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Mountain High, by Daniel Friebe


Title: Mountain High: Europe's Greatest Cycle Climbs
Author: Daniel Friebe (photography by Pete Goding)
Publisher: Quercus
Year: 2011
Pages: 224
What it is: A look at fifty European climbs, in words and pictures.
Strengths: Beautifully produced with stunning photography, informative graphics and entertaining text.
Weaknesses: It's fifty climbs - which inevitably means that some of the inclusions and exclusions will irk some.

"The Spanish journalist Juanfran de la Cruz observed a few years ago that, like all sports, cycling has many myths and legends, but also the peculiarity that some are made of flesh and bone and others of tarmac road."
Daniel Friebe, Mountain High

1995. July 14. Bastille Day. Just 24 kilometres into the 222.5 km stage from St Étienne to Mende, ONCE's Laurent Jalabert launched a suicidal attack. The previous year Jaja had crashed out of the Tour on the first stage, ploughing into the barriers as the Tour sprinted into Armentières. In 1995, recovered from his injuries, he was in flying form. Already he'd added Paris-Nice, Milan-Sanremo, the Critérium International and the Flèche-Wallonne. The former sprinter had transformed himself into an all-rounder. Earlier in the Tour he'd worn the maillot jaune (as had his ONCE team-mate Johan Bruyneel) and by the time Bastille Day came around he was in the maillot vert.

Gewiss' Dario Bottaro was sent in pursuit of Jalabert, to police his movements. Bottaro's Gewiss team-mate Bjarn Riis was sitting in third and just 3'16" ahead of the Frenchman. This was the year following Gewiss' magical 1994 season, when Michele Ferrari had performed an act of alchemy with their blood, the team winning races left, right and centre, even packing the podium at Flèche-Wallonne in a shocking one-two-three. But in 1995, publicly at least, Gewiss were no longer clients of Ferrari. They were, though, still on the books of Francesco Conconi and his colleagues in the University of Ferrara. Not that that made much of a difference, this was 1995, the secret of success was openly shared and most every team in the pro peloton was properly prepared.

The Tour was in between the Alps and the Pyrénées. One of those transition days when the big guns try to recover from what's been and prepare for what's to come. The sort of day that's perfect for catching them unawares. There was only one hill of note on the route map, the second category climb of the Côte de la Croix Neuve, the Hill of the New Cross, taking the riders to the top of Mont Mimat, a plateau in the Causse range. That was where the stage was scheduled to finish, at an abandoned aerodrome just over the crest of the climb.

Mende, the capital of the Languedoc-Roussillon département of the Lozère, was for a long time a part of the undiscovered France, known only to those who needed to know it. In The Discovery Of France Graham Robb notes how François Marlin visited the region in 1790, carrying with him Robert de Hesseln's Dictionnaire Universal De La France as his guidebook. Written just two decades earlier, Marlin was somewhat amused by the errors it contained. Of Mende, he noted, De Hesseln "went to the trouble of placing Mende on a mountain, giving it a triangular shape and a large population. There are only three errors in this statement."

In 1995, the Tour was itself discovering Mende, making its first visit to the town and the climb just beyond it. The Massif Central itself had been ignored by the race until 1951. Since then hills like the Col de Perjuret (where Roger Rivière broke his back), the Puy de Dôme (where Anquetil and Poulidor went shoulder to shoulder) and the Ventoux had written themselves into Tour history. Would the Croix Neuve be able to earn its place beside them?

The chances of Bottaro and Jaja reaching Mende ahead of the peloton didn't look good, not early into their breakaway anyway. Initially, the best they could manage was a 30 second gap on the peloton. Bottaro's heart wasn't really in it and he tried to tell his French companion that they were doomed. Jaja didn't quite agree:

"I was getting cheesed off. I said to myself that I was maybe making a big mistake. But not being able to get away was hacking me off, so I said to myself: if they want to come back, they'd better hang on for dear life."

Then Jaja's team-mate Melchior Mauri received his marching orders from the ONCE directeur sportif , Manolo Saìz, and bridged across to the break. Shortly after, another group, containing Massimo Podenzana (Brescialat), Andrea Peron (Motorola) and Neil Stephens (ONCE) slipped out of the peloton and, at kilometre 49, there was a group of six riders making the pace, half of them from the team of the moment, ONCE. The gap to the peloton began to grow. And grow. And grow. By the time they entered Lozère their lead had grown to nearly 11 minutes.

Jaja, who had started the day 9'16" minutes in arrears of the yellow jerseyed Miguel Induráin, was now the maillot jaune virtuel. A Frenchman in yellow - even if only virtually - on Bastille Day, that's the stuff that dreams are made of. That day France dreamed. A decade had passed since Bernard Hinault had hung up his wheels and the Tour had been taken over by foreigners. The minor jerseys - green for Jalabert, polka-dots for Richard Virenque - and assorted stage wins were mere consolation prizes for the French. A Frenchman hadn't even stood on the podium since Laurent Fignon had seen the Tour slip from his grasp in sight of the Champs-Élysees in 1989. The French wanted their race back.

