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Interview: Max Leonard

The Higher Calling author talks about mountains and why we are so passionate about them.

The peloton on the Cime de la Bonette-Restefond during the 2008 Tour de France.
The peloton on the Cime de la Bonette-Restefond during the 2008 Tour de France.
Jasper Juinen/Getty Images

Higher Calling, by Max LeonardEveresting. You may not be able to find it in the Oxford dictionary but we all know what it means. Up and down and up and down and on and on, all on the same hill until your elevation gain is equivalent to the height of Mount Everest. (While heeding certain rules.) It's an idea that's been floating around for a while but only took root recently. And I just don't get it. Everest may be 8,848 metres high, but the altitude gain in an ascent is only a little more than one third of that. So why do you have to gain 8,848 metres in order to 'do' an Everest on your bike? And - typically - an ascent of Everest takes place over a period of weeks. So why do you have to log your 8,848 metres in one 24 hour period in order to 'do' an Everest? Isn't it all a bit, well, irrational?

Max Leonard uses Everesting as one of the central hooks of Higher Calling - Road Cycling's Obsession With the Mountains, the Lanterne Rouge author hooking up with George Mallory (the grandson of the George Mallory who died on Mount Everest), the man responsible for giving the world this totally quirky climbing challenge. Here's Leonard describing the birth of Everesting in Higher Calling:

"He took inspiration from a rock-climbing exploit he'd read about called the 'El Cap day'. In wintertime, the legendary El Capitan rock face in the Yosemite National Park is out of bounds to climbers because of the weather. So in the 1970s a group of climbers known as the Stonemasters, which included the legendary free-solo (that is, on your own, without ropes) climber John Bachar, used to scale multiple separate routes around Joshua Tree until they had totalled the same height - 3,000 feet - in a day. It was a technical challenge, a training exercise, even a bit of a game."

Borrowing that idea - having tried it himself on a rock face in his native South Africa - Mallory adapted it to cycling. That was back in 1993. In 2012 the story of what Mallory had done appeared on an Australian website and - in the age of Strava - the idea took off. But - I whined to Max Leonard - it's wholly irrational! So why does it still work? To which he had this response:

"It's the symbolism of it, I guess. I mean, Everest has always inspired people, and Everesting attaches that imagery and that idea of the greatest, most difficult climb imaginable to a bike challenge, no?

"It's definitely irrational, I agree, and maybe a little perverse, but lots of the goals we set ourselves are irrational and pointless on some level: X amount of kilometres a year / Y hours a week... someone who just tagged me in an Instagram post is aiming to do 100,000 metres climbing in less than 6,000 kilometres, which just seems totally weird.

"But a marathon is completely arbitrary, too, and that is a totally mainstream pursuit.

"There's something to be said for finding that thing which makes something pointless meaningful, and I'm a big fan of finding room for something basically a little insane into your normal life."

Rationalising the irrational - making the pointless meaningful - is, I guess, at the heart of Higher Calling, Leonard in search of an answer to the eternal question: why do we have this obsession with cycling up mountains? One of the answers is not because they are there. One of the answers is, though, because they are mountains. And mountains have a strange, magnetic attraction, something that encourages us to anthropomorphize them to some extent (have you ever been beaten by a climb or ever bested a mountain?). Me, I have to confess a certain fondness for the way the French cartoonist René Pellos characterised the mountains of the Tour:

Pellos: How some riders saw the Pyrénées

Pellos: How some riders saw the Pyrénées

Leonard offers a fresh take on this anthropomorphizing theme, one that sent me thinking of the mountains as Moomins: each winter they go to sleep and each spring they come back out to play (making me want to know the story of the mountain that woke up in the winter and couldn't go back to sleep):

"In the summer, they are alive, busy with cyclists, hikers, motorbikes and even coach parties. Then, towards the end of each year, they revert from being a torture chamber or a paradise (delete as applicable) for cyclists back to the harsh, untamed wilderness they otherwise are. And then, at the start of each following year, they need to be dug out so that we can enjoy them again."

Another answer to the question of what is the attraction in mountains is that they have produced some wonderful writing, which then creates a virtuous loop, sending others to the mountains and, often, producing more wonderful writing. Higher Calling, I think, can stand proud in that company:

"For reasons that, looking back on it, I am not now adequately able to explain, my friend Rémi and I once tried to drive a Citroën 2CV to the top of the Col de la Bonette. Or rather, I can still discern our motivations, but, in hindsight, they seem threadbare and unable to justify such a bizarre undertaking.

