Pain, Why Can’t I Hurt like a Cyclist

How is it some of us feel excruciating pain from something like stubbing a toe off a door, where others feel minimal pain from burns, cuts, fractures, abrasions etc?


(Johnny Hoogerland is seen to after his crash in the 2011 Tour de France – Tim de Waele/

I’m always astonished each year when the Tour de France (TDF) starts. You are guaranteed to have some big pile ups in the opening stages. Nerves are frayed as riders try to stay safe while also try to get good positions on each stage. Then the mountains come after the first week. The down hills are terrifying to watch with speeds in excess of 70kmph being reached. If the surface is wet you know someone is going to get hurt.

Then it happens, a slippery corner on a downhill and someone is down. The back wheel locks as the rider hit the brakes too heavy. The bike skid from under the rider, and the rider follows the bike, ripping his shorts and scraping the flesh from his legs. Another rider passes, spectators help the fallen cyclist. Astonishingly he remounts and gives chase. He careers down the mountain a little tentatively and finishes the stage.

I’ll bet most of us would have been airlifted from the mountain if we were in a similar incident. How was the rider able to jump back onto his bike and keep riding despite what we know must have been serious pain? This is common place in cycling.


Mind Over Matter

In the 2015 TDF, German cyclist Tony Martin crashes at high speed and fractures his collar bone. He remounts and finishes the stage. In the 2011 TDF, Dutch man Johnny Hoogerland was clipped by a TV camera and crashed into barbed wire fencing. He finished the stage and subsequently required 33 stitches. These are two examples of many such incidents.

Despite how it looks, these riders are not supermen. They bleed like us and get danger messages from the brain just like us. What they consciously or subconsciously do with these messages differentiate them from most of us.


Context Is Everything

The context of the crash is the key point. Where the injury occurred, what you are doing at the time, what you are thinking, what expectations are on you. These factors contribute to formulate the context of the incident. I’m sure Tony Martin was in a lot of pain after his broken collar bone. However, he was in the biggest cycling race in the world. He had a team that depended on his abilities. He comes from a cycling culture of never giving up. He knew the internal and external expectations upon him. Above all else he wanted to continue.

These thoughts and beliefs fed into his subconscious reasoning and acted to counter the danger messages being sent from the tissues/bones to the brain. Therefore the brain sent a signal down the spinal cord to shut off/inhibit the pain. This is described as descending inhibition. Descending inhibition occurs as a result of the brains evaluation of all the information available to it. From this an output is formulated and sent down the spinal cord. It may be to increase pain or reduce pain. In this case, the context was what mattered. The cyclist wanted/needed to finish. The brain recognised this and so, allowed it to happen by shutting off the pain.

Its only after the stage, when the cyclist is back in his lodgings that he feels the pain. The context has changed. The job is done and the descending inhibitors have been overridden.



What we can learn from this is, the way we think about pain affects how it is felt. Using methods such as distraction, positive thinking, visualisation and exercise can help us dampen down the pain messages.