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Alone on the mountain
Riding in the bunch people take refuge (or get dropped). Crosswinds and headwinds are avoided by sitting within the pack. There’s even time to gossip and laugh, eat an ice cream. Sometimes it gets too intimate; elbows, heads, carbon, alloys and tarmac mangle. But once the road goes up and away from the throng, there’s nowhere to hide, no one to talk with, just yourself and the immediate sound of body and bike. You may follow a wheel but it’s useless if you don’t have what’s required: The ability to float up the ascents and into the clouds is a different art.
That’s why some of the best climbers are inevitably the loners - sensitive, troubled characters who ride away from the other "animals". Federico Bahamontes, Charly Gaul, Lucien Van Impe, Robert Millar, Marco Pantani, they went higher and faster than the rest when the altitude soared, but were also complex individuals. Road riding brings about a range of strong emotions and some of the finest climbers are arguably the most impassioned riders.
Pantani said of Richard Virenque, another decorated grimpeur; "I’m the best climber in the world, Virenque merely wears the climber’s jersey". Virenque has won the polka dot shirt more than any other rider but is not regarded as the greatest (outside of France). Van Impe, heralded by many as the best, echoed Pantani’s sensitive pride toward a rival mountain-goat suggesting Virenque’s seven wins of the KoM was opportunistic, i.e. boring/doped (Van Impe won the polka dots on five occasions and never tested positive). Handbags at 2,000 metres.
Virenque was also outspoken, criticizing his rivals. But again the man was sensitive, apparently crying for days after he was found guilty of doping. A lot of these men, unfortunately, are associated with drug taking. Perhaps it’s simply who has the best (or the most) dope? Ironic, then, that we refer to their kind as pure climbers… Some climbers are certainly products of their environment, just look at the Colombians (and I'm not suggesting they were juiced). Some riders can do it all - Bobet, Delgado, Coppi, Merckx - climb, sprint, time trial. But the specialist mountaineers, they represent a free spirit, the Romantic poets of the road race.
Who fits into this category in the current Pro Peloton? The latter day performers that spring to mind don’t seem to have the personality of the former. A Schleck? Perhaps a verb for a shrug of the shoulders… A Contador? Possibly a noun for annoyingly efficient and boring (until he loses a contract). I’m not a climber but then neither was Lance Armstrong (he was a triathlete) but he trained himself to climb with the best, even "gifting" Il Pirata or Elefantino (as he referred to him afterwards) a win up Mt. Ventoux in 2000. But whilst some may remember Lance for his heroics on mountain stages, would you ever refer to him as a climber in the same tone we refer to Pantani?
I rode up Ventoux at the Etape du Tour 2009 and it was as I recall the hardest climbing experience of my life, but a good one. I suffered inside and out, but whilst I was surrounded by thousands of other desperate amateurs trying to scale the Géant, I was ultimately all by myself on that mountain. Battling the slopes and my own mind and legs, I doffed my lid at the Tommy Simpson memorial as I crept past. Simpson was arguably a victim of the sport and his own ambition, his desire to climb too fast and too hard brought tragedy.
The meditative nature of climbing makes it the purest catharsis there is on a bike: Examine your own mindset, how much courage (or anger) you can ride with. The suffering can be converted into redemption and revival, therapy on two wheels. As for racers, is climbing purely about getting to the top as fast as you can? Robert Millar said; “I enjoy seeing people disappear behind me” and who wouldn’t? It seems a lot of personality and attitude is expressed when the road goes skyward.
Natural-born grimpeurs, scalatori, pure climbers, are the riders many idolise - alien beings that defy the laws of gravity. The mountain stages are what many fans really adore; the greatest spectacle, the Grand Tour’s most dramatic acts. And this is made even more amazing for lovers of this sport by the fact that ordinary people, amateur riders without the sponsors, can climb in these places too, in the shadows of the greats. I asked Andy Hampsten - who won a stage on Alpe d’Huez in ’92 and famously attacked on the Gavia pass in a snowstorm to take pink - what makes a good climber (aside from weighing a little more than a squirrel)? He replied in a nonchalant way: “Go fast and stay relaxed”.
As Tim Krabbé, the chess-player, informs us in The Rider; “The alpinist's will isn't prompted by the mountain”. No it’s prompted by life itself, the mountain is merely a blank page until you climb it.
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