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Interview: Daniel Friebe

Mountain High, by Daniel FriebeBack before Christmas we looked at Daniel Friebe and Pete Goding's Mountain High. Now, with the European road season about to really get into swing, Daniel Friebe pops into the Café to talk about that thing most cyclists can't get enough of: climbing.

Podium Café: Different people go for different things in a climb: some like length, some like gradient, some like the quality of the road surface, some claim the perfect climb is a mix of all three. What kind of climb fires your fuse?

Daniel Friebe: I like them all. To be perfectly frank, climbing was the only reason I ever liked cycling. I had no interest in any other aspect of it when I discovered the sport as a teenager. Even when I was walking down a road, I'd see it rising slightly and imagine climbing it on my bike. Sad, I know!

I then went to live and work in Switzerland for a few months at age eighteen, rode up the Col de la Faucille (hence its dubious inclusion in Mountain High) one day and it surpassed my wildest expectations. I'd never felt so exhilarated. A few months later, I moved to Padova in Italy and, although I was a long way from anything resembling a mountain, would bundle my bike onto the train every Saturday and Sunday and head into the Dolomites.

I didn't enjoy riding on the flat and had no interest in descending (and was and still am dreadful at it). My obsession was always just finding the next climb.

PdC: You're normally based in the UK and when you're on the road following races there can't be much time for riding your own bike. What proportion of the climbs included in Mountain High do you know intimately?

DF: I've ridden a lot of them and know others well from covering the Tour de France and other races for ten years. The only ones I wasn't really familiar with were in Spain, so I went out with Pete Goding to look at those last spring.

PdC: Whittling a list of climbs throughout continental Europe down to just fifty, how did you go about doing that? I guess there's some climbs you have to include, they've become icons of our sport, they've almost got automatic selection when you try to compile a list of climbs for cyclists. But you must have come to a point with some other climbs where you had to weigh up carefully whether to include or exclude them.

DF: It was very difficult. We were limited by our own knowledge and other people's. I showed a lot of people my long-list, including a few professional cyclists, and generally they would have very few if any suggestions on what to add and take away. I suppose that's because, as you say, there are maybe three dozen no-brainers and the others whose inclusion is always going to be quite contentious.

I'm very aware that the fifty isn't 'definitive,' but then I hope readers understand that it isn't just about the prettiest or most difficult or most famous climbs that we see in major tours or even gran fondos. I was very keen to also talk about some of the great mountain roads, the theatres of some of the great human journeys, roads like the Grand Saint Bernard and the Gotthard. Although these perhaps aren't in the 'pantheon' of cycling climbs, there was a spirit of adventure even in the conception and construction of these roads which chimes with that daring, that defiance, that endurance which anyone who tackles a mountain pass on a bike still needs today.

I do have some regrets about climbs that we excluded - particularly a few Swiss ones and a couple in Portugal - but we really were faced with an embarrassment of riches. We also wanted to give as broad a sweep of altitudes and difficulties as possible; we could have come up with fifty 2,000-metre jaw-droppers but not everyone wants to or can take on that kind of challenge all of the time. Something like the Cipressa, on the other hand, pretty much anyone can ride with almost no training.

PdC: When I reviewed the book I made a joke about you not including the Col d'Eze, just because I'm Irish and it's an Irish climb. What's the climb you excluded that's brought the most complaints so far?

DF: No one in particular. Le Grand Colombier was a bit of a clanger from my point of view, and there were several in Switzerland and Portugal, as I've mentioned, but the reaction in general has been pretty sympathetic!

PdC: Are there any climbs in our two islands - Ireland and Great Britain - that you think rate when compared against the best the continent offers?

DF: The honest answer is that my knowledge of British and Irish climbs is sketchy to say the least. I've done the vast majority of my cycling abroad (or in the hallowed triangle between Coventry, Birmingham and Northampton, where there is no Galibier in waiting, I can assure you), mainly in Italy, France and Switzerland, so I was never likely to lobby hard for Ditchling Beacon and Holme Moss. I think Simon Warren wrote two excellent books about UK climbs. I'll leave them to him.

PdC: Mountain High is a mix of your own words about each climb and Pete Goding's photos and the two elements work really well together. How did you and Goding hook up?

DF: Pete and I used to work together at Procycling magazine. We both joined in 2000, I think, him as a picture researcher, me as the tea boy/second-year undergraduate. Pete was a joy to work with on Mountain High. In fact, his stories about hightailing around Europe and taking the pics would be way more interesting than mine.

PdC: Did you have a specific brief in mind for him, or did you just let him loose on the climbs you wanted to cover?

DF: Nothing too specific. One of the great things about the photography was the lottery of the weather. Pete had a nigh on impossible schedule to stick to, so there was no question of camping at the bottom of a climb for a week and waiting for azure blue skies. This made it an edge-of-your-seat undertaking; for example, the whole premise for including the Faucille was the view of Mont Blanc, but only on a very clear day do you see it.