"To say that we were both at a moment in our lives in which piloting an old, underpowered car up a mountain made sense was true, and not even simply a metaphor. Some days before I had finished a period of working as a journalist in France, and thanks to an extended amount of time away from home and long sojourns in the mountains I found myself without anchor or goal. My only aim was to enjoy the warm light and soft colours of the Riviera autumn, since heading back to England would be to admit that summer was over and to concede defeat for another year."

That's the sort of writing that carries me floating through a book. The authors liked by authors that we like being something many like to know - maybe we think that if we too read those books we could write like that, or maybe it's just as close as we can get to scoping out the spines on another's bookshelves - I asked Leonard who he had been reading during the researching and writing of Higher Calling:

"I guess you could split this a few ways...

"There's the things I read as research which were great writing: I'm thinking mainly of the Alpinists Lionel Terray and Walter Bonatti, who are incredible at articulating what it means to be in the mountains and what drives them to be there.

"Then, those things I read and re-read that were completely unconnected to the book that I admire as writing - things I've liked for years that I would hope have sunk in somehow (WG Sebald, Hemingway, Rebecca Solnit, Don DeLillo, Joan Didion).

"I guess in some ways I was trying to push bike writing towards people like Robert Macfarlane, Geoff Dyer and Roger Deakin, and if that comes through - successfully or not - then I'd be pleased!

"When I'm really deep into the writing I mainly read poetry, it feels like a break. I definitely don't read cycling books, they're a bit too close to home at that point!"

As Will Davies noted in his review, Higher Calling is made up of a series of inter-linked essays: we get to meet some of the men responsible for re-opening mountain roads in the spring; we learn how the Tour came to embrace mountains, and categorise them; the psychology of racing up mountains is considered; as is the image of the grimpeur; Everersting is ticked off; race organisers are talked to about their take on the role played by mountains; the origins of roads through the mountains are delved into; altitude is discussed; as are mountains and their local communities. Joining up the essays is one mountain, the Col de la Bonette: Leonard climbs it just before it goes to sleep in October and is there to watch it being awoken in April; with the aid of some old magazines he gets Federico Bahamontes to remember climbing it in the Tour; and Joe Dombrowski talks about racing up it in the 2016 Giro d'Italia.

One of the things that comes through across Leonard's various ascents of the Bonette and across all that others say about mountains is the role psychology can play in climbing hills. We all know this, I think. Some mountains scare the bejesus out of us, their reputations preceding them and making the possible seem impossible. And some climbs we just get up better when we're in a good mood than in a bad. I asked Leonard what psychs him out:

"I think I get more trepidatious than psyched out. Barring bad weather I do actually always enjoy it...

"That said, I just rode across France from Paris to Corsica and there were a couple of times there. A day when I was tired and fed up and it was 5pm and I knew I had a 20 kilometre climb to the refuge I wanted to stay in, and it was still 30C and my bike weighed 15 kilos or more... But I just loaded up on water and cherries and other food and got going. Once you're moving it's always better.

"The other time on that trip was on the Col de la Bonette. I've been there a lot and have climbed it maybe 20 times. I wasn't looking forward to it because afterwards it was all downhill to Nice, and that effectively marked the end of my adventure. I hadn't really thought about how difficult it would be, but it was a total pig. It was very hot and I hadn't eaten much and my bike was very heavy."

Descending there marked the end of an adventure. For some it is the whole point of climbing: the exhilaration of speed and control through the corners more than makes up for the effort sweated out going up. While Higher Calling is, for the most part, about getting higher, this flip side of climbing is also considered. Today, climbing in big races is getting more and more like the individual pursuit on the track, it's all about numbers and pacing and about not getting too freaked out by what others are doing: when it all starts to go crazy, climb inside your little bubble and climb at your own pace. Today, if you're looking for an edge, you're likely now to find it going downhill. Here's Leonard in the book:

"Descending is not so much a matter of fitness. There is a larger psychological component and it cannot be trained in the same way, and so those who are real masters are increasingly exploiting this competitive advantage to win time. Vincenzo Nibali, a super descender, springs to mind, as does Romain Bardet, who twice in recent years has descended to a stunning stage victory. One was on the deviously tricky Col d'Allos in the 2015 Critérium du Dauphiné on the way to a solo win at Pra Loup. The second and most apposite was in the Alps during the 2016 Tour de France, when he attacked over the top of the Montée de Bisane climb and hared down a greasy descent to the finish. It was stage 19, not all that far from Paris; Bardet was fifth on GC, less than five minutes behind the yellow jersey, and so he could not be allowed to gain too much time. Witness Chris Froome and Nibali chasing, and both at one point slipping and sliding on a corner. If the playing field of the climbs continues to be levelled, this will only start happening more. When the limits of the possible are reached in one sphere, it is natural that we start exploring them in another."

