It happens to us all. It shouldn’t, we know it shouldn’t, and yet still the moment strikes. I’m not talking about the moment you realise your favourite rider has been caught doping in the peloton, nor the confusion between its and it’s, nor that fear of your next KOM loss on Strava. No. I’m talking about the bonk. Hitting the wall. Blowing up. Meeting the man with the hammer. The oh my god I’m 35 miles from home and I cannot pedal another metre. Yes, it’s the moment all cyclists come to fear (and love to talk about).
The man with the hammer strikes
I’ve cycled for many a year and yet still find it impossible to avoid a date with the man with the hammer, he who lurks in some far off distant country lane waiting to deliver a deadly blow. And so it was this week. Out for what I was hoping to be a pleasant short sharp 85 miles, down the hammer came, striking my stomach and shattering my legs. Such a distance normally demands nothing more than a couple of bananas and a whole loaf of Soreen. 99 times out of 100 I will return home still weighed down with food. Not this week.
Not when the night before I’d frivolously ignored all of the rules to enjoy a couple of hotdogs. Hold the beer I said, I’m cycling tomorrow, caring little for the crap I was eating. Two hotdogs! That’s barely a snack let alone a meal! I had it coming to me.
Knock knock. Mile 20 and the bonk symptoms were already there. I pushed on. Banana one soon gone, half a Soreen loaf was not far behind. Knock, knock. My bowels began to howl. By mile 50 I was out of food and still the stomach cried out for more, grumbling and thundering, empty, nothing to feed on but that yellow bile you sometimes see after a steep hill tackled too hard or a heavy night you’ll never remember.
Knock, knock. Desperate glances at the Garmin commenced and no matter how many times I looked there was still 35 miles to go. Head down, knuckles white, I pulled at the bars of my lead bike. Teeth gritted and legs hollow, I alternated between spinning and mashing, spinning and mashing, never coming close to a rhythm. I was pedalling squares.
Even coasting down hills provided little respite. The gentlest of whispering breezes seemingly blew me backwards whilst the meekest of inclines wrecked my rotten legs. Every lump and bump in the road became a wretched curse on my increasingly heavy soul. Inching by, my head fell and I was soon staring at my stem harder than Chris Froome on Ritalin. Pedals just about turning, stomach still churning, nothing ahead but every metre of every mile stretched out towards an ever-receding horizon.
There were no cheerleaders waiting to welcome the hero. My fight with the man with the hammer barely registered with my neighbour who raised a hand and carried on as if it was just any other day. Never mind, my inner plaudits were already cheering. But the headlines would have to wait. Must eat. Bike thrown to floor, I raced into the kitchen and devoured the contents of the fridge, the cupboards, damn, I’d have ransacked the bin should the need have arisen. Still chewing, I collapsed onto the sofa a broken man. Darkness.
I awoke to aching legs and the chants of my name. Smiling, I stood up and looked for somebody, anybody, who would listen to my courageous story. This is how cyclists recover from the bonk. Unfortunately those who know not of the man with the hammer know nothing of pain, nor of suffering, nor the pure joy of simply making it home.
How to beat the bonk
- Don’t make the same mistake as I. Eat well the day before a long distance ride. That means carbohydrates. Potatoes, pasta and rice are your friends.
- Eat on the bike. Not as easy as it sounds, especially if you take a knife and fork. Follow the good ol’ Bob Dylan lyric “I’ll eat when I’m hungry, drink when I’m dry”.
- Experiment but eat food not nutrients. Bananas, prunes, malt loaf, jelly beans, KFC big bucket – whatever works for you.
- Gels are not food. They are the last bastion of the desperate man. Light to carry, rely on them only to fuel your very last miles home.
- Take it easy on the caffeine. Everything’s caffeinated nowadays. Gels, drinks, sweets, fruit. Well maybe not that last one. Some reports cite caffeine increasing effort by as much as [insert your own number here] percent but when your stomach is already empty, x percent of nothing ain’t very much.
- And as always, that good old cycling chestnut: train more, train harder. Sigh.
Stick to these rules and you’ll be certain to stay clear of the looming shadow of the man with the hammer. Until the next time he strikes.