Cycling is a sport well known for the suffering it inflicts on participants, but is there a particular event that’s more difficult than all the rest? Here’s a comparison of five different cycling disciplines in an attempt to settle the matter.
The Tour de France is often feted as the toughest endurance event in the world. At a more ‘normal’ level, every cyclist has an appreciation of the effort needed to ride a bike.
Novice cyclists strain at every pedal rev and long for the day when they can ride with painless grace like the pros, only to be told, “It doesn’t get easier, you just ride faster”.
There’s no doubt that cycle sport and hardship go hand in hand, whether you’re new to the game or a wizened old racer. What we need is some objectivity, some comparison to get a firmer grasp on how this hardship is defined. If biking is an activity steeped in suffering, the question is posed: which discipline within cycling provides the hardest challenge?
Undoubtedly you have your own opinion on which is the toughest, probably colored by the experience of your most challenging days out on the bike. However, to bring some rigor to the arguments, we need a group of criteria against which to judge our events.
Here are five different aspects that make riding so testing:
PAIN The agony that each cyclist knows: your legs are screaming, lungs are burning and your face contorted as you try to squeeze out every last drop of energy.
SUFFERING Slightly different to pain, this is the gradual grind when you try to keep a gear turning at a beyond-comfortable pace. It can continue for minutes, or hours. A moment of suffering isn’t a problem (unlike pain), but the accumulation of time at this unpleasant level can be just as hard.
ENERGY EXPENDITURE Some events can be done simply with the fuel in your legs; others will leave you raiding the fridge for hours after the ; and some will require considerable effort during the event to top up your levels of energy.
DANGER Hurtling along with little more than an inch of rubber holding you to the road and nothing but Lycra to protect you in case of a accident, there’s little doubt that cycling poses a risk. Our fourth criterion refers to the specific perils of the event.
MENTAL TOUGHNESS Connected to all of the above, the psychological effect of cycling has to be included among the factors. This can be the challenge of psyching-up for a race, managing the physical challenge during the event or the mental strength needed to outlast or outwit rivals.
Without further ado, let’s look at five of the most popular cycling disciplines — hill-climbs, cyclo-cross, time trials, road racing and ultra events — and score them out of 20 for each of the above criteria.
If cycling and suffering are so intimately linked, it seems natural that climbing should in our list of the most challenging tests. Octave Lapis famously exclaimed, “Vows tees des assassins!” at officials after the first inclusion of the Col du Tourmalet in the Tour de France, but you don’t need to look to the mountains of Continental Europe for your fix.
The Catford CC Hill-Climb (organized every year in October in the UK) is considered oldest continuously running cycle race, with cyclists competing to summit the infamous York’s Hill possible. If organized competition is not to your taste, Strata offer a similar opportunity to measure your best effort on a local climb.
Our first candidate for the most challenging cycling event is the hill-climb — an event that requires you to cycle from the bottom to the top of a hill in the fastest time possible. We’ll restrict this to UK climbs, which typically take to 10 minutes to complete.
The effort needed to succeed in a hill-climb is considerable. Any event where the organizer feels obliged to provide helpers to ‘catch’ the racers as they cross the finishing line is clearly designed to cause maximum pain! If you’ve ever gone flat-out for a Strava KOM and got to the stage where you experience tunnel vision and a metallic taste in the back of your throat, you’ll understand the sensation. Longer climbs might involve a modicum of suffering as you hang on to the effort to the top, but the hellishness involved is at least relatively short-lived. There’s little risk involved (but get a check-up from before you commit to a program of brutal maximum efforts). The mental toughness comes in the hours and minutes leading up to the event when you prepare to lock yourself in the hurt box.
Pain (20), Suffering (10), Energy expenditure (3), Danger (1), Mentality (5) – Total (39/100)
Cyclo-cross is a sport witnessing a resurgence in recent times. The top professional riders such as Marianne Vos and Zdenek Stybar have combined success on the road with World Championship jerseys in cross, while an increasing number of young riders are getting their first introduction to the sport in cyclo-cross races.
Cross races begin with a flat-out sprint for the first corner, narrow twisting circuits make overtakes difficult and often if you’re not among the top five into the first corner, you can forget hopes of overall glory. This initial effort puts you straight into the red, and you can expect to stay there for most of the following hour. The exact nature of the effort is dependent upon the course design, but you can expect a continued sequence of hard efforts with incomplete recovery.
An hour’s race isn’t overly exhausting in terms of total energy requirement, and although the technical courses and varied riding surfaces often lead to crashes, most are at slow speeds with a relatively soft landing. Mentally, the challenge comes from keeping focuses the physical fatigue sets in. Handling mistakes occur more likely towards the end of the race, and it takes a mentally strong to be at the best in the latter stages.
Pain (15), Suffering (15), Energy expenditure (10), Danger (12), Mentality (8) – Total (60/100)
#3 TIME TRIAL
The time trial is considered by many as the fairest test of cycling prowess and has adopted the moniker ‘the race of truth’ for that very reason. Pick a course and cycle it as fast as possible, and the with the fastest time is declared the winner.
The Hour record is a small variation on the theme. After successfully breaking the Hour record in 1972, Eddy Merckx claimed that the effort had knocked a number of years off his cycling career and possibly a similar amount of time off his life expectancy.
The effort involved in a time trial is a measured one, though. The very best riders know that it’s a fine balance between riding hard enough to empty the tank by the finishing line, but not so difficult that you risk blowing up before the end. As such, the early stages of a well-ridden time trial should feel relatively controlled before a gradual rise in effort level. At the halfway point, you doubt that you can sustain the effort, with increasing desperation for the arrival of the finishing line from that point on. While the effort in the early stages may be easier than in a cross race, the second half of a time trial can and should be among the most miserable experiences you can have on a bike — such is the intensity and desperation.
Solo riding means that the danger is minimized, but stiff carbon frames and wheels are very unforgiving if you make a handling error. Given the temptation to push the limits in the corners to shave off a couple of seconds, and the risk of a painful mishap is always there.
Pain (15), Suffering (15), Energy expenditure (10), Danger (8), Mentality (12) – Total (60/100)
#2 ULTRA-ENDURANCE EVENTS
If the hill-climb is one of the shortest events in which a cyclist can compete, we also have to consider those events at the other end of the spectrum. Ultra-endurance events are those that can be expected to take 12 hours or more — two of the most well known examples are Land’s End to John o’ Groats (LEJOG) or the infamous Race Across America (RAAM).
The length of such a challenge dictates that you will never feel the need to exert yourself to the extent that the effort is painful. You may suffer cramp, though, and contact points can become sore.
Where the ultra-endurance events really demand most is on energy levels and mental toughness. Calorie intake becomes a full-time job on rides like this, and you can expect to consume more than 5,000kcal a day and still run a deficit.
Mental toil is limitless as you cycle through ups and downs with nothing but your thoughts for company. And there’s a modicum of danger involved when such extended periods of riding are involved, while night riding and reduced concentration from fatigue pose their own risks.
Pain (8), Suffering (15), Energy expenditure (20), Danger (10), Mentality (20) – Total (73/100)
#1 ROAD RACE
From the Tour de France stage to a local fourth-cat circuit race, road racing draws in cyclists of all ages and all standards. For those who commit to life in the peloton, it can become an all-consuming love affair with the bike and competing with those around you. One writer described the devotion of some riders best with these infamous line: “Non-racers: the emptiness of those lives shocks me.”
The beauty of the flowing peloton and the vibrant colors of the group that we see on TV misrepresent the brutal reality of road racing. There are moments within any race when maximum efforts must be made in order to stay with the race or make a bid for glory. This could be equal in effort to that of the hill-climb. Equally, a maximum effort in the sprint in a last-ditch lunge for the line involves lung-burning intensity and huge crash risk. Road racing can score pretty highly on our pain scale!
What’s more, road racing is different to time trialing in that the effort level is dictated for long periods by other riders. Anyone who’s followed a stronger rider for a significant time will know the effort required to hold a wheel that seems to be forever inching away from you. The propensity for suffering is thus very high in road racing. Add in the fact that many races involve long days in the saddle, and the energy expenditure can be vast.
Forcing a peloton of up to 200 competitive, motivated and freakishly fast riders on to one narrow stretch of road is on the face of it quite ridiculous, and it’s no surprise any road racer with any time in the sport has more than their fair share of ‘get downs’ and that crashes are frequent. The danger is ever-present and only adds to the toughness.
Throw all of this into the mix and the mental energy required to compete is massive. The event is long but the crucial split or winning move can come at any time. You’re concentrating on trying not to bring down those around you and expected to read the race and be in the right position at the right time, all the while riding close to your physical limit. Even the thought of it is stressful.
Therefore, road racing scores highly on all of the five criteria, although it doesn’t quite get maximum scores in certain where only the specialist disciplines score higher.
Pain (16), Suffering (14), Energy expenditure (15), Danger (16), Mentality (14) – Total (75/100)
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So what do you think which is the hardest event you’ve ever done? Of course, the above list is exhaustive (pun intended) — off-road specialists or trackies will undoubtedly baulk at the omission of their events from the list. Also, the scoring system may not be perfect or unbiased. While the road race scores highest as the toughest event, many a race has been won by a wily old sprinter who’s barely turned a pedal until the final last-ditch dive for the line. Maybe the toughest event shouldn’t be one that can be won without being the strongest cyclist.
The solution is … try them all and Form your opinion to which one is the toughest!