What's Cool In Road Cycling

PEZ Bookshelf: Switchbacks, Vol. 1 Rhȏne-Alps

Book Review: Over the years we have reviewed many wonderful cycling books that have come to us from around the world: coffee table books on old steel racing machines; cookbooks and training suggestions; autobiographies of greater and lesser figures in the peloton; and a single book describing Belgian road surfaces. But the best books of all are about great climbs, the roads that hurt so much while providing unforgettable vistas and a sense of accomplishment. Into this category falls an unusual new book by Hank Barlow entitled “Switchbacks,” with a hopeful indication of Vol. 1.

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American Hank Barlow has a background in writing, covering skiing as well as cycling at some point and in 1994 he moved to France permanently. This has allowed him to indulge a great passion: the discovery of beautiful climbs, primarily in Southeastern France, on his bicycle, currently a custom titanium Erickson. As he notes he has written articles as a job in the past for the money but this book is a work of pleasure, a labour of love. One conjures up an image of this white-haired foreigner, cruising the back roads of la Grande Nation on his silver bicycle, unfolding his paper map at quiet intersections, chatting with the locals and capturing the odd moments on his camera before turning off into a quaint cafe. He takes enormous joy in his cols and wants to share them with everyone:

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You know when you eat at some restaurant that just blows your mind, or read some book you don’t want to ever end, or stumble into some small winery with a crazy good wine that goes down way too easy and all you want to do afterwards is tell all your friends about the restaurant or book or wine or whatever you discovered? That’s what this book is. Me yelling, hey, you’ve got to ride these roads; they’ll blow you away.

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Mr. Barlow has a set of specific criteria for his routes in the book. Foremost is the road itself, its lack of traffic, abundance of curves and vistas. Secondly the roads are all about climbing so no great time trialling routes will be found in the pages. The road has to have switchbacks (obviously from the title) so no long boring ascents but always a teasing track to break up the climb and lure you onward. Next up is the descent, which should be thrilling and a bit technical as one rockets through the curves, the reward for a tough climb. Criteria No. 4 is the scenery: “Riding through vineyards, past fields of grasses and alpine meadows, slicing across rock cliffs with the road a precarious balcony carved out of stone, diving down through tight gorges, soaring over high cols with their panoramas stretching into the distance.” And lastly: not too steep! Nothing with sustained grades of over 15% and, as the author points out, super-steep descents are not all that much fun. He notes the importance of the pain to pleasure ratio.

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“Some Lesser Known Cols,” the subtitle of the book, is pretty much an understatement. Many of us have ridden the famous cols of the Tour de France and shared a moment with the great heroes of cycling by so doing but although a few of these climbs have actually been used in past Tours the vast majority are so obscure you need to not only live in France but also nearby to have ever heard of them. This is a very welcome element of the book as we have a groaning bookshelf weighted with volumes of Famous Climbs of Every Grand Tour in Multiple Languages. This is a highly personal view of what makes a great ride and the presence of the ghost of Fausto Coppi or Jacques Anquetil has no significance.

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The style of writing is also very personal and not the type of thing found in most cycling books, with a kind of breathless, staccato rhythm, a stream-of-consciousness text that made me think of my own reflections while going up a climb, choppy thoughts not much related to anything except the task at hand. For example:

“Left the hamlet, or really more just a group of houses and barns, moved down a cog. I’d almost forgotten I wasn’t riding a one-speed. Didn’t last, just a short breather. Back into attack mode. Don’t really remember how the rest of the climb played out…”

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The book is copiously illustrated with photographs taken by the author in most cases. They do not have captions but clearly are meant to show the progress of a ride up the road. For each of the routes there is some statistical information, including overall distance of the ride, vertical gain in total and for each of the cols, as well as a list of nearby cols. Each chapter includes a map, which is pretty valuable since some of these roads must not be easy to find at all.

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The book is actually not just about great climbs but about the joys of road cycling. Hank Barlow writes with humour and insight about the friends he rides with, includes some things about his family and his own personality and even aging, as well as what makes the Good Cycling Life, including riding in the rain. Well, I will leave that last one to him but I am happy to have read “Switchbacks” and enjoyed its personal take on the kind of cycling that many of us, with no aspirations to compete on the road, can only savour with envy. Let us hope there will be a Vol. 2 in the near future as Mr. Barlow states that the hardest part about the book was deciding which cols to include and we know that he has plenty more roads-of-discovery up his sleeve.

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For someone considering a cycling trip to the Rhȏne-Alpes this book provides a great deal of useful information. For those who just like good cycling yarns, this is a fine collection. It is self-published and has a few proofing errors (Signore Pantini must be spinning!). Considering the limited niche market it is no surprise that it is not inexpensive although given the quality of the publication definitely worth the money. And judging from the photos you might even be able to enjoy a beer with Mr. Barlow if you meet on the right col at the right time!

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All photos from the author.

Switchbacks, Vol. 1 Rhȏne-Alps (Some Lesser Known Cols)” by Hank Barlow
196 pp., illustrated in colour, paperback
Velodogs Publishing, Boulder, Colorado, 2015
ISBN number not specified
The book, in an edition of 200, is only available online at www.velodogs-publishing.com for US$ 42.50 plus US$ 6.50 shipping in the United States. Bike shop enquiries are welcome. Mr. Barlow has another 100 covers so he can increase the print run—this should really happen!

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When not reliving his climbs on the cols of France and his travels there, Leslie Reissner may be found continuing his combat with the subjunctive tense at www.tindonkey.com.

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