One of the logical consequences of descending playing a more important role is that, in these data driven days in which we mistake information for knowledge, we are going to start obsessing about speed downhill, praise those who are fastest. Which, of course, brings us to the aborted Pirelli descending prize at the recent Giro d'Italia. I asked Leonard what his take on that was:

"It sounded like a bad idea to me.

"When I was talking to both Mauro Vegni and Michele Acquarone (ex) of the Giro for the book, they were keen to stress that they had no desire to incite dangerous behaviour in the race, but in the light of the Pirelli thing that seems disingenuous.

"However, I don't think they do want to put people in dangerous situations, it just feels like it was very badly thought through."

Higher Calling is not Leonard's first book. Three years ago he gave us Lanterne Rouge - The Last Man in the Tour de France ("It still seems strange to me that someone hadn't done it before: there can't be many under-reported angles on the biggest race in town...") and earlier this year I reviewed The Men of Paris-Roubaix - A Sartorial Portrait Book ("I found those shots of the old Paris-Roubaix racers in the French National Library collection. They'd only recently been digitised and I just thought that somebody should do something with them! The studio ones I thought were just stunning.").

The Men of Paris-Roubaix, by Max Leonard

A 1925 portrait of Bartolomeo Aymo, from The Men of Paris-Roubaix, by Max Leonard

In between those two books - for which Leonard had to spend a lot of time in the archives, searching through old newspapers and old photographs - there was a book that grew out of the research for Higher Calling, a collaboration with the photographer Camille McMillan, Bunker Research, which looked at the remnants of the Alpine end of the Maginot line and its Italian counterpart:

"I got obsessed over the course of a few years by the abandoned fortifications in the French Alps; I just couldn't understand how the remote high mountains were ever so strategically important, so I started researching the history of the Alpine roads and totally fell down a rabbit hole. Some of the story is told in Higher Calling, but I felt it would work really well as a photography project. So I asked Camille McMillan and he got on his motorbike and came to the Alps... and yes, they're all in the Alps, and they're pretty spectacular."

Bunker Research, by Max Leonard

from Bunker Research, by Max Leonard (photo by Camille McMillan)

Here is he on the subject of the bunkers in Higher Calling:

"The further I went, the more I realised how numerous they are and how they littler the landscape (there are four or five separate complexes on the main Col de la Bonette road alone, and a similar number of the Col de la Madone, just to pick a couple of examples). And they helped me realise, after stumbling across a few bunkers and then researching their history, just how much these mountains are a military conundrum as well as a sporting playground. Whereas a road wraps like a ribbon around the contours of the hill, the bunkers are arranged according to other principles. Looking for them means approaching the terrain more laterally, thinking of axes and channels, weak points and redoubts, and sightlines to the passes, and when you come across it it is like an ambush."

Mountain roads, they've come a long way and take us a lot further than we often imagine. We can play bike racing on them and we can party hearty watching bike racing on them: to each their own. For all of us, cyclists and non-cyclists alike, I think mountains matter because once we are in them they give us time and space in which to think, time and space to climb out of one world and into another. And that, I think, is the part of the mountains that Higher Calling eloquently captures. So then, to close, a moment of serenity from the book:

"I went to the top of the Bonette once to watch the sun go down, taking a hunk of bread and a large ripe tomato, which, having no knife, I ate like a peach, leaning forward so the juices did not fall on my jersey; plus some saucisson and Comté cheese, all bought at the tiny shop in the village. I went up there towards the end of summer, as the seasons were shifting and the days shortening, just to watch the light stealing from the world. A week hence it would be 10 minutes earlier, and so decline until the equinox, the perfect balancing of day and night. And then it would not be long until the snows came. At 2,800 metres the snow does not disappear until very late in the year, and a little can persist year-round in pockets and hollows on the northernmost faces. At those altitudes time is elastic, the summer is compressed and the seasons are out of sync, always being pulled forward or back to midwinter. Spring tarries, is held back, back, back and then is propelled in a shining rush through summer headlong into autumn; no sooner has the snow cleared than winter storms back in."

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Max Leonard's Higher Calling - Road Cycling's Obsession with the Mountains is published by Yellow Jersey Press (2017, 320 pages). You can read Will Davies's review of it here.