Friday, 18 October 2013

How I Learned to Love Climbs

I had this piece in issue 7 of The Ride Journal, and now that it's off-sale and sold out, I can post it here as well.

He has a jaw like an anvil, dark eyes beneath darker brows, and a slight grimace that shows his canines. It’s 1997 and I’m watching Djamolidine Abdoujaparov, the infamous Uzbek sprinter, riding his last Tour de France. 

I’m learning something as I watch the man known as the Tashkent Terror. Not something about sprinting. Something about climbing. I’m learning to love climbing.

It’s my first visit to the Tour de France, and my first glimpse of a Tour climb. For several years now, I’ve been an aficionado of time trials. In the Indurain era the time trials are where the Grand Tours will be won, and they’re the home of headfairings and tri-bars and the occasional soon-to-be-banned carbon monocoque. They combine spectacle and drama in a way that I thought could never be matched by mere hills. Then there are the sprints: more spectacle, and the ever present danger that the forward sweep of the pack will become a whirling tumble of bikes and riders, like a breaking wave, the way it did at Armentiere in ‘94. How can hills and mountains compare to that?Where’s the spectacle in something that makes the riders go slower?

Yet here I am at the first categorised climb of the second stage of the 1997 Tour de France, in a town named Cany-Barville. The road is long and straight, sweeping upwards out of the town and onto a wooded hillside where it smoothly curves to the right and out of sight. The initial ramp is only modestly inclined, but it’s long and steepens gradually until the curve, where the riders will have to corner as well as climb. The bunch whirs past, still led by Abdoujaparov, but somewhere up in the trees Laurent Brochard will push his way out of the pack to take the points at the summit.

Within a couple of days Abdoujaparov will test positive for Bromantan and Clenbuterol and be kicked off the race. Brochard will become World Champion by the end of the year, and leave the following year’s Tour in disgrace, permanently tainted by his involvement in the Festina Affair. 

Within a few years they’ll both be largely forgotten, but the Cote de Cany-Barville will stay with me. Seeing a little “4” on the route map is one thing, but watching an ageing sprinter lead the pack over his climb is quite another. This hill isn’t considered challenging by any of the riders, but to me, viewing my first Tour climb, it looks impossibly difficult. Not steep, but long and draining, with the sun reflecting off the exposed asphalt of the lower ramp and making the air thick and dizzying. The later curves rear up at just the point where your legs would be unable to take anymore. And if this is a hill, a short hill, then what are the mountains like? 

All cycling fans eventually have a moment when they realise that cyclists aren’t like other sportsmen. They’re not footballers or tennis players or even marathon runners. For all the sneering the sport has to endure at times, professional cyclists carry out superhuman feats almost every day. I’m having that moment of realisation on the Cote. In years to come, whenever I feel that the day’s racing isn’t challenging enough to entertain me, I’ll remind myself of this hill and that realisation that all climbs are worthy of respect.

From this point onwards, for me, every slope in every road will contain a little bit of this climb. It will be my initial reference point for all climbs, even the monsters. I’ll get fitter, and find lower gears and higher cadences, and hills like this won’t seem quite so challenging. In 2011, when I am lucky enough to tackle Mt Ventoux, I will still be thinking of Cany-Barville, and seeing its DNA in the leafy arches above the road or the reflected sun of the upper slopes. 

The Giant of Provence will do its impassive best to stop me in my tracks, and I’ll be amused to realise that suffering on a 22Km mountain doesn’t feel that different from suffering on a small hill. The pain goes on for longer, but it’s the same pain. Cycling will seek out ever harder climbs, and find Zoncolans and Anglirus to trump its Tourmalets and Colombieres. Cycling fans will become accustomed to climbs of comically brobdingnagian proportions but the Cote de Cany-Barville, forgettable to everyone else, will help me keep things in perspective.

My heroes over the next few years will be Marco Pantani, Jose Maria Jimenez and Ivan Basso, and when I’m having a good time on a climb I’ll imagine I’m riding along side (but never, not even in fantasy, ahead of them). But when I’m struggling, when I need to push a bit harder, I’ll remind myself of the calm, wolfish grin on Abdou’s face as he rides up the Cany-Barville, supposedly out of his element but riding with a grace that belies his terrible, reckless reputation.

When this piece appeared in The Ride it was accompanied by a beautiful illustration by Irene Fuga which now hangs in a frame above my desk. You can see her work at

I didn't submit anything to Issue 8 of The Ride, but rereading this just now has reminded me of how  much fun it was to play around with tenses, and to try to capture the significance of the moment, a photograph of which has been framed and hung on the wall of every house I've lived in since 1997. I rarely enjoy reading my own writing, but I'm really pleased with this. I'll have to come up with something for Issue 9.

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