Brain and bone, blood and bluff, we are at our core animals—we learn as we go. We learn more from our mistakes than our successes. Strike the inside pedal in a corner and you wind up on your hip. No better way to learn why to keep the outside pedal down. But bonking seems to be different. Can anyone go a full season without doing it at least once? It’s possible if you never ride more than 40 miles, but when your personal fun meter is calibrated to days of 70, 80, 100 miles or more, the bonk becomes your neighbor. By the time a bonk made a fool of me, I’d done it a few times. It was a sort of blood sugar pratfall. Only I didn’t mean to do this one. Coming back from injury I’d skipped the day’s race and did a charity ride with the girlfriend. We blew through a turn and after realizing our error doubled back to the climb. Twelve miles beyond my limit she says:
“You need to be drinking.”
“I’m fine. I don’t need to touch my bottle.”
I no longer remember my first bonk. It happened. It had to happen. Because it happens to us all. There’s a law somewhere. But I don’t remember it. I didn’t have the knowledge to know what was happening. If you don’t know what a cliff is or how gravity works, falling off a cliff will be hard to process. My first bonk required long division and I hadn’t gotten past addition.
Mistakes can be catalogued. Those familiar with the bonk know the early warning signs. There’s the irritability. The nonsense talk. The snappishness. If you’re on a road bike you need to eat. You need to drink. This isn’t up for discussion.
“You’re really edgy.”
“I’m not edgy. Jeez.”
“I think we need to pull over.”
A bonk is a metabolic conflagration. It starts with a romantic fire in the fireplace. You enjoy the warmth, so you add a few more logs. Eventually, you run out of logs and throw your furniture in, then your appliances. You take the doors off the hinges. Eventually you douse the walls with gasoline, toss a Zippo, stand back and watch. You can’t not watch. That fire is you.
If you do something enough, you begin to see a spectrum. We’ve done flat rides, hilly rides, long rides, stupidly hard hammer sessions and—if we’re anything approximating smart—recovery rides. Bonks come in just as many flavors, though none of them are on any menu you want to read.
The first bonk I can remember was also the most spectacular of the bunch. It was my first 100-mile ride. I was out with the cycling team sponsored by the shop where I worked. At 78-miles we went in a corner grocery in Fisherville, Tennessee, a next-to-nowhere kind of place. Not quite nowhere itself. I sat down on the waist-high freezer case and as the cold crept through my shorts the team president walked around the corner cradling a watermelon the size of a toddler.
I finished laughing.
“Hey, don’t laugh. Watermelon is perfect for cyclists. It’s mostly water with lots of electrolytes. I read how good it is for you—in Bicycling.”
We sat next to the dumpster and at first I didn’t bother to spit the seeds. I was that hungry. What I didn’t know was that water and electrolytes are good for you, but no match for the bonk. Water on a grease fire.
If I’d known then what I know now, I would have bought a Snickers. Or three. All I was doing was digging the hole deeper. We got back to my buddy’s pickup and as I moved you could hear grinding. The dried salt sounded like sand moving around inside my clothes. He drove me back to my place; dropped me off before I could go Vesuvius. I saved that for the girlfriend.
“How’d it go, hon?”
Incomprehensible angry gibberish.
“Are you okay?”
More angry incomprehensible gibberish.
“Do you need me to come pick you up so you can get food?”
Angry embarrassed gibberish. But willing to accept.
I know in my bones that day is one of the many reasons we didn’t last.
That I found myself on the west side of the Montagne de Gros Foug near Annecy was more than a navigational fail. I was off the script. Had been all day. I skipped breakfast. That bears repeating.
I. Skipped. Breakfast.
On an 80-ish mile day. The girlfriend was going to van it to the hotel because of an epic bonk the previous day on the way through the Chartreuse. My plan was to strike out early from the hotel, munch a Powerbar on the way, hit a bank to pick up more cash, buy snacks on the road and be to our next hotel by noon so we could have the chance to wander through the lakeside gem called Annecy.
Plans are made for a reason. They are an idealized future. How things should be. Nothing went according to plan that day. If I’m honest, it was a bad plan. A plan destined to fail. And I know exactly where everything went wrong. I was at a farm-bound intersection in the shadow of the Col du Sappenay and zagged when even a zig was not required.
When I saw the Lac du Bourget I knew I’d screwed up. And yet I continued to descend. What I was thinking is anyone’s guess—everyone’s guess. Somehow my next great idea wasn’t to double back. Rather, I headed north and took a different road back over the mountain. That’s when someone called to me.
“Yeah, who’s that?”
“Yo, it’s the Bonk.”
“Dude, I’m kinda busy here.”
At some point I realized the climb I was on was four kilometers longer and 300 meters higher than the original one. I was making extra work for myself. But I had learned a thing or two about the bonk. I shut down the warp drive, shifted into my lowest gear and finished my food. Or so I thought.
In three, maybe four, hours I hadn’t seen a single bank. I had 12 francs to my name. Then I found a charcuterie. It was the first business I’d seen all day. And even though the lights were off and the door was probably locked, I pulled over.
I say “probably” locked because tied to the bench outside was a dog one murderous snap shy of rabid. I couldn’t get near the door.
Then the archetype of the little old lady appeared. Shrunken, hunched, shuffling. She whack-a-moled the dog with hunk of tree branch the size of a tennis racket with an overactive pituitary. It seemed a bit violent to me, but I was in no condition to stick up for the mongrel.
Inside, I learned the only stuff refrigerated was the meat and even then, not all. In the corner I found my savior. A liter of Coca Cola, hot as a car seat on a summer day—11 francs, 60. Change to spare.
The final night of our tour our guide called on us to share our favorite memories. One by one we stood up and talked about climbing the Col du Galibier, seeing Lance Armstrong wear the yellow jersey, lunch atop l’Alpe d’Huez.
Dave was a guy who had worked in the foreign service and was now an immigration attorney in Seattle. In the mornings, he’d translate the French newspapers for us and tell us what l’Equipe thought of the upstart American who had stolen the yellow jersey. He had encountered me on the road into Annecy after I had verified that I was on an irrefutably cannot-miss-course into town. At the time, he’d expressed some concern for me.
“Yeah man, I’ve got this liter of Coke. Things are terrific, now.”
When Dave stood up and began to speak, it took a second to realize he was talking about me.
“When Patrick finally turned his head and looked at me, I almost fell off my bike. I’d never seen anyone look so bad and still be on the bike. His face was gray.”
Even among that which is most distasteful we develop preferences. My favorite bonk happened on the Col de l’Iseran. I’d skipped lunch while atop the Cormet de Roselend. Something about the rain and refrigerator temps didn’t make for al fresco dining. Then, while in the town of Bourg St. Maurice my group departed the bar after I’d sucked down only two demi hot chocolates.
By this point in my life I’d bonked dozens of times. I’m like a dog at the door who hears his master’s car while it’s still two blocks from home. I can tell the bonk is coming long before it arrives.
This one is my favorite because I could feel its very beginning; I knew the very moment of its conception. At first, I stopped taking pulls at the front of our trio, hid in what wheels there were. I estimated I was still a few k’s from irritable. Probably 12k from angry. If I was lucky, my hotel stood between me and meltdown. That I could do math was good. That I was still a good 10k from the hotel, less so. Bonking is a bit like massive blood loss; the higher brain functions go first. I couldn’t just fake my way to the hotel at this pace and then do a standing lunch in line to the register at a Petit Casino.
So I made a joke.
“My personal idiot light is on.”
And with that I downshifted and started watching for signs of food; any bar or market would do.
What Dave didn’t tell everyone that night was what happened after he asked how I was. I dropped him. Hammered into town in my big ring. Found the road to the hotel—a place I’d visited previously—through sheer muscle memory, no map at all. That isn’t even the juicy bit. That idiotic effort put a pointless minute or so between him and me. Then I saw the girlfriend on the sidewalk on her way into town; I still had time enough to pull over, hug her close and start sobbing. She told me I’d been ruled MIA, that a van was looking for me. I was too out-of-sorts to explain what had gone wrong. How my 80-ish-mile day had become something more like 120. Ridden on water, a liter of Coke and a single, unfinished Powerbar. Yes, unfinished. I dumped the last quarter of the bar out of my jersey pocket as I undressed in my room. Who knew?
I was still sobbing in her arms as Dave passed. It’s a good story. I hope he’s told it by now.
Image: Jorge “Koky” Flores, JustPedal
Originally published in Peloton Magazine