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Interview: Daniel Friebe

"Climbing to the Lagunas de Neila at dusk in November, the roar of the Soča river on the south side of the Vršič pass in a deluge, the last, amber light over Monte Catria on a cloudless day in May..."

Mountain Higher author Daniel Friebe pops into the Café to talk about the joy of cols.

Rifugio Calvanico, by Pete Goding

Podium Café: Mountain Higher - it's a sequel to Mountain High, but would it be fair to say you've gone for a different focus this time, fewer of the mountains immortalised by the exploits of professional cyclists and more mountains that offer particular - sometimes peculiar - challenges?

Daniel Friebe: Absolutely. The first book was great fun to do but did restrict us somewhat to climbs whose aura was already established; I always looked for offbeat angles, new information, but there wasn't too much latitude to stray from very famous climbs and their very famous stories.

There are still a few "legendary" cycling climbs in Mountain Higher but we've always tried to give them a new slant, introduce elements of their history that will be new to most people.

The second book does also feature a lot climbs which have no previous association with professional cycling but the inspiration for covering them did actually come from a prevailing trend in the sport; we were essentially playing the same game as the organizers of the Giro, Tour and Vuelta, looking for new climbs which could capture the public's imagination, whether by virtue of their steepness, their height, their beauty or something in their history.

The original idea was to focus solely on little-known climbs, but we worried that the stories would then be too one-dimensional and too abstract, as much as I loved writing about serial-killer bears like the one on the Hourquette d'Ancizan and UFOs on Sa Calobra.

Hourquette d'Ancizan

As well as a collection of stories about individual climbs, I hope that there are also overarching themes that emerge from the book, to do with the cultural history of the mountains, their relationship with cycling and how that's changing.

PdC: Some of these mountains were suggested by readers of Mountain High (and I'll personally thank you for including the Col d'Èze) a few though have also about from talking to riders, yes?

DF: That's right. The feedback to the first book was very useful, and in many cases mirrored my own feelings about our selection in Mountain High.

For example, I felt, as a fair few readers did, that we'd badly neglected Switzerland, and I wanted to redress that and other oversights. We also wanted to venture further afield, into Portugal, eastern Europe, southern Italy and the British Isles.

When it came to drawing up a new list that met our new criteria of extreme, undiscovered or unforgettable - which in most cases referred to the beauty of the landscape - I started with close to 200 climbs and gradually whittled it down over weeks and months using my own judgement and experience and other people's.

I must admit that the professional riders whose views I solicited were, alas, on the whole a lot less helpful than amateur riders; that's not their fault - I just came to the conclusion that they're generally too focused on racing and training to pay a lot of attention to their surroundings. I say "generally"; there are also those like, say, Gilberto Simoni, who are deeply passionate about the mountains, the spirit of adventure that unites people who share that love, and who could have talked to me for hours about little-known routes and climbs that they had come across in training or races.

Best and most useful of all, though, were the communities of enthusiasts and aficionados - "salitomani" as they call themselves in Italy - who exchange vast quantities of information online, on forums and specialist websites. One feature of this book that I hope people will notice is our attention to little-known detours on well-known climbs, like, for instance, the murderously steep back-road up Arrate in the Basque Country, the Col du Pré route to the Cormet de Roselend, what is essentially a "secret side" of the Mortirolo up Monte Padrio, the Ancares via Pan do Zarco, and the sterrato road that links the Passo Rolle and the Passo Valles in the Dolomites. We would never have discovered some of these roads without the "salitomani".

PdC: Last time out altitude was the big issue, higher and higher climbs. This time around you've gone for some monster gradients: did you really ride up a two-in-five slope while researching the book?

DF: Afraid so. I used to ride a lot, I don't anymore, and time and financial constraints meant that the trips were pretty hastily prepared and executed; it would be a case of rocking up in the car, unloading the bike, doing the climb or climbs then piling back in and whizzing 500 kilometres up the road to the next mountain.

So many times, on the really steep climbs, I would look at the angle of the road and not know whether to laugh or cry. On one day I did Xorret de Catí in the morning and the Bola del Mundo in the evening... on a Dahon folding bike, wearing trainers and tennis shorts.