When I knew that Pete was on a particularly 'high-risk' assignment like that one, I'd be nervously looking at my phone all day, waiting for a panicked phone-call. Fortunately we were lucky in most cases. When we weren't, for instance at Gavarnie, without wanting to come over all Werner Herzog, a sort of magic took hold which gave us perspectives and colours totally different from and in some ways superior to what we had expected.

Less romantic, but equally important was representing a complete spectrum of the conditions anyone might encounter if they went to climb these mountains.

PdC: Was it a deliberate choice to use very few pictures that actually had cyclists in them, an attempt to let the climbs speak for themselves?

DF: Exactly. Rapha/Rouleur were the first to do this with their books on climbs. As soon as I saw the first one of those, I was convinced this was the way to go. We wanted the mountain and the road to remain a blank canvas for the reader's imagination.

Maybe I'm as odd as my answer to the first question suggests, but I really think there is a privacy and a sanctity to the experience of climbing mountains which shouldn't be violated or encumbered by whatever another person's experience might be - at least not unless they're one of the best cyclists in the world. The feeling is so intense that empathy becomes redundant, if you see what I mean. We wanted to represent that visually.

There were also aesthetic considerations: a man or woman in dayglo lycra superimposed on a virgin mountain landscape is, objectively, quite ugly when you have no special admiration for, or interest in, that individual. If I see a picture of the seventeenth hole at St Andrews, I don't want it to be ruined because in the middle of the shot there's a twenty-four handicapper with a terrible backswing. I felt very much the same way about Pete's pictures, and he did, too.

The other advantage is that the book won't age nearly as quickly without bikes and clothing in the pics.

PdC: There was a quote from Paul Fournel I included in the review of Mountain High, about climbing the Finestre, back before it had been included in the Giro, and his friends not really being impressed, because it hadn't then been climbed by any of the greats of the sport. Great champions, as Fournel put it, superimpose their own geography on official geography. How important to you is the cycling heritage of a climb, its psychogeography?

DF: Well, it is important but, as I've said, the psychogeography needn't necessarily have come from cyclists. I don't know about anyone else but I was intrigued and excited by stories of mountaineers on the Meije which overlooks the Galibier; or of Hannibal on or close to the Colle dell'Agnello.

Again, what makes a climb great is so subjective and so personal. Before 2007, no professional cyclist had ever been up the Zoncolan from Ovaro but, to me, there was something even in the name, the look of the road, the fact that it was in a part of Italy which no one ever talked about or particularly flocked to, that made it instantly fascinating.

I do wholeheartedly agree, though, that the pro cycling connection can 'make' a climb that would otherwise be completely unremarkable. I mean, how many people would know or care about the Koppenberg if a bike race had never gone up it? The same with the Galibier; yes, it's a beautiful climb, and it's hard, but there are many which beat it on both scores.

I suppose my conclusion would be that, to me, it does matter, but the psychogeography is about more than just which cyclists have been there before you.

PdC: Some of the climbs that have yet to be graced by races. Do you think the Pico de Veleta in Spain or the Cirque de Gavarnie in France will ever be blessed by the peloton, not necessarily by one of the Grand Tours, maybe by a one day race?

DF: I can't imagine the Vuelta ever getting further up the Veleta than it already has.

I do, though, think that it's only a matter of time before a major tour goes beyond 3,000 metres. The obsession in recent years has been gradient, but it could quickly turn to altitude. I'd put my money on RCS and the Giro being the first to resurface some old trail or goat track to break the 3,000-metre barrier. It would be a massive promotional coup, very symbolic.

Now that I mention it, part of the reason we chose to list the climbs in altitude order in Mountain High was to shift the attention from steepness to stature. Everest is the most famous mountain in the world because it's the highest, not because it's the hardest to climb. I didn't like the idea of giving the climbs any subjective ranking or gauge of difficultly precisely because riding up mountains is such a private, solitary experience that everyone feels different about how gruelling a climb is, or how beautiful. Steepness or length doesn't always equate with difficulty and height is one of the few objective measures nature has given us.

As for Gavarnie, based on what the people at ASO told me when I was writing the text, and on the UNESCO restrictions currently imposed, I think it's highly unlikely that the Tour will ever go there.

PdC: I somehow always manage to bring these things round to doping at some point or other and I guess climbing is one of those areas where we've really seen the effects of Gen EPO. Take something like Laurent Jalabert on that mountain above Mende which now bears his name, that was a gorgeous day when it happened, but looking back we see it in a different light, knowing now what was going on in Manolo Saìz's ONCE squad at that time. How do you balance the memory of what you saw with the knowledge you now have? Does the history of doping ever impact the way you view any of these climbs?

DF: It's tricky because everyone has a time window when they were most impressionable, most passionate about cycling, and mine happened to coincide with the very height of EPO abuse. My favourite grand tour ever was the 1998 Giro d'Italia - two months before the Festina scandal exploded and it became clear that pretty much everything we'd been watching for five years or more was a charade.

