High society

Cyclists are magnetically drawn to the mountains but why do these hulking lumps of rock cast such a potent spell over us? We chart the story of an obsession…

The Tourmalet Pass

This feature originally appeared in issue 368 of Cycling Plus magazine. To subscribe and take advantage of our current free gift, head here.

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Words: Mark Bailey

To cycle up a mountain is to pedal into a world of paradoxes. Mountains are a playground and a torture chamber; a means of outdoor adventure and inner discovery; an opportunity for wonder, a guarantee of pain. In this glorious grind against gravity, a cyclist will experience brutal suffering and sublime beauty in equal measure. A mountain can drag you to despair but leave you soaring with joy. 

When we think about cycling, mountains erupt into our imagination: a snaking Alpine pass or the curling grey ribbon of a Pyrenean hairpin. The most iconic moments of the Tour de France have taken place at altitude; photobooks of snow-capped cols adorn our coffee tables, and riders make pilgrimages to legendary peaks. But we rarely pause to think how strange this fascination really is. Road cyclists are not drawn in the same way to forests, fields or flatlands, although those landscapes feature in our rides and races. Mountains form the architecture of our cycling dreams. But this obsession cannot be explained simply by the physical challenges of elevation. And neither did this story begin with the Tour de France. 

As the author Robert Macfarlane describes in his seminal book, Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination, for most of human history mountains were regarded as dangerous, forbidding and worthless places. They were feared as a realm of dragons and mysterious beasts; an abode of bandits, thieves and social outcasts; an extreme terrain of dangers and disasters. In fact, our ancestors would find our love of mountains absurd. Hard as this may be for us to grasp, mountains were not even regarded as beautiful. Until well into the 1700s, as Macfarlane writes: “Alpine travellers often chose to be blindfolded to avoid looking at the vertiginous landscapes. Mountains were an ugly irritation, which prevented the free range of the eye, and the free movement of our legs, over the cultivated landscape in which humans lived and worked.”

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Photo: Joseph Branston

The mountains didn’t change. We did. There are multiple reasons for this shift in perspective. From the 17th to the 19th centuries, the Enlightenment sparked a new thirst for reason and knowledge, which saw scientists and geologists explore mountains as a means of learning about the world. The urbanisation that greeted the mid-18th century Industrial Revolution created a sentimental yearning for nature. The 17th and 18th century custom of the British aristocracy to explore Europe in pursuit of cultural discovery (a tradition known, in an amusing precursor to later cycling stage races, as the ‘Grand Tour’) led to a new passion for adventure. And Romanticism – an artistic movement that celebrated emotion, liberty, nature and the individual – saw poets such as William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge treasure the sublime beauty of the mountains. 

“A mountain,” concludes Macfarlane, is “a collaboration of the physical forms of the world with the imagination of humans – a mountain of the mind.”

Max Leonard, author of Higher Calling: Road Cycling’s Obsession with the Mountains, believes these dramatic cultural changes mark the start of our love affair with the mountains.

“You can chart this history from the Enlightenment and the Grand Tours when aristocrats made their way down to Italy and Switzerland and had this great experience of seeing the Alps,” he explains. “But then the British stopped going because of the Napoleonic Wars and that is when you find Wordsworth heading to the Lake District, the beginnings of Romanticism, and those feelings, when in a huge landscape, of being a small part of something much bigger. If you put the Tour de France legends aside, that is something that I still experience as a cyclist when I go to the mountains. A lot of the early writings of (Percy) Shelley made the mountains sound terrifying and awesome, and cyclists still feel these things today.” 

Mountain Biking on Death Road, Bolivia...The view for a tour group of Mountain Bikers as they prepare to bike down the infamous narrow dirt road as the mist descends, most of the road no wider than 3.2 meter's, is cut into the side of the mountain with sheer drops to the left of up to 600 meter's with virtually no safety rails on the winding steep decent...The North Yugas Road is a 64 Kilometer road leading from La Paz to Corioico. It is legendary for it's extreme danger and in 1995 the Inter American Development Bank christened is as the "world's most dangerous road". | Location: La Paz to Corioico, Bolivia. (Photo by Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

Photo: Getty

Dream big

Mountains, for so long feared and ignored, had become a source of wonder and fascination. Scientists and adventurers began to see the natural world as an arena for conquest and discovery. This new spirit of derring-do manifested itself in different ways, from the golden age of alpinism, to the heroic age of polar exploration, and the historic ascents of the Himalayas. But the creation of the Tour de France in 1903 can be seen as another strand of this same story. With its heroic tales and rugged scenery, the race was a symbol of human endeavour, exploration, beauty and adventure. 

“I have read the mountaineering memoirs of climbers such as Lionel Terray (1921-1965) and Walter Bonatti (1930-2011) and their descriptions of their emotions and experiences are the same things you feel on a bike in the mountains,” explains Leonard. 

The Tour’s blend of heroism and hardship was a deliberate development. “I spent a lot of time in the French National Library reading about the first time the Tour went to the Pyrenees in 1910 and the organisers made a very conscious mythologising effort,” adds Leonard. “L’Auto (the newspaper, which launched the race) was self-consciously grandstanding with pages of reporting about how brutal and inhuman it was. This was before photography was appearing in the papers so you just had very wordy reports that sang the praises of the mountains and the superhuman efforts of the riders. That carried into the era of photography when you start getting amazing pictures of guys riding on donkey tracks up the Galibier in the 50s and riders like Jacques Anquetil and Fausto Coppi on the Izoard.” 

