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.