Behind the breakaways the peloton was giving chase. Induráin had his yellow jersey to protect, while Gewiss's Bjarne Riis was in danger of being dispossessed of his podium position by Jalabert. The chase was on. By the time the escapees hit Mende itself and flew along its tree-lined avenues, their lead was down to seven minutes. All that lay ahead of them was the Croix Neuve.

At the base of the climb the green-jerseyed Jaja made his move, attacking his breakaway companions and soaring up the climb alone. One rider - Bottaro - tried to chase but Jaja soon shook him off his wheel. At the finish, as he raced along the wide expanse of the abandoned runway - a fantastically televisual finish - punching the air for joy, Jalabert had 29 seconds on Podenzana and another 13 seconds on Bottaro. While his escapade didn't earn him enough time to take the yellow jersey - Induráin rolled in 5'42" down - it did move Jalabert into a podium position, third overall, just 51 seconds behind his ONCE team-mate, Alex Zülle.

* * * * *

You can reduce the Croix Neuve to numbers if you wish. It's just 3.3 kilometres of tarmac. There's 317 metres of altitude gain. You top out at 1,057 metres above sea-level. The average gradient is 9.5%, with a one kilometre ramp near the base touching 12.4%. Behind Jaja that day, the maillot jaune group of Induráin, Riis and Marco Pantani, flew up the hill in just 8'40". Them's the numbers. Soulless things. They don't explain how a hill that already had two names - Mont Mimat and the Croix Neuve - gained a third name that day, one that would officially be accorded it a decade later when, in 2005, the mayor of Mende issued an edict: henceforth the Croix Neuve would be known as the Montée Laurent Jalabert. The numbers can clue you into the geography of the climb, photographs and graphics can illustrate it for you, but it takes a story like Jalabert's win there to clue you in to its psychogeography.

The importance to cyclists of psychogeography was stressed by Paul Fournel in one of the essays that make up his Need For The Bike (Besoin de Vélo):

"I've gone up unbelievable passes but gotten no credit for it because a champion hadn't marked it. Back from vacation, if I say to a friend: 'I climbed the Finestre pass,' he might reply: 'Well I took it easy in the Caribbean.' On the other hand, if I tell him: 'Hey, I went up the Izoard,' his face lights up. It's the same if I mention the Puy de Dôme, Alpe d'Huez, Tourmalet, Vars or Pra-Loup. [...] The great champions superimpose their own geography on official geography. They're like little flags stuck on the map, or landmarks."

Mountain High St Gottardpass
St Gottardpass, Switzerland. Photo: Pete Goding.
Used with permission.

Not all of the 50 climbs in Mountain High are detailed by exploits from great races. Some, like the St Gottardpass in Switzerland, have virtually no mention of bike races in their story. There's climbs like the Cirque de Gavarnie, which you and I can ride but are logistical nightmares for big bike races (Gavarnie has UNESCO World Heritage status). Others, like the Croce d'Aune, are important for what seemed like unimportant incidents (in the 1927 edition of the Gran Premio della Vittoria the Croce d'Aune became the catalyst for Tullio Compagnolo's invention of the quick-release lever for wheels). Or there's climbs like the Muro di Sormano, which tell stories about how fans keep some of these roads alive (for three years in the sixties the Muro rocked the Giro di Lombardia before being dropped and slowly falling into such a state as the only cyclists ascending it were on mountain bikes. Then, around the turn of the century, a group of cycling fans lobbied for its rehabilitation and raised the necessary funds). All of the climbs featured in Mountain High come alive in one way or another through the stories told about them by Daniel Friebe.

So what climbs make up Mountain High's selection? Here I have to surrender to the tyranny of numbers as names alone won't tell you much:

