PEZ Bookshelf: Climbers
Pain, Panache and Polka Dots in Cycling's Greatest Arenas
In August this year the oldest surviving Tour de France winner, Federico Bahamontes, passed away at the age of 95. The first Spaniard to win the Tour when he was victorious in the 1959 edition, he was also the first person to win the King of the Mountains classification in all three Grand Tours, and took 11 stage wins in those races. Considered perhaps the greatest climber in the sport’s history, he was noted as an eccentric and somewhat prickly character. But then again time has shown us that climbers can be an unusual bunch and in a new edition of his book “Climbers,” author Peter Cossins provides a comprehensive story of the art of climbing on a bike and its most noted practitioners.
The book, arranged more or less in chronological order, is focused on the Grand Tours, where mountains have furnished much of the drama and highlighted interesting individuals who succeeded (generally) in conquering them. Given the technology and bad roads of the day as well as ideas of rider physiology. It was no surprise that in its early races the Tour de France avoided mountains, avoiding significant parts of the country for what was meant to be a national race. Things changed when René Pottier led the peloton up the Ballon d’Alsace in 1905, suddenly making people realize it was possible to ascend mountains on bicycles. Pottier had to abandon the race after crashing on the next stage but won the Mountains Classification anyway under the rules then. He came back in 1906 to win the General Classification (winning five of the thirteen stages offered) and was again King of the Mountains. There seems to be a disproportionate number of unhappy lives—and some tragic endings — for climbers; in 1907 Pottier committed suicide.
With the gradual evolution of stage racing at the Grand Tours, led by the Tour de France as it wended its way through ever-harder routes in the Alps and Pyrenees, the discipline of the climber became more refined. Technique expanded to include riding “en dansant,” standing on the pedals, although Henri Desgrange disapproved of what he saw as a style that lacked manliness. The great rivalry of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali pitted two great but very different climbers against each other. Coppi approached cycling as a profession, laying the groundwork in terms of training and diet for what was to become the norm decades later.
In looking at what makes a climber, the author sees two distinct ways that racers go uphill. In one case, they maintain a steady cadence, spinning easily to the top, while in the other the riders varies pace, alternating rhythm from placid to violent acceleration and back again. This latter is very difficult to follow and allowed riders who are capable of doing it for extended periods are difficult to bring back. The era of the pure climber, like Charly Gaul or Federico Bahamontes, had arrived. However, this would not result always result in stage race overall wins as the author notes that race organizers often set out parcours that tended not to favour climbers. The lack of summit finishes was a real disadvantage to them as labouring up to the top brought little if there was a long downhill and flat section that allowed sprinters to catch up and contest the finish.
Racing was to change again with the emergence of cycling legend Eddy Merckx, who recognized that strength could overcome the natural abilities of lightweight climbers. His tactic of riding “la course en tete,” or positioning himself near the front, putting relentless pressure on climbers, was highly successful. This was when the rouleur-grimpeur appeared, riders who had power enough to climb well but also could time trial and even sprint—riders who included, besides Merckx, Hinault, Lemond, Indurain and Fignon. However, there were still those unwilling to give up the fight and Merckx himself noted that the pure climber José Maria Fuente, was one of the toughest rivals he ever had to face. Fuente, a Spaniard nicknamed “El Tarangu,” an Asturian word denoting a man of courage and strength, won the Vuelta twice and won the King of the Mountains classification four times in a row at the Giro d’Italia. In 1972 he had an epic battle with Merckx at the Giro, taking the Maglia Rosa early, losing it to Merckx and valiantly fighting to get it back. In all he won 13 Grand Tour stages in a career that was shortened by kidney disease, which felled him at age 50.
Things were looking fairly bleak for climbers are Grand Tours included longer time trials (which favoured Miguel Indurain very much) and sprint stages and the author admits writing an article about the end of the great climber, just in time for the appearance, as it turned out, of Marco Pantani. Pantani holds the record for the fastest ascents of Mont Ventoux and the Alpe d’Huez and his spectacular out-of-the-saddle surges won him the Tour de France and the Giro in 1998, one of only seven riders to do the double in history. His life was marked by glorious success and a downward spiral to a tragic end. “When, during the Pyrenean stages of the 1998 Tour de France, a journalist asked Marco Pantani why he rode so fast in the mountains, the elfin Italian, unmistakeable in the bandana and hooped ear-rings that played up to his “Pirate” nickname, replied: “To shorten my agony.”
Ocaña and Fuentes
Climbers fascinate because in a team sport their job is to break away from the team, to reach the summit alone. While there is much in “Climbers” to interest the cycling fan, including an account of women’s racing, the best sections of the book might be the interviews. The climbers named include Andy Hampston, Dan Martin and Robert Millar (now Phillipa York), who offer introspective views of their art. Pierre Rolland is quoted at length in the introduction with very thoughtful remarks about his craft and his views on cycling. Spain continues to produce strong climbers but will see race winners in the mould of Alberto Contador, master of the heartless acceleration, atop the podium of a Grand Tour again?
The book includes accounts of recent races, notably the 2020 Tour de France, won by up-and-coming Tadej Pogačar on the penultimate stage, an uphill time trial, and the appearance of winner of the two most recent editions of the race, Jonas Vingegaard. We are in an era of all-rounders, Grand Tour winners appearing at one day Monuments, climbers who can sprint, and their story, and that of their antecedents, is here in “Climbers.” While many of the accounts here are known from previous histories of Grand Tours, the perspective taken—that of the viewpoint and position of climbers—makes this book a worthwhile addition to one’s library. There is a great deal of information contained in “Climbers,” covering a span of more than 115 years as it does, and to avoid being overwhelmed a bit it is best read with time to reflect between chapters.
“Climbers: Pain, Panache and Polka Dots in Cycling’s Greatest Arenas” by Peter Cossins
345 pp., softbound, including 8 pages of black-and-white pictures
Octopus Books, London, 2023
Recommended price: US$12.99/C$14.99/GBP 10.99
# “Climbers: Pain, Panache and Polka Dots in Cycling’s Greatest Arenas” by Peter Cossins is available from AMAZON.COM. #
* Photos here are not form the book.