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Meeting the Man with the Hammer

May 24, 2012

Today’s Ride: 91km—Jerseyville, Harrisburg, Clyde, Valens

Weather: Sunny: hot & humid

Paul Fournel has a lovely short essay about bonking: about meeting the man with the hammer, who taps a rider on the back of the neck, after which the body cannot continue. The body just shuts down and the simple rhythm of turning the cranks—such an obvious and easy activity not two minutes earlier—becomes an other-worldly impossibility. The head drops. Eyes fall on the bottom bracket, almost with incredulity.

Bonking isn’t just about physical exhaustion; it’s an expression of total and utter defeat. In this sense, it’s as much psychological. Debilitatingly so. The invincibility that comes with the pain associated with riding or climbing well evaporates. On Tuesday’s ride I was invincible; today I was broken. Fournel:

The Man with the Hammer is hidden behind a turn (you don’t know which one), and he’s waiting for you. When you go by with sprightly legs, he smashes his big old hammer on your neck and turns you into a wreck.

It wasn’t my first blow-up, but it always comes as a surprise. And knowing what’s happening does little to mitigate the horror. As Fournel correctly observes:

You can’t anticipate this kind of fatigue. It appears suddenly and it is terrible. You’d sell your soul to get rid of it.

I spent the last eternity of today’s ride—it was probably only about an hour—an absolute wreck. I’m not quite sure when it started, but I think I was already weak by the time I had turned into the easterly wind. My body ached; my saddle felt like granite; my shoulder and neck became stiff; my thoughts became dark and gloomy. Fournel again:

Every blowup is a serious descent into oneself, into murky regions where things seem to knot up incessantly.

My legs seemed fine, actually, but with the rest of my body in revolt, there was little they could do to rally the troops.

And the ride had started very well. I felt very strong riding up Wilson Street, and maintained that form through Jerseyville and into Harrisburg. I was riding well, in the big ring. Everything was fluid. I don’t think I over-extended myself or pushed too hard. Everything just… stopped. Maybe it was the heat, or starting an hour later than usual, or going out with just a handful of dried figs and energy drink, or wearing an older pair of shorts, or the glass of chianti I had after dinner last night. Or some combination of all these things. Or maybe the Man with the Hammer decided today was my turn to bonk—or he just happened into my path, purely by accident.

But there’s hope. As Fournel pointed out in the conclusion of his piece:

After a blowup your organism is altered. There’s a kind of purification in falling flat, an impression of fasting. A threshold is crossed that brings you closer to being in shape—the next day, when the worst of the tiredness is over, you feel it. To such an extent that some racers include a blowup in their training. I remember Fignon, three days before the world championships, setting off to do three hundred kilometres alone, with a cereal bar. He went out to meet the Man with the Hammer.

The view from Jerseyville Road.

One of many leafy tunnels on today’s ride.

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