care, kind of like a BDSM session, the very not pleasant ache of blood returning to the surface, and how cold, like cuts of meat from a butcher’s coldstore, my thighs and arse were.
There’s a training measurement called Functional Threshold Power, which you find by hammering as utterly hard as you can for a full hour. There’s a shorter, 20 minute version which gives a more-or-less similar number, but somehow doesn’t conjure the grotesque horror of laying yourself out for 60 minutes. Even backing off for 10 seconds is enough for some recovery, and it becomes not so much a physical limit, as a mental one of meeting “Please stop!” with “Just one more.” for each pedal stroke and each breath, each inhale and exhale, and doing that for each minute and all those seconds. And that’s not to diminish the physical wretchedness, gasping like a walrus, feeling blood draining through legs, everything going jelly. I’ve never done the FTP test, mainly because it terrifies me, mentally I’m not sure I could remain so utterly consistent for a full hour. I might like suffering, but I only play in the shallows.
Back to the cold, then. Probably also playing. Like the heat, you can’t really train for cold. You can understand how one’s body and person responds to and behaves in decreasing temperature, build a familiarity, but actually train for it like training for hill climbing or cobblestone riding or riding muddy off-cambers? It’s like the death zone in mountaineering, over around 8000 metres where there’s insufficient oxygen to keep you alive. Once you’re in there, you’re dying, it’s just physiology and the day that determines how quick. Too hot or too cold, same thing, your body is shutting down.
I want to veer off into pleasure here. Thinking about where I scrape out grains of pleasure and ecstasy in my life. This suffering is pleasure. During and after. Each pedal stroke, one after the other, I find a way with enduring, persevering with discomfort. It becomes only me, my breathing, the cold and wet. I become untouchable. When I was a dance student, and in the years immediately after, I was trained in the ceaseless analysis of self dancing, like picking a scab. Climbing was an escape from this. I never asked questions too close to the ones dance worries incessantly: Why do I do this? How do I do this? Perhaps now I’m stronger in myself resisting questions like these. Not all acts must be subject to dissection and justification — but having maybe a certitude or confidence in doing these things without converting to language why or how — or even considering these questions relevant, I can think about what happens when I subject myself to discomfort.
Finding language then, for things I don’t contemplate or consider in words. Finding a language of pleasure, of which ecstasy is part of the terrain, when as a life lived, there is little in the way of conventional pleasure.
 I started thinking about writing cold weather training a year ago, February 2nd, 2017. A year later, February 25th and 26th, just before I went to Australia, when winter turned on some proper brutal weeks, I wrote most of this. I’d planned to write more, edit it a bit, something, things which didn’t happen. Now it’s July 21st, the middle of one of the hottest and driest summers in Europe on record, Berlin has been having weeks on and off of 30°+ days, I find it strange to think of and remember that particular day in February in this heat. I’ve been training a lot since the start of May, it’s become, or becoming something of an artwork (like my blog is a life project), one of the solo endurance performances I’ve been thinking around. I wanted to write about those, so it makes sense to start with this, if for no other reason than keeping my notes in order.
Continuing art goals. 113.5km of the Berliner Mauerweg from Zehlendorf to Kreuzberg the long way around. One pinch flat on the way. Interesting variety of psychosomatic complaints that each went away when they realised I wasn’t stopping. Sometime around Invalidensiedlung I too realised I wasn’t stopping and went way past my usual ‘long ride’ distance (cyclocross does not prepare me for long days of arse pounding). Beautiful countryside, cheerful Germans everywhere, some cobbles, some truly shameful city ‘bike paths’ that were worse than the cobbles, decided that riding the route counter-clockwise, and finding alternate side-streets through some of the industrial mess of Schönholz (it isn’t) and Wilhelmsruh (also isn’t) is the way to get it done. Sometime in the coming weeks maybe. I’m not sure I have the capacity to get through 50 more kilometres yet. Unknown territory and all.
Over the last month (yes, that month), I decided I need more goals. Art goals. So I put down hypothetical / future works I’d like to make onto my other website, and went for another ride. The last month’s riding, being when I couldn’t hammer myself and had to practice restraint, turned out to be rather bloody good for me. So, sitting around thinking about how I could ever turn me doing Paris–Roubaix into An Art, and people mouthing off about how it takes ‘hard work’ to get what you want — nah fam, it doesn’t work like that, that’s the lie of meritocracy — I thought, fuck ya’s all, you want hard? See me. And thought a good preparation would be to cycle the 167 or so kilometres of the former Berlin Wall. Some of which I’ve already done, so I know it’s got cobbles and all, and is a madness in that department.
167 kilometres is also a pretty good single day race, and going from roads to cobbles to gravel, through the city, around Brandenburg, fields and lakes and forests, it’d make a banger of a women’s Spring Classic, Germany’s own Strada Bianche. Just saying, UCI.
Under-slept, with pockets full of energy bars, I decided to reconnoitre the southern part of the Berliner Mauerweg, starting from where Kreuzberg turns into Alt-Treptow, just over Lohnmühlenbrücke on the Landwehrkanal, working out how that connects to Johannisthaler Chaussee (which is the part I know up until Waltersdorfer Chaussee), and then all the sketchy bits following the Berlin-Brandenburg boundary until I ended up in the arse of Zehlendorf, a spit away from Größer Wannsee. Then back through Steglitz. Dead weird out there. 80-ish kilometres, a bit under half the full loop, plenty of stops while I looked at my GPS track and worked out if I was going in the right direction. Gloriously beautiful fields blooming with late-spring flowers, farm life everywhere, cheerful southern Berliners everywhere. And cobbles. Oh my, cobbles. I am so, so very far from hard.
Next up is Zehlendorf up to Frohnow, via Spandau, which covers most of the route I don’t know, and gets me used to spending those hours in the saddle, something I don’t have a habit for. Then it’s just another hundred kilometres, a lot more cobbles, and that’s Paris–Roubaix.
Done. Rode. Shakedown complete. Banging. Absolute fucking wicked to be on my baby again.
“No Part Left Behind!”