Interview: Giles Belbin

Michael Steele

Mountain Kings author Giles Belbin pops in to the Café to talk about the mountains of the Tour de France and the men who have helped make them famous.

Mountain Kings, by Giles BelbinPodium Café: Mountain Kings tells stories about mountains and the riders who have climbed to fame on them. If I could do I'd like to begin with a man whose name is only known by a minority of cycling fans, but who played a very important role in the popularising of riding in the mountains: Paul de Vivie, better known as Velocio.

Giles Belbin: Well, perhaps ashamedly, I must confess that until I started researching Mountain Kings I couldn't be counted in that minority either. I travelled to de Vivie's adopted home town of Saint-Étienne to ride the Col de la République, which starts on the town's southern fringes. I wanted to ride the République because in 1904 it became the first climb over 1,000m to feature on the Tour de France's route and so I see it as the first in a line that ultimately led the Tour to the Tourmalet, Galibier and others. That was the reason for going there. Then, during the ride, I spotted a street sign saying "Rue Paul de Vivie, dit ‘Velocio'" and when I got to the top I saw the monument to him. I realised then that clearly de Vivie was an important man and, given the nickname 'Velocio', it was in all probability something to do with cycling. So I researched him when I returned home and discovered his fascinating story.

He was a silk factory owner but became obsessed in 1880s with the bicycle. He was so smitten that he sold up, moved his family to Saint-Étienne, opened a small bike shop importing bikes from Britain, and started a magazine called Le Cycliste celebrating all things cycling. The magazine, most of which he apparently wrote himself signing off as Velocio, encouraged people to get out on the bike and grew increasingly influential. But it's his invention of the derailleur in the early 1900s that is his lasting legacy. The whole tale of what he went through in order to get his invention accepted is in itself probably enough for a book. Amazing as it may seem today, the cycling world was stubbornly resistant to his newfangled device. Henri Desgrange labelled it as something artificial, "better to triumph by the strength of your muscles.."

He was someone who took a massive risk by walking away from a successful business and a comfortable life to follow his passion. And he was resolute in pursuing his ideas, believing in himself and setting out to win people over. It seems to me though that most of all he believed in the virtue of cycling. I was very grateful that by riding the République I discovered him.

PdC: Your own life as a cyclo-tourist - where did the idea for something as ambitious as riding all the cols in Mountain Kings come from?

GB: I'd had the idea for a long time before I actually pitched it to Punk. I suppose a few things came together over the course of a number of years to bring it together. First of all, when I became interested in the sport, I read Graeme Fife's book Tour de France. I absolutely loved it. These days it gets reissued every year with a chapter focused on the most recent race but back then it was predominantly about the history of the race from its inception. Fife had also ridden a number of climbs in the Alps and he included his experiences in the book. I really loved that juxtaposition, going from the author's experience to the race history. But I was a bit disappointed there were only a handful of climbs included. Also the historical sections weren't solely focused on those climbs. I read it well over 10 years ago but I thought even back then that there was an opportunity to go and ride a much bigger selection of climbs and tell two stories - one of what it feels like to ride them, and two of the role the climbs have played in the history of the race.

But at that point I was still very much learning about the sport and its history. I had never even seen the race from the roadside, let alone ridden one of the mountains. There was also the small consideration that I had never really written anything other than essays at uni.

One of my ambitions was to watch the race in the mountains, which I did for the first time in 2005, going to Courchevel and the Télégraphe. That visit taught me that to get the full experience you really need to take a bike so the following year I returned and rode up the Galibier and Alpe d'Huez, watching the race on the latter. It remains the most incredible sporting experience I've ever had. The atmosphere on that mountain really was astounding, I'd never seen anything like it and I really felt that by riding the climb first I was part of the occasion. I wanted to share that with others, to tell them that here was one of sport's truly great experiences just waiting to be had. For free. So once more my thoughts drifted back to the book idea.

By then I'd begun to write a bit. I'd got some articles in magazines and local papers, more lifestyle features, not cycling, but I was getting work published. I decided I wanted to link my two interests, so started writing on cycling for websites. Over the course of a number of years I continued to develop as a writer, learned more about the sport and rode more in the Alps, until I got to the point where I felt I could potentially take on a project like Mountain Kings. I think looking back that was the key really. I might have had the idea for years but something sub-consciously held me back from pursuing it. Probably deep down I knew that I wasn't ready to do it so I didn't pitch it. I hadn't written enough, accumulated enough base knowledge, or ridden enough. Only when all that came together did I pitch it to Punk. Luckily for me they liked it and after years and years of me holding it back, it was only a matter of weeks from sending the pitch to signing the contract.