Name Country Height Length Altitude Gain Average Gradient Maximum Gradient
Koppenberg Belgium 78m 0.6km 65m 10.8% 22%
Muur van Geraardsbergen Belgium 110m 1km 92m 9.2% 19.8%
Mur de Huy Belgium 204m 1.3km 128m 9.8% 26%
Cipressa Italy 234m 5.65km 234m 4.1% 9%
La Redoute Belgium 292m 1.7km 161m 9.5% 17%
Mont Faron France 508m 5.5km 494m 9% 11.4%
Puerto de Urkiola Spain 713m 5.7km 524m 9.19% 14%
Il Ghisallo Italy 754m 10.6km 552m 5.2% 14%
Croce d'Aune Italy 1,015m 8.57km 665m 7.8% 12%
Montée Laurent Jalabert France 1,057m 3.3km 317m 9.5% 12%
Muro di Sormano Italy 1,107m 1.7km 280m 17% 25%
Lagos de Covadonga Spain 1,135m 14.2km 962m 6.87% 15%
Ballon d'Alsace France 1,178m 9km 619m 6.9% 8%
Cole de la Faucille France /
1,323m 26.8km 618m 2.3% 5.9%
Cole de Peyresourde France 1,569m 15.27km 939m 6.1% 11.7%
Alto del Angliru Spain 1,573m 12,5km 1,266m 10.13% 23.5%
Hautacam France 1,653m 16.3km 1,223m 7.5% 12%
Col de Joux Plane France 1,691m 11.6km 989m 8.5% 12.5%
Col d'Aubisque France 1,709m 30.1km 1,257m 4.1% 12%
Monte Zoncolan Italy 1,730m 8.9km 1,140m 13% 22%
Monte Grappa Italy 1,745m 20km 1,478m 7.4% 27%
Sierra de la Pandera Spain 1.830m 16.2km 982m 6.6% 15%
Passo del Mortirolo Italy 1,852m 12.5km 1,300m 10.5% 18%
Alpe d'Huez France 1,803m 13.9km 1,073m 8.19% 12%
Mont Ventoux France 1,912km 21.5km 1,552m 7.22% 12%
Kitzbüheler Horn Austria 1,970m 10.2km 1,278m 12.53% 22.3%
Col de la Madeleine France 1,993m 28.28km 1,533m 5.4% 10.4%
Passo Fedaia (Marmolada) Italy 2,057m 14.1km 1,059m 7.5% 18%
Col du Glandon /
Col de la Croix de Fer
France 2,067m 30km 1,521m 5.07% 11.5%
St Gotthardpass Switzerland 2,106m 12.7km 932m 7.3% 11.4%
Col du Tourmalet France 2,115m 18.8km 1,405m 7.4% 13%
Gran Sasso d'Italia Italy 2,130m 31.1km 1,263m 4.1% 8.2%
Blockhaus Italy 2,142m 29.6km 1,932m 6.5% 9%
Calar Alto Spain 2,155m 30.5km 1,427m 4.68% 10%
Colle delle Finestre Italy 2,178m 18.5km 1,700m 9.2% 14%
Ordino-Arcalis Andorra 2,223m 26.1km 1,202m 4.61% 12%
Passo Giau Italy 2,236m 10.12km 922m 9.1% 10.4%
Passo Pordoi Italy 2,239m 13km 786m 6% 7.2%
Cirque de Gavarnie France 2,270m 30.9km 1,585m 5.13% 11%
Tre Cime di Lavaredo Italy 2,320m 7.53km 1,515m 7.5% 19%
Col d'Izoard France 2,360m 19.2km 1,136m 5.92% 8.6%
Col du Grand St Bernard Switzerland 2,469m 30.6km 1,752m 5.7% 10%
Großglockner Austria 2,571m 9.4km
Passo di Gavia Italy 2,621m 20.7km 1,366m 6.6% 16%
Col du Galibier France 2,642m 35.25km 1,933m 5.48% 15%
Colle dell'Agnello Italy 2,744m 51.36km 2,178m 4.2% 15%
Passo dello Stelvio Italy 2,758m 21.9km 1,560m 7.12% 14%
Col de l'Iseran France 2,770m 48km 1,955m 4.1% 6.9%
Col de la Bonette France 2,802m 25.8kn 1,652m 6.4% 15%
Pico de Veletta Spain 3,384m 46.62km 2,662m 5.7% 17%

Them's the 50 mountains chosen by Friebe but the reality is Mountain High contains more than 50 climbs. Only a few hills, like Alpe d'Huez or the Alto del Angliru, offer just a single ascent. The Grappa alone offers nine different ways to its summit. Add up all the alternative ascents and you've easily got enough climbs to keep you busy for quite a while.

Some of you are no doubt already tut-tut-tutting at what's not on that list. Mount Faron but no Col d'Èze? The Cipressa but no Poggio? The Croix Neuve but no Puy de Dôme? For some their exclusion is logical. The Puy de Dôme, for instance, is currently inaccessible. Others, like the Poggio, are excluded but discussed in passing (in the Poggio's case, when talking about the Cipressa). As for the Col d'Èze ... well as a proud Irishman I shall be sending Friebe a very stern email ticking him off for excluding a climb that was, for nine years straight in the eighties, the domain of Sean Kelly and Stephen Roche, a little bit of the south of France that will forever be Irish. To be honest, though, I'm not really going to quibble about the rest of Friebe's choices.

My only real criticisms of Mountain High are also mere quibbling. As someone who endures climbs but savours descents, I would have liked to read more about the downside of these mountains. And, following the sterling work of the champions of the women's peloton here on Podium Café, I do wish Friebe had included some tales of the other peloton's adventure on these hills. But those are just my tastes and I'm not going to impose them on anyone else.

Mountainhigh_factfile_medium Mountainhigh_map_medium

Mountainhigh_profile_medium As well as telling the stories of these mountains through words, Friebe's text is illustrated with maps and gradient charts. It's also beautifully brought to life with some stunning photography from the lens of Pete Goding. Rather than pictures of cyclists toiling up the slopes of these climbs, Goding focuses on the mountains themselves, with big, sweeping landscape shots and sharp shots of details of the climbs. In fact, it's rare to find a photograph in which a cyclist features (I counted more cows and donkeys than cyclists). Goding's aim seems clear: the mountains themselves are the real stars.

For Goding's photography alone Mountain High is a must have for your coffee table. Friebe's text makes it a must have for your bookshelf. Just be warned: it's a hefty hardback that's heavy on the wrists. You might want to buy the e-version if you're thinking of traipsing around Europe and climbing these hills for yourself.