Cyclists’ fascination with the mountains may have been built on centuries of dramatic social and cultural change, but over the 20th century the sport wrote its own strand of mountain folklore. When we think of the mountains today we imagine heroes like Eddy Merckx and villains like Lance Armstrong; we marvel at the high-altitude battles between Laurent Fignon and Greg LeMond; we YouTube grainy footage of Fausto Coppi attacking on Alpe d’Huez in 1952; and we mourn the tragic death of Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux in 1967. But in keeping with all the greatest mountain tales, many of our favourite cycling stories hover somewhere between the world of fantasy and reality.

“It doesn’t matter whether the stories are particularly true or not,” explains Leonard. “I’ve dug into the classic stories of the Tour and there’s often no more than a grain of truth in them. A good example is (French rider) Octave Lapize’s famous quote in the 1910 Tour when he shouts, “Assassins!” (murderers!) at the organisers. In the original papers, they have him saying it at different points during the week but there is now this amazing legend that he came over the top (of the Col d’Aubisque) shaking his fist at (Tour organiser) Henri Desgrange. But myths are just something that we all share, which tell us something about human character. So these archetypes and stories say a lot about how we view human character and our battles with the mountains.” 

Weight of history

For Yanto Barker, a former professional racer and the founder of the Le Col clothing brand, it is these epic tales of people battling the mountains that inspire us to ride the mountains ourselves. “I can remember watching the (1994) Tour when Eros Poli, an Italian cyclist, did a lone breakaway in a 230km stage and somehow held on for the final 40km up and down Mont Ventoux. Poli (who was 6ft 4in) weighed 90 kilos and he had ridden the whole stage alone, so he would have been absolutely knackered. The climbers took over 20 minutes out of him on the climb but he held on. I just think that’s such an incredible story of bravery and commitment.

‘Conquering a mountain’ is a popular metaphor for any kind of human accomplishment but in cycling this metaphor comes alive. “When you crest the summit of a mountain you can really materially see where you’ve come from, and how hard you’ve had to work, so you can look down and see just how significant that achievement is,” reflects Barker. “It is quite rare in life that you get opportunities to see your progress, in a beautiful winding ribbon of tarmac below you. I have tried to create a situation where I can see my progress in my business life, to somehow recognise my achievements. But cycling up a mountain does that in a very visual way.”

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When we cycle up mountains we also have to confront our inner demons. The physical challenge is painfully real, as your flaming quads will confirm. But it is the psychological challenges that represent, in a deeper way, our eternal search for self-improvement – both on and off the bike. 

“I was reading Marco Pantani’s book and he was talking about a stage of the Giro when he’s in his own little mind, thinking about how he can go faster – how to better himself,” explains Barker. “And he decided he needed to take his nose stud out to make sure he wasn’t carrying any extra weight. I just love that story. It is not about the weight itself; it’s about psychologically knowing that you have done 100 per cent of what you’re capable of doing, and you have committed to your objective without leaving any stone unturned.”

Max Leonard agrees that the psychological battles provided by the mountains are a key part of their appeal. “It is all about exploring your limits and challenging yourself and a mountain externalises that for you,” he says. “It presents that deep psychological challenge in a very physical way.”

Barker insists that conquering a mountain is an intellectual as well as a psychological challenge. “I have got a book on the first ascents of climbs like Everest or K2, which confirmed to me that there is a requirement to include the intellect here too,” he explains. “Mountaineers are skilled technically and incredibly strong athletes, but they are also intellectually bright and have to find a way to navigate a first ascent. It is the same with cycling. Even on a local segment in Surrey, I have to pace it just right, not go too hard at the beginning, and save a bit for the end, if I want to get a PB. So to ride up a mountain involves the intellect too.”

Magic mountains

There are, of course, the sublime pleasures of the mountains to consider too, as enshrined in the beautiful coffee-table books and the mesmerising helicopter footage of the Tour de France. Cyclists are moved by the panoramic views and epic scenery in the same way the wandering poets of the Romantic era were inspired by the beauty of the natural world. “We use this phrase, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,’ but nature defies that,” says Barker. “Everybody finds an incredible mountain beautiful. So to be immersed in that on a bike, under your own steam, when you’ve got a busy work life and home life, is an experience that is really unique.” 

The magic of the mountains is an extraordinary story of geography, history, science, literature and psychology. We used to be afraid of them. Now we pine for them. But perhaps some of that ancient mystery and fear, which used to repel us, has now become a key part of the appeal. “There’s a kind of fear and excitement and exhilaration that goes with the mountains,” admits Barker. “They are exhilarating because with their size and isolation you still think: ‘I shouldn’t really be here. If the clouds come in, I’m going to be in trouble.’ But at the same time they are stunningly beautiful and they give you such a sense of physical and mental satisfaction. There is no hiding place on a mountain. You can cruise along on a
flat ride but a mountain is going to find you and bite you – whoever you are.”

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