PdC: In picking the mountain kings you did, I'm guessing some of your selection is influenced by when you first came to the sport - you're a child of the Pantani era, yes?

GB: Absolutely. It was my girlfriend's father who got me into the sport. He used to watch the Tour highlights every evening on channel Four (he still does, on ITV now of course). I used to sit in their living room reading, taking a passing interest, whilst he was watching the race. He was a massive Indurain fan, actually my first Tour memory is of watching Indurain get dropped on Les Arcs in 1996, but it was a couple of year's later, in 1998, that I became hooked, when Pantani exploded into life on the Galibier and won at Les Deux Alpes. Again I was in Karen's parents' living room, but this time I couldn't tear my eyes from the screen. Pantani's attack in the rain just lit something inside me that hadn't been there before. It was everything about it - the dreadful conditions, the grandeur of the Galibier, the sight of a seemingly fragile, diminutive climber, suddenly dismissing the relative sanctuary of the group and striking out alone against the odds. I think it's actually quite rare these days to be surprised by a sporting act, things are normally so controlled, but here was something truly spontaneous and inspired. It just all added up to an incredible moment of sporting drama and suddenly I got it.

So yes, it was Pantani that captured me initially. But then I immersed myself in the history of the Tour and then the wider history of cycling. I'm fascinated by the sport's past. I love the Bartali and Coppi era either side of the war, Bobet into the 50s...Bahamontes. I will happily spend hours pouring over old, grainy photographs of races and riders. One of my most memorable finds was a stash of old sports papers from the 30s, 40s and 50s in a market in Brittany a few years ago. I spent an age leafing through them and brought home a pile, full of cycling stories and pictures dating from that period. I was amazed the stall-holder only wanted a few euros for them. They remain among my most treasured possessions.

PdC: How difficult is it for you to separate the exploits of il Pirata from all that is now known about the doping of that era? Can you still take pleasure from watching clips of him climb?

GB: Much as I love the sport today, there's a romance about cycling's history, especially from the Bartali and Coppi period, and particularly in France and Italy I think, that just appeals to me. I'm not saying some of that may not be misplaced, looking back through rose-tinted spectacles and all that, but that era captures me in a way that today's version doesn't quite manage somehow.

For me Pantani is the closest we have come in the modern era to having a rider that had an element of that romance. I hate it when sport becomes controlled, as is often the case these days. It's far from just cycling, it's the same in any sport. Sports science and technology often reduces something that I want to be about inspiration and feel and embracing the moment, and turns it instead to being about coldly hitting numbers and targets. The whole approach of "...if we maintain this output, for this long, then the numbers tell us we win..." is the polar opposite of what attracts me to sport. I love the artistry of sport, the athletes that have that flicker of genius to produce the unexpected at the crucial time. Sometimes that comes hand in hand with also being the best there has been, Michael Jordan for one fits both bills I think, but often it doesn't, because the artists are maybe too inconsistent or temperamental or lack the cold-heartedness that may be needed. For all their undoubted greatness, you wouldn't get too far in arguing that McEnroe was the best tennis player that ever lived, or Prost the best F1 driver, or Platini the best footballer. But they are all my favourites, because they all have that little something else, a little panache I suppose you could call it, that for me, be they more successful or not, others don't.

That's why Pantani appealed to me. He rode on feelings not by numbers. He was an artist on the bike. At his best, to watch him climb was to watch a maestro at work. He was a flawed artist for sure, but he was an artist just the same. So can I still get pleasure form watching him climb now despite knowing what we know? Yes, I most definitely can. Can I get pleasure in watching Armstrong climb now? No, but then I never could, because to me he was a machine and not an artist.

Clearly that whole era is heavily tainted by doping and I wish they'd all rode clean, but they didn't. I can't change that. Just like I can't change the fact that this was the era in which I fell for the sport and Pantani was a massive part of that. When I watch him on the Galibier in 1998 it still resonates with me. I can't pretend my feelings on it are particularly justifiable but then you always hold a warm place in your heart for your first love don't you? Even if they do end up cheating on you.


