Mur de Huy: Theatre of Pain

This article was originally published in Issue 60 of Rouleur. Download the app to read it in its entirety.

Arthur Schopenhauer knew a thing or two about cycling. Admittedly the 19th century German philosopher only lived to see the very earliest versions of the velocipede, but who can argue with his assertion that the two enemies of human happiness are pain and boredom? As cyclists, we know that going out for a ride is a great cure for boredom, but going out for a ride causes us pain. Here lies the paradox of cycling. It’s an absurd activity really when you think about it.

In the picturesque town of Huy, nestled in a steep-sided valley along the river Meuse, deep in the Belgian Ardennes, there is a narrow lane called the Chemin des Chapelles. It’s so named for the six small chapels that punctuate its tortuous ascent from the town. This kilometre of vertiginous tarmac is more commonly known as the Mur de Huy; the wall of Huy. For one day in April it becomes a theatre. The drama played out on its slopes is cycle racing at its purest expression.

On any other day of the year, the only visible sign of this road’s significance is the word Huy, painted on the tarmac every 20 metres. This is both admirable civic pro motion and psychological assistance to the poor leisure cyclist attempting to ride up the Mur. Read the road and you might forget the pain in your legs. Huy, Huy, Huy.

In cycling, pain has become a kind of totem. We glory in pain. We embrace and celebrate it. Pain sells product. Pain is a drug to which we’re all addicted. Yet when cyclists talk about pain, we’re only really referring to a very specific sort of pain. When we ride up a steep hill, in order to maintain forward momentum we must push hard on the pedals. This requires our muscles to work so hard that we go into oxygen debt. Lactic acid is created, and lactic acid equals pain.
Obvious, but worth stating, because pain can mean many things. In the world outside cycle racing—yes, it exists—pain means grief, pain means chronic illness, severe injury. Such types of pain truly are the enemies of happiness. No glory here, no celebration, just the tough reality of being alive.

The Flèche Wallonne has been part of the cycling calendar since 1936 and like most Classics, its route has evolved over the years. Today the race is synonymous with the Mur de Huy, which it tackles three times as part of a long circuit, but the race has only finished there since 1983. Its status has been helped by its midweek scheduling between the Amstel Gold Race and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. If these two races are the parents, Flèche Wallonne is the precocious child; short, punchy, endearing.

Presented with the challenge of how to win the Flèche Wallonne, the professional peloton has tried various approaches over the years. One option is the long-range lone attack, hoping that the rest will forget about you. This worked for Kim Andersen in 1984. It won’t happen again.

During the ’80s and ’90s, the race often whittled down to a small elite group who fought out the win on the slopes of the Mur. Winners at the Flèche tend to be one-day riders in the classic mould. Moreno Argentin, Maurizio Fondriest, Claude Criquielion, Michele Bartoli and Philippe Gilbert fit in here. Yet the race is tough enough to give Grand Tour riders a chance. Hinault, Fignon and Armstrong have all won on the Mur.

For a rider targeting the Giro d’Italia, the Flèche is a good test of form. In the last decade the tactical variations have narrowed, or arrowed, into one common scenario—a pared-down peloton thundering into town, led by some brutish domestiques who deliver their leaders to the foot of the climb then collapse into the nearest pub and watch the rest of the race on television. The team leaders then look at each other and wait for someone foolish to attack.

Waiting is critical on the Mur. Early attacks rarely pay off because everyone else follows your wheel, gets into a rhythm and then outsprints you at the top. Ask Cadel Evans. Riders now know that, while you need to be in the top 15 or 20 riders at the S-bends, the best place to launch your attack is inside the final 200 metres. It seems to work for Alejandro Valverde. 

The tension on that final climb is nerve crushing. With a whole afternoon of building intensity behind them, not to mention a few pints of beer, the crowds scream at the riders. The men at the front are jockeying for position and trying to hide their distress. Further back there is no need for such gamesmanship. Everyone’s in pain, and their contorted faces show it. The crowds cheer on every rider. This is the aspect of cycling that the television cameras don’t record, the fans yelling support at every suffering hero, irrespective of how many minutes they are behind. Every man gets his moment.

Among pro bike riders pain is prized, cherished. They’re a masochistic bunch, but it’s understandable. Pain is their common currency. And the ability to tolerate pain may improve their position in the hierarchy. Better yet, if you’re able to dish out pain to others, your value will rise. A study at a German university proved that elite endurance athletes were better able to tolerate pain than non-athletes—i.e. normal people. Through their training, athletes develop the psychological ability to withstand physical pain. Jens Voigt’s legs may have retired, but I’m sure they still shut up when told.

What does this tell us about the relationship between the fans lining the Mur de Huy and the cyclists in agony before them? Let’s try to state the facts. Firstly, pain—true pain as opposed to sporting pain—is something we humans are trying to eradicate from our lives. Secondly, athletes can tolerate greater levels of pain than we can. Thirdly, the pain we witness on the Mur de Huy is controlled. It’s not life-threatening. It won’t cause any permanent damage. Indeed, it will make these supermen still stronger.

So do we watch the professionals put themselves through all this because it somehow helps us deal with our own lives? This arena, this small road in a small town, is an annual pilgrimage for masochists and sadists. We (normal human beings) come to watch. The professionals (super beings) come to demonstrate how to suffer. It’s their chosen profession. The riders suffer, and in doing so our own suffering feels lighter. They inspire us to deal with the pain of our own lives, to suffer with dignity. Or, if we’re lucky enough not to have pain in our lives, watching the riders suffer simply reminds us what it means to be alive. Pain will come to us sooner or later, this is a valuable lesson in itself.

If you’ve just won the Flèche Wallonne, there will be a soigneur to catch you at the top, cameras shoved in your face, the roar of the crowd, the drifting smell of beer and hot dogs, flags fluttering in the wind you’ve been fighting for five hours, policemen pushing journalists away and sponsors’ drinks to pour down your throat. If you’re a mortal being, on one of those other days of the year, there will just be a slow roll to a halt, the only roar will be your own heartbeat pounding through your head. Either way the pain will soon subside. You’ll feel relieved. At this point you’re no longer a cyclist. You’re just a normal human being.

Paul Maunder is a novelist and freelance cycling writer.

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