Title: Climbers – How the Kings of the Mountains Conquered Cycling
Author: Peter Cossins
What it is: Another book about mountains and the men who race up them
Strengths: It’s full of familiar favourites you never tire of rereading
Weaknesses: The usual slipshod research and duff history
While a little irritating when viewed from the Anglo-Saxon journalistic perspective, where an emphasis has always been placed on accuracy, these discrepancies for the sake of colour and drama were and still are an accepted element of the lead story on the previous day’s racing in what was L’Auto and is now L’Equipe.
~ Peter Cossins, Climbers
Climbers are, apparently, a breed apart. “Always vulnerable to falls, crashes in form, to the sudden and unexpected, theirs is a precarious highwire act – one that everyone who watches a bike race is captivated by.” You’re probably thinking that sprinters are also a breed apart [insert exceptionalist blather here]. Maybe next year Peter Cossins will be back with a book about them. To be followed by books about rouleurs, baroudeurs, puncheurs and all those other types of cyclists you’ll find listed in back-of-book glossaries you rarely ever read. For now, sit back and let’s give the climbers yet another outing.
Mountains and the men who climb them – and it is usually only men in these books though Cossins does give women a whole chapter to themselves – have been the subjects of many books over the last few decades, from the sublime (Daniel Friebe’s Mountain High, Max Leonard’s Higher Calling) to the instantly forgettable (I’ve forgotten so many at this stage I can’t even begin to list them). Star climbers get whole books to themselves (Pantani, Bahamontes, Ocaña). Star mountains get whole books to themselves, from Bert Wagendorp’s godawful novel, Ventoux, to Jean-Paul Vespini’s classic ‘biography’ of Alpe d’Huez. They get tick-list guide books, they get coffee table books, they get poster books. Mountains and the men who climb them, they get a hell of a lot of attention when it comes to the world of books. Finding something new to say, well that requires an inventive author.
Cycling’s first step towards the mountains, Peter Cossins tells us early into Climbers, was taken on Westerham Hill in south-east London on the final Saturday of August 1887. That day, we’re told, 24 riders signed up to take part in the inaugural Catford Hill Climb.
As I read that inventive factoid, I could feel my chest tightening at the realisation that this was going to be one hell of a slog.
Not only was Catford’s not the first hill climb (the British had been sprinting up little hills even in the days of high-wheelers), men and women had been taking their bikes over real mountains – the Alps and the Pyrénées included – for a long time before 1887. Two Irishmen, Louis Meldon and CW Fegan, are said to have taken their velocipedes over the Simplon Pass in 1876, though I’ve never seen evidence of this. I have seen evidence of multiple trips to the Pyrénées by the London Bicycle Club as early as 1879. If Irish and British cyclists were tackling continental climbs in the 1870s it’s hard to imagine that the locals weren’t also scaling new heights, even in the days when climbing onto an ordinary was a feat in itself.
From molehills, we graduate to real mountains. No book about climbers would be complete without telling, in glorious detail, the story of how the Tour discovered the Pyrénées in 1910. Most people who tell this story can’t be bothered doing any research, they just repeat whatever nonsense they read in another cycling book, which was repeated from nonsense read in another cycling book, and so on and so on, cycling history as seen in a hall of mirrors, distorted, sometimes laughably funny, others scary as hell when you realise how little of this stuff ever actually happened.
Cossins, he has done some research, he’s not just repeating stuff he’s read in other cycling books (although he does an awful lot of that too). And so we get the story of Henri Desgrange and Alphonse Steinès sitting down together early in 1910 and discussing whether the Tour should take on the Pyrénées. This would be six months or so after Desgrange himself had announced in the pages of L’Auto that the Tour needed to take on the Pyrénées and more than three months since the route of the 1910 Tour had been publicly announced, including its two new stages in the mountains that make up France’s southern border.
Cossins’s research has seen him read a couple of articles in L’Auto and La Vie au Grand Air from during the 1910 Tour. He’s asked people on social media for help. And he’s come across Marcel Diamant-Berger’s account of how the Tour came to take on the Pyrénées. The problem is, he hasn’t read enough to see that Diamant-Berger’s account is total bollocks. And so he repeats it. Pages of it. Just like the fabulist’s fabulist Pierre Chany repeated pages of Diamant-Berger’s account in one of his histoires fabuleuse. Cossins justifies this by telling us that Diamant-Berger based his account on an interview with Steinès. Which is something Diamant-Berger didn’t claim. And is obviously not true.
Over the last decade or so Cossins has averaged about one book a year: he’s the ghost behind Born to Ride (2012, Yellow Jersey Press); the co-author of Le Tour 100 (2013, Cassell) and Two Days in Yorkshire (2014, Pave); translator of A Clean Break (2014, Bloomsbury); and author of The Monuments (2014, Bloomsbury), Everybody’s Friend (2015, Pave), Alpe d’Huez (2015, Aurum), Ultimate Etapes (2016, Aurum), Butcher, Blacksmith, Acrobat, Sweep (2017, Yellow Jersey Press), Full Gas (2018, Yellow Jersey Press), The Yellow Jersey (2019, Yellow Jersey Press), A Cyclist’s Guide to the Pyrenees (2021, Great Northern Books), and The Complete Fan’s Guide to Pro Cycling (2022, GCN).
Typing a new book every year doesn’t leave a lot of room for research. And so we get half-arsed attempts at getting the story right which only end up getting it more wrong. So although Cossins appears to have read Diamant-Berger’s imagined version of Steinès’s story, he doesn’t appear to have stumbled upon Steinès’s own account, published just before the start of the 1910 Tour. That’s what happens when you limit your searches to articles published during the Tour, I guess. Had he widened his search parameters by just a couple of days Cossins might have got the story right, and not served up yet another slice of duff history.
Pointing out faults in a few stories that appear in the first 50 pages of Climbers might seem unfair to some. But Cossins has form for totally ballsing the story up by not checking his sources, preferring instead to simply repeat things he’s read in some other book. In his book about the 1903 Tour he told the story of Major Taylor, Henri Desgrange and the wheelbarrow full of centimes. Only his source said it was a carriage and not a wheelbarrow. His source also time-shifted the story and had it all happening years too soon, a cock-up even a glance at Wikipedia would have put right. So this isn’t about the excusable mistakes even good cycling books come with.
From mountains we move on to men and a series of capsule biographies drawn from fuller biographies written by others: Alasdair Fotheringham, William Fotheringham etc. We’ve already been introduced to René Pottier, every cycling fan’s second favourite suicide and generally considered to be cycling’s first grimpeur. If, that is, you believe the cycling world revolves around the Tour de France. Believe it or not there is other history outside of the Tour. Not that you’ll ever learn much of that in books like this.
As well as a few pages about Pottier and his death we get pen portraits of other staples of this genre: Bottecchia, Binda, Fontan, Faure, Trueba, Vieto, and Bartali and Coