Cyclists love to suffer. When you cycle regularly, you learn to endure, and the pain you endure is physical and psychic. At the end of each ride, someone invariably asks me, "Did you have a good ride?" or "Did you have fun?" My brow knits, and a sigh prefaces my qualification, "Well..."
So why continue? It's not simply that the joy outweighs the ache. The answer lies not in the ride's ease, as with the decline, where the rider descends upwards of 40 miles an hour with little effort. The answer is not in descent; the answer is in the climb.
Sisyphus, that mortal Greek who defied the Gods, was punished to push a boulder up a steep hill, only to have the stone escape his grasp, accelerate downward to its point of origin, and there await his return to repeat this task. A symbol of futility, Sisyphus suffers from acute, chronic upset. In the mid-20th century, Camus reframes Sisyphus as a modern hero. His task is set, yet his relation to the task is not. He may, at first, dread his punishment, but his dread is his to change. According to Camus, he must not merely bear the task, nor master it, but learn to love it. For cyclists, can we love the climb as easily as the descent that follows?
The labor of the climb lays before us. To walk the climb prolongs it. To walk away is shameful. So as with other undesirable, but necessary tasks, the common wisdom advises us to "get on with it," to "get it behind you." Still, the climb is a nuisance, a devil, a kill-joy, an adversary. And from riding among others, I have noted that we each have our tricks to manage discomfort. Some take the pain slowly, as with one couple on a tandem who rides a mile and breaks, rides another and stops, for each mile of the 5-mile climb. Other riders make the pact of the unbroken ascent, to avoid the disgrace of break and the shame of pause. Some charge the climb, as they would battle. Before the ascent, a band of two British brothers cry "For Queen and Country," fist to sky. Prior to another climb, I overhear King Henry's charge, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more." Indeed, the climb is war-like, which, though I may never master, I must learn to love. And I wonder if I learn to love the climb, will I transcend the burden?
My trick is this: I imagine my future mastery in each climb, a smooth ascent, an unbroken cursive stroke. I remind myself that each climb leads to such grace. Each push, heave, grip, and release has a metrical pull which my pulse begins to beat to. The climb may not change, but the climb may just change the rider.
Nietzsche writes of amor fati or the love of fate -- that one should not "want anything to be different, not backward, not forward, for all eternity....not merely bear what is necessary, but love it." He continues, "I want to learn more and more to see what is beautiful in necessary things. Then I shall be one of those who makes things beautiful."
So the climb is neither my adversary, nor my means to avoid shame. The climb is my project -- a necessary thing I will make beautiful.