Is “Pain Cave” Stupid?

It's not what you think, and it's okay to take it seriously.

“If we cyclists, as a group, had sat down to brainstorm the most instantly effective means of making ourselves look very, very strange to outsiders, this name is it,” admonishes author and ex-pro cyclist Michael Hutchinson in his May 2022 Cycling Weekly feature.


To Hutchinson, the “Pain Cave” idiom is stupid because it draws attention to the “hardman” ethos that unites suffer-seeking cyclists like a badge of honor. The inside joke virtual cyclists share to rationalize the misery loves company moniker goes a long way toward isolating, not inspiring, and we take it much too seriously.

Photo of a sculpture of two skeletons hugging each other
Photos courtesy of @alisonjane_visualperception

The Traditional Cycling Hardman

That’s the realm of the traditional cyclist. The true hardman is the cyclist foolhardy enough to brave the elements despite how uncomfortable or illogically unsafe they may be. Perhaps the most unexplainable irony is the only pain the traditional hardman is unwilling to endure is spending more than five minutes on the turbo-trainer.


Virtual cyclists know that the trainer is not for those seeking to torture themselves with discomfort. It’s for those whose experience taught them to avoid it to any lengths possible.

Oh, The Irony

Photo of trail leading to a cave in the trees

Oh, the irony is that virtual cyclists may not have created the colloquialism they are destined to fall on the sword defending. Runners and ultramarathoners have stood up to stake their claim.


Sam Robinson explains in his 2017 Outside magazine feature that runners push to the precipice of pain, searching for introspective knowledge, more of a metaphorical state of mind than a physical torture chamber. “The pain cave is a place where we take stock of our courage and ask ourselves how much we are willing to give for the goals we’ve laid out,” as he embraces the notion.

Therein lies an isolating distinction. When the term is associated with the virtual cyclist’s homemade self-torment room, it has a more sinister meaning. Like the words found in the early-2000s writings of “The Pantsman” revealing one of the oldest references to the term, “Come into my pain cave so I can bludgeon you.” The author’s cult following was sure that nothing good would come of the unsuspecting lured there.  

Maybe Not!

Or maybe not? “Pain Cave” is insidious in the language of the endurance community and accepted by the mainstream with open arms—and wallets. Companies are not shy to use the term when describing the pain-weathering qualities of their wares. Equipment companies are keen to promote their products’ “Pain Cave”-enhancing qualities.


Cycling Weekly hosts a regular feature praising readers’ “Pain Caves.” Cycling News published a two-part feature rating the “Pain Caves” of the pro peloton as an installment of its Pro Pain Cave series.


Kristi Thomas Boyce’s “Embracing the Pain Cave” piece documenting the indomitable ultra-marathoner Courtney Dauwalter won the George Mallory Award at the 2020 Wasatch Mountain Film Festival.


The audience was unphased when Dauwalter explained, “You don’t snap your fingers to arrive at the pain cave. You’ve gone on a journey just to get to the entrance. So now, I fully embrace being there, and sitting in that misery, and enjoying it as much as possible. It’s an opportunity to be in a place that’s really hard to get to.”

Photo of sun shining throug a hole in a rock

Embrace the Folly of the Furtive

It’s been challenging for virtual cycling to find its place among the cycling purists. Loose-lipped usage of the phrase “Pain Cave” isn’t the unreasonable behavior standing in the way of opportunity, as Dr. Hutch would like us to believe.  


If that’s what it takes the once furtive to proudly emerge from the shadows of their dimly lit basements to stand and be counted, then celebrate the virtual cyclist’s coming out party.


However, you’ll never hear (or read) me use the term—never have and never will. It’s not a you thing. The insecure days when people I didn’t know influenced my decisions are long past. It’s a me thing, and it’s not because I think it’s stupid.

Conclusion—A Matter of Positive Perception

On the contrary, the term is such a fitting description that I’d prefer to avoid the visceral reminder each time I approach my dedicated training space. If you’re an athlete that can become “Virtually Trapped” in your own mind, the association triggers a defeatist inner dialogue.


It’s a matter of perception, and the stupid irony is that our brains have minds of their own. The paradoxical effects of thought suppression support the psychological belief that they become more disruptive and dominant when you attempt to repress thoughts and emotions.


We heighten the effect when trying to control our thoughts despite being mentally exhausted. We ask more of our brains than they can deliver for the serious cyclist teetering on the edge of form, fitness, and overtraining.


Why put yourself in that position?


Say “Gain Cave” instead! It has a nice ring to it.  

What do you think?

Comment below! Your fellow virtual cyclists want to know.

If you’re fascinated by the mental side of cycling like me, check out the “Virtually Trapped in My Own Mind” series, part one and part two.

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