Xorret de Catí

People might laugh or turn their noses up when they hear that, but I just found it more convenient to travel with and use a fold-up on some trips. These climbs are utterly gruelling whatever you use.

The book also isn't about and indeed never touches on me riding up the climbs and how I did it; no one cares about that. I rode them purely in the interests of research.

PdC: What's your favourite climb, just as a climb, a thing of natural beauty?

DF: The Furka-Grimsel-Susten loop in Switzerland almost moved me to tears, it was so overwhelmingly beautiful and such a feat of engineering, but you have to do it on a weekday, early in the morning, to avoid the traffic.

On any day, at any time, I think the Puerto de Ancares in Spain would take some beating. I write in the book about how the whole Ancares region has become the object of voyeuristic fascination in Spain, for its remoteness, the fact that until quite recently there were villages with no running water or electricity and so on. As roads and climbs the four to the Puerto are also simply breathtaking - and extremely difficult.

If we're talking about parts of a climb, the six kilometres of sterrato on Monte Crostis would probably be my favourite location in the book. That stretch is just astonishing - and also, in my opinion, perfectly suitable for a major race.

But I was awestruck on so many occasions, despite considering myself pretty well-travelled, enough to be blasé about a lot of the places that we see annually on races like the Giro d'Italia and the Tour de France. Climbing to the Lagunas de Neila at dusk in November, the roar of the Soča river on the south side of the Vršič pass in a deluge, the last, amber light over Monte Catria on a cloudless day in May...these are all images that are seared into my memory.

PdC: And from the story-teller's perspective, what was the most enjoyable one to write about?

DF: The research was unbelievably time-consuming, addictive and absolutely riveting, but the most enjoyable pieces were probably the ones which gave me a single, homogenous story to tell.

Rifugio Calvanico

The Rifugio Calvanico in southern Italy was lovely because it felt more like journalism than history; I was basically able to establish that a climb that had been the subject of feverish speculation, reports and campaigns to see it included in the Giro d'Italia didn't actually exist - or was, in reality, very different from what had been described. What we ended up finding there was a brutally difficult and spellbindingly beautiful climb but a road to nowhere, in a wild backwater of southern Italy, which has gained notoriety purely thanks to a few misinformed individuals.

While you obviously don't want to destroy the mystique of these places - and I don't for one second imagine thousands of people flocking to Calvanico because they've read our book - I liked the idea of us in some cases blazing a trail.

PdC: Pete Gooding's again on shutterbug duty and again producing some stunning images (and - again - letting the mountains speak for themselves, not crowding out his shots with cyclists in them). I loved his shot of Sa Calobra, the way the walls on either side of the road close in. What's your own favourite image in the book?

DF: The cover image and all of the pictures of the Grosse Scheidegg, with the north face of the Eiger in the background, were definitely among my favourites. I'm passionate about mountains at least as much as I'm passionate about cycling, and you can't help but be inspired, intimidated and transfixed by the Eiger. Fabian Cancellara told me the same thing.

Purely on aesthetic grounds, I think some of the pictures of the Colle del Nivolet in Italy and the Route des Lacs in France are both stunning and very inviting.

PdC: The Quercus Eye app - some of the climbs have been filmed and the publisher has put together an app to allow readers watch these videos on their smart phones or tablets. Pretty geeky, but kinda cool at the same time, no?

DF: Yeah, I think it's a nice extra.

Of course it doesn't compare to the experience of riding the climbs but it does give a taster. There is a danger with some technology that it can demystify the mountains and make them appear too accessible, but I think we're safe with a few short video clips.

That - maintaining the mystique - is something that we've been very keen to do with both words and pictures in Mountain High and Mountain Higher. I hope that we've achieved it.

* * * * *

Daniel Friebe is the co-author (with Pete Goding) of Mountain High and Mountain Higher, both published by Quercus.

He is also the author of Eddy Merckx: The Cannibal (Ebury) and was the ghost writer of Mark Cavendish's autobiography Boy Racer (Ebury).

You can find him on Twitter, @friebos.

You'll find reviews of Mountain Higher, Mountain High and Boy Racer on the Café Bookshelf.

Our thanks to Daniel Friebe for taking the time to participate in this interview.

All photos (c) Pete Goding.