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Mountains have a very special place in cycling, says Richard Moore

Richard Moore Posted 15th November 2011 view comments

Imagine the Tour de France without the mountains. It would be like Wimbledon without grass, or the Grand National without fences.

The appeal is obvious: they are spectacular, dramatic and epic in their scale, and they usually decide the Tour, as well as the Giro and Vuelta.

Indeed, for many of us, the mountains encapsulate what the sport of cycling is all about. If they could speak, they would talk of the suffering and pain they have inflicted, the battles they have witnessed, the champions they have made and broken.

Peak of their powers: the French Alps, as seen by Alberto Contador in the last Tour de France

Peak of their powers: the French Alps, as seen by Alberto Contador in the last Tour de France

In fact, if they could speak, then Mountain High might be the result. This is the new book by Daniel Friebe and Pete Goding, and it tells, through Friebe's words and Goding's photographs, the history of the sport through the mountains. As the blurb goes, it is practical and historical guide, bible and reference book.

What it is not is a series of descriptions of what it's like to ride cycling's iconic climbs, which are arranged in order of elevation, from the 78m cobbled Koppenberg in Belgium (not a mountain, but a vicious cobbled battleground for the Classics), to the 3,284m Pico de Veleta in Spain's Sierra Nevada.

As Friebe writes, when the bicycle was invented the mountains "still evoked terror"; and "when, in its eighth edition, the Tour de France ventured across the Pyrenees via the passes of the Tourmalet and the Aubisque, the race organisers were branded 'murderers.

Richard Moore
Quotes of the week

The book draws on similar themes to Robert Macfarlane's Mountains of the Mind sub-titled 'A history of a fascination'. Macfarlane's book looked at the transformation of mountains in the human imagination, from places that were feared and avoided, to places that were revered, and there to be explored and conquered.

They came to be regarded as places of self-discovery but also, paradoxically, places so immense that you could forget yourself. As Macfarlane put it: "Those who travel to mountain tops are half in love with themselves, and half in love with oblivion."

Myths and legends

Such a culture exists in cycling, too. The mountains boast aesthetic and ascetic appeal, as all those who puff and pant their way to the summits of Mont Ventoux, Alpe d'Huez, the Col du Tourmalet, Passo del Stelvio, Monte Zoncolan, and the rest, bear testament to.

They do so for the physical challenge, the existential or spiritual experience, but also because these are the places where so many of the sport's myths and legends have been written.

Murderers

As Friebe writes, when the bicycle was invented the mountains "still evoked terror"; and "when, in its eighth edition, the Tour de France ventured across the Pyrenees via the passes of the Tourmalet and the Aubisque, the race organisers were branded 'murderers.' The following year they subjected the world's finest and bravest cyclists to the Alps and they became 'bandits.'

"Nonetheless, a love affair had begun, as turbulent and terrifyingly exhilarating as the climbs themselves."

As well as Goding's atmospheric photographs - ranging from sweeping vistas to quirky close-ups - there is a treasure trove of classic folklore and little-known stories, many relating to the more obscure mountains.

Take the Kitzbüheler Horn: famous in skiing circles, less well-known in cycling, but notorious in both sports. "The Horn may be the toughest climb in this book," is Freibe's surprising suggestion, while Bernhard Eisel describes it in more graphic terms: "It starts off bad and then gets worse and worse all the way up... It's bloody horrible."

In 1971 a race to the summit of the Kitzbüheler Horn was held, with local rider Wolfgang Steinmayr crowned King of the Horn. Steinmayr also won the next four editions and, though he won nothing else, the Austrian press began to acclaim their man the 'best climber in the world.'

Lucien Van Impe, whose performances in the Tour de France suggested he had a more rightful claim to that title, was lured to the Horn to take on the local hero. Steinmayr was confident, but he made the fatal mistake of over-gearing. And on the Horn's average gradient of 12.53 per cent- steepening to 22.3 per cent near the top - he was humiliated by Van Impe. At one point he had to climb off to catch his breath.

It was the end of one local legend, the start of an international one. The race to the summit remains an annual affair, with the Swiss Beat Breau unofficial King of the Horn, winning from 1991 to 2000.

"The suffering was depraved," said Breau. "Countless times I asked myself why I do this sh*t."

We've all said it - yet we keep going back.

Mountain High, by Daniel Friebe and Pete Goding, is published by Quercus, £20.00.

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