The climbs whose fame dates from the last decade or two - take something like La Pandera in Spain - have a history in cycling which is indissociable from doping, if you look at the winners of the stages there. Does this alter our view of a climb? Well, certain memories perhaps have a bitter edge, but I'd also say that place is one of the things that have saved professional cycling from the betrayal of its people, not just since the advent of EPO but since the sport began. I mean, even while Landis was testing positive, Riccò was putting a minute into a peloton on a flat road in the Pyrenees and so on, people still watched the Tour mainly because of the Galibier, the Tourmalet, the Ventoux or whatever. They are the real legends of the Tour.

This is what people who want to reform or globalize the professional sport mustn't forget; they, we all owe those roads so much.

PdC: You've mentioned gradient inflation, and talk about it a bit in Mountain High. Of all the races I get the feeling that the Vuelta a España is the one with the most potential for undiscovered climbs, the race with the greatest potential to up the ante when it comes to climbing. Would that be fair?

DF: I don't know Spain as well as Italy but I get the impression that there are fewer roads in Spain and fewer options for the Vuelta organizer.

It's hard to overstate what a paradise Italy is for cyclists who like climbing hills and mountains. Yesterday (unfortunately not in time to put in the book) I discovered that there are eight ways up the Mortirolo. There are literally thousands of climbs most of us don't know about that could one day be included on the Giro route.

From personal experience, I'd also say that the Italians are the ones with the most passionate, visceral relationship with climbing mountains, and that constant quest to find something higher, harder or more spectacular. Maybe it's because most of their towns were built on hills...

It seems to me that until recently the Vuelta had done a pretty poor job of showcasing the mountains and creating a 'patrimony' consisting of a few legendary passes or peaks. This is partly a legacy of the race previously taking place in April; the highest climb in the '73 Vuelta that Eddy Merckx won, for example, was the 1,145 metre Coll Formic.

I don't doubt that there are all sorts of brilliant climbs in the Basque Country and Asturias, in particular, that would be terrific additions to the Vuelta, but I struggle to foresee a day when someone compiles a top fifty of European climbs and selects more Spanish climbs than French or Italian ones.

PdC: One of my fave stories in Mountain High is about the Muro di Sormano in Italy, the way cycling fans fought to restore it and the way they've practically turned it into a work of art. The pros who say using it in a modern race would result in a bloodbath, do you think they're right?

DF: No, I don't think so. The advent of what I refer to in the book as the über-climbs - the Mortirolo, the Zoncolan and the Angliru - has been hugely exciting in one sense but also, at times, pretty disappointing in terms of living up to the pre-race expectation of 'carnage' on the road.

I'm not saying that's a bad thing; it just seems, from watching and listening to riders, that the most awful climbs are sometimes quite good levellers. I included that quote from Patrice Halgand about the Angliru in the book: "On the Angliru the guys go too pitifully for the climb to have any sporting interest. Even the winner goes up in slow motion. There's no attacking." He's right up to a point - we've seen time and time again in the last few years that the steepest climbs don't necessarily cause the biggest time gaps.

That said, I do think we'll see the Muro di Sormano in the Tour of Lombardy before too long. RCS have a taste for this kind of thing - some would say a death wish - and the Muro is too conveniently situated and too beautiful a thing for them not to be tempted again.

PdC: What's your beef with the Plan de Corones? You mention it several times in passing, each time I got the impression you were having to grit your teeth when you did?

DF: It's an ugly creation in a beautiful setting. The road is completely artificial - it looks as though someone has just emptied a sack of pebbles at the summit and watched them cascade down the mountain.

I suppose my view is also influenced by the miserable afternoon I spent up there on the Giro's first visit in 2006, when the stage was shortened and finished halfway down the mountain.

In Mountain High, I perhaps overvalued passes like the Grand Saint Bernard, which have very little cycling 'heritage' but huge importance in a wider sense. Plan de Corones is the antithesis of that: a road to nowhere born out of a silly, hedonistic impulse. When I think of Plan de Corones, I think of 20/20 cricket and Reebok Pump trainers. It's a nasty gimmick.

Since you're asking, I also think that mountain time trials are hugely overrated. I don't mind them in the Dauphiné or Paris-Nice - if nothing else they give us confirmed records for certain famous climbs - but I think they're best avoided in major tours.

PdC: You've got the Eddy Merckx book coming out soon, and I hope we'll get a chance to get you back into the Café to chat about that in due course. Want to mention what comes after that?

DF: A rest and a respectable job!

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Daniel Friebe is the author of Mountain High - Europe's Greatest Cycle Climbs (Quercus). He is also the ghost-writer of Mark Cavendish's autobiography, Boy Racer (Ebury). His biography of Eddy Merckx - The Cannibal (Ebury) - will be published shortly.

You can find him on Twitter @friebos.

You'll find reviews of both Mountain High and Boy Racer on the Cafe Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Daniel Friebe for taking part in this interview.