There’s a symmetry to this equation: in the cyclist’s mind, one is the quintessential solution to the other.
This is never more so than when spending whole weeks on the road, carving out the daily miles from A to B, with baggage strapped to the bike, and legs accumulating layer upon layer of inertia-defying effort. Each revolution of the pedals adds another small fraction to the sum total of massage that will be required to restore the balance.
It’s easy to obsess when discomfort is your daily companion. On my mental checklist of things to obsess about, massage always scores highly.
This is how I found myself stepping from the blazing heat of an Istanbul afternoon and descending into the cool darkness of the Çemberlitas Hamami, for what I’d been led to believe would be a massage to remember.
Built by the famous Ottoman architect Sinan in 1584, it was the only Turkish bath worth visiting, if the glossy leaflets lying around the lobby of my guesthouse were to be believed. And having cycled there from the UK – two months and 3,800km of riding on one side of the equation, with a mere 45 minutes of rapturous Hungarian leg massage to balance the other – I was ready to believe anything.
Wary of being fleeced, or worse, I thought I’d check with the receptionist – an agreeable lad with whom I’d shared a few beers since I’d been there – on my way out.
“So, these baths. Are they all they’re cracked up to be?”
“Oh yes. There are cheaper hamams, but this one, this is the best in all Istanbul.”
“And they’ll do me a decent leg massage?”
“Oh yes. Yes, certainly they will. Legs, arms,back, feet. Super massage!”
So off I went. Paid my money, exchanged my clothes for a flimsy, tightly wrapped loincloth and was ushered in through a heavy wooden doorway to the central domed sicaklik.
Like a lamb to the slaughter.
The first sight that greeted me was of some poor bloke grimacing, eyes squeezed shut, as an enormous Turkish tellak literally stood on him, with nothing but a hard marble floor beneath to cushion the impact. His involuntary cry was muffled in the vastness of the steam room. Fearing I may have let myself in for more than I’d bargained for I took a step back, but the door had already closed behind me. I’d paid my money, and now I would take my chances.
The chamber itself was indeed impressive. Off-white marble walls dripping with condensation, betopped by a huge dome that was peppered with metre-wide holes bored through its thickness. Shafts of sunlight filtered down, creating bright patches in the half light. Initially left to my own devices, the experience of lying there on the heated dais, sweating quietly while I watched steam dancing in the light was extraordinarily pleasant.
Until my torturer arrived: a hulking, smiling Turk, dressed only in a skimpy towel and a moustache.
Without words he ordered me to lie at the edge of the dais and commenced by scrubbing me so vigorously with a gloved loofah, that two months of cyclist’s tan disappeared in just under two minutes. He then hauled me into a seated position and cocooned me in thick, frothing soap suds. Fighting to clear them from my face I opened my eyes to see him leering towards me, phrasing a rhetorical, “Super massage?” before pushing me back down and setting about me manfully.
His technique consisted simply of attempting to squeeze the living daylights out of me, or at the very least, to elicit as many howls of pain as possible before the end of my allotted time. Using his massive hands, his forearms and, for one bone-crushingly desperate moment (during which all I could think about was what it might be like inside a Turkish hospital), his entire weight, he had a go at rupturing each of the fascial compartments of my legs, one by one. My feet, arms, back and most worryingly my neck were not spared, as he bent every one of my joints into the most unnatural of positions, all with a manic grin on his face.
On several occasions I couldn’t help but yelp in pain, grabbing him forcefully at one point and pleading “Please!! Be careful!!!” as he dug deep into my calf with both thumbs and all his considerable might….. But having the punters beg for mercy was clearly what he lived for, and this merely spurred him on to laugh once more and attack me with renewed ferocity. All this was interspersed with repeated latherings from his sud-filled bag, head to toe, with fingers pushed deep into my ears and all around my eyes, leading to a state of alarming disorientation which only served to confirm that I was in fact in hell.
After putting my back through the kind of torture equivalent to sitting at a computer screen unceasingly for ten thousand years, I was thankfully doused in ice cold water and re-entered reality to find his grinning visage seeking approbation. “Super massage” he said again, this time as as much in confirmation, as in question. All I could muster by this point was a meek and sulky “Well, I’m still alive if that’s what you’re asking.” He sauntered off nonchalantly, happy in the knowledge that another day at the office in Hades was complete.
The only guilty pleasure I gained from the experience was then spending the next half hour recovering quietly in the wings, watching all the other poor unsuspecting victims being put through their own personal versions of hell. Each of the masseurs had his own particular favourite form of torture, and in that 30 minutes I witnessed beating, slapping, stretching, scraping, tweaking, twisting, pulling, pinching, bending and squashing in measures surely banned under the Geneva Convention. At no point did any one of the massaged appear to be enjoying themselves, and their cries of pain, like mine, echoed about the dome amidst the sound of constantly running water and slamming doors. I confess to finding solace in their agony, a reassurance that it wasn’t just me being a lightweight at the hands of a Turkish thug.
On my way out, limping up the stairs into daylight I briefly considered asking for my money back, but decided to reserve judgement until I’d had chance to try out my newly pummelled legs on the bike, the following day. The unanswered question: had this degree of agony been the evil necessary to redress the balance?
Uncertain, a little unsteady, I stepped back into the heat and noise.