PdC: How did you go about choosing the climbs that make up the book - what is it you were looking for from them?

GB: Two things really. The first, and most important, thing was looking for the climbs that from a historical perspective had played a major part in the race over the years. Be that because they had featured so many times, or because a particularly notable story had been played out there. The second was if there was something personal for me about the climb that made me want to go there. Many were obvious to be honest - Tourmalet, Aubisque, Galibier, Ventoux, Alpe d'Huez and so on, any book claiming to tell the stories of the mountains in the Tour simply has to include those.

Then there were some of the less obvious ones - la Plagne, the République, les Deux Alpes, the Portet d'Aspet, the Marie Blanque among them. All had a reason: la Plagne because of Stephen Roche, the République because it was the first over 1000m, les Deux Alpes because of Pantani, Portet d'Aspet because of Casartelli. The Marie-Blanque was an interesting one because that really was personal. For some reason I'd always wanted to ride it. There was just something about the name that made me want to go there. I kinda wish I hadn't as it was one of the hardest climbs I did despite it being relatively low and short. The last 4kms or so are hellish.

I also felt it important to include the Puy du Dôme despite no longer being able to ride it. It played a major part in the race for many years and so it was vital to tell some of those stories. I did my very best to ride it as well. I'd been told it was still possible by mountain-bike so I drove there specifically with a mountain bike to try. Turns out it's not, so I had to ditch the bike and walk the last bit. It was actually pretty tough so I still felt I suffered a little to get to the top and therefore paying respect to the mountain, which is important to me. I didn't just take the train up there which of course you can do now.

I know the selection will be debated and I'm fine with that. Everyone will, and should, have an opinion. This is just my selection. I don't think there are any glaring omissions and of course had time and space allowed I could have added many more. I still want to ride the Cormet de Roseland, the Saisies, Montgenevre, the Vars to name just a few.

PdC: You've ridden all the climbs. From a cycling perspective, which was the most enjoyable experience?

GB: In the Pyrenees I loved the Aubisque. It's long, over 30km via the Soulor, but whilst it starts hard you do then get some fairly easy kilometres to recover before the final 10km or so. The scenery is spectacular, there's a lot of history to think about as you ride and of course you have the Cirque du Litor which is the most amazing stretch of road. It's just a wonderful riding experience, certainly my favourite of all the climbs I did in the Pyrenees.

In the Alps I have to say Alpe d'Huez. Not particularly imaginative I know, and generally always busy, but I just love climbs that involve hairpins and few come better for that than the Alpe. I've ridden it a few times now, mostly on Tour day, and every time I just love the experience of getting out the saddle as I round a bend to focus on the next stretch. If I could only ride one climb in the Alps again, I think I'd choose the Alpe. It's chock full of great memories for me.

GB: And from the story-teller's perspective, which was your favourite to write about?

The Izoard. As I mentioned earlier I love the eras of Bartali, Coppi and Bobet and the Izoard's prime-time coincided with those riders. So in writing about the Izoard I was able to tell of those rider's fantastic escapades and duels over that climb. I love the story of Coppi standing at the roadside near the top of the Izoard with a camera, snapping Bobet as he crests the pass, bestowing his approval on his successor. Then, over 20 years later Bobet did similar, when Thévenet was first over the climb, offering up a Chapeau, saying that true champions are found on the Izoard and that Thévenet would go on to win the Tour, which of course he did. Seeing the monument to Coppi and Bobet on the Izoard was one of the highlights of writing the book.


PdC: As you've already said, with all these books people will quibble over the selection the author makes. There's always going to be a mountain someone thinks you should or should not have included. You though have decided that that wasn't enough trouble to be dealing and so you also profile a group of riders, which again can lead people to questioning your choices. How did you go about narrowing down the list of riders you were going to write about?

GB: It was a similar process to the mountains really. Many were obvious - how could you write this sort of book and not include Merckx or Anquetil or Hinault for example? I knew I wanted to include the first winner and the first King of the Mountains. Then it was important to include certain climbers or riders of note regardless of how many times they had triumphed - Van Impe, Gaul, Bahamontes, Bartali, Coppi etc.

I thought about others long and hard and debated their inclusion with my publisher and editor. Virenque I felt a bit uneasy about, not only because of the doping scandal but because I think he was far from the best climber of that time. But he is in the record books as the rider that has won the polka-dot the most times, so I reached the conclusion I had to include him. Wiggins was another one we talked about a lot, and it's true he is in there because it's a British book and as Britain's first winner we felt we needed to include him. And then came the question of what to do about Armstrong.

The Armstrong story was breaking just as we were finalising things. I remember the day after the Oprah interview I got an email from the designer saying "so we cut the Armstrong chapter, right?" But I felt it should stay in. As I said above, I never was a fan, but whatever else you say, it is undeniable that he had a massive effect on the Tour, whatever your viewpoint. So I just felt we should keep his story in, write it in a non-judgemental way, and let the reader make form their own view. Despite everything, I know plenty of people that still have a lot of time for what he did.

Again I know people will question the selection, Wiggins instead of Roche? Virenque not Thys? All I can say was that, for me, there was a good reason behind every rider being included.

PdC: Pantani aside, who is your favourite rider in among the selection you made?

GB: Easy - Fausto Coppi. His is just a fascinating story, triumph and tragedy intertwined, told many, many times I know. But for me he was the definitive rider. Again it comes down to my love of artists. Merckx may well be the best and most successful rider in history, but for me Coppi was the greatest.


PdC: The book itself. It's beautifully produced, there's obviously been a fair bit of thought has gone into its layout. One of the things you did that I quite liked was to give all the photographs a similar tonal balance.

GB: I can't take any of the credit for the layout. At the outset of the project I met with the publishers and one of the things we discussed was how we wanted the book to feel. Luckily we had similar opinions, we both wanted it to have a kind of retro, low-fi quality to it. The opposite of high definition if you like. Giving the photos of the climbs that sort of toned down feel achieved that, and also helped build consistency through the book because we were obviously using a lot of old photographs for the rider profiles. The layout concept was down to Harriet Yeomans at Punk, and then embodied by the book's designer Matt Swann. I was consulted every step of the way to make sure I was happy and to get my sign-off on the proofs, but none of the design was my doing. Luckily I liked pretty much everything they did so all I had to do was keep saying it was all good with me. I was really happy when I saw the finished product.

PdC: You co-edit the Cycling Post - care to tell me a little but about that?

GB: The idea for the Cycling Post came from an interview I did for a column I write. I was interviewing a guy who had self-published a book on road racing in Britain and he was talking about how back in the sixties they used to get a lot of coverage of lower tiered races and they joy he used to feel in picking up a national magazine and seeing his name in the results listings. So I thought about a paper devoted to racing in Britain, at all levels. I got together with a friend who races a lot (I don't) and we came up with the Cycling Post.

We published it for a year as an e-paper and got a great reaction. Lots of people loved it. We featured news from road and track, ran interviews with people like Helen Wyman, Sarah Storey and Lucy Garner, did retrospectives, previews, had regular columns, rider profiles, that sort of thing. It is very much aimed at the club rider, the sort of person who thinks nothing of getting up at six on a Sunday morning to race somewhere. The content worked I think, but for me the e-paper platform wasn't exactly how I saw it. So having proved we could produce something worthwhile every month for a year, we've taken a bit of time out to try to work towards a printed model.

I actually enjoy the process of putting together a paper much more than I thought I would. I obviously enjoy writing and researching stories but designing, laying out and editing I'd never done and didn't really know how to go about it at first. But I found I really enjoyed it. It is very rewarding creating a finished product from scratch that people like.

The project is very much alive and I'm very hopeful that come the new season we will be back up and running with an even better paper, and one that's printed.

PdC: There's more mountains out there, and other races - any plans for Mountain Kings II: The Italian Job?

GB: I have a few ideas bubbling around. I'm working on something with an illustrator which will go out to prospective publishers, hopefully before the end of the year, and I've got a couple of other longer-term projects in mind. Nothing quite like Mountain Kings at the moment, though obviously the Tours of Italy and Spain are prime candidates for that. We'll see. After we finalised the text on Mountain Kings my editor said to me, this may be your first book Giles, but you need to make sure it isn't your last. I very much hope it won't be.

* * * * *

Giles Belbin is the author of Mountain Kings: Agony and Euphoria on the Peaks of the Tour de France (Punk Publishing).

You'll find a review of Mountain Kings on the Café Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Giles Belbin for taking the time to participate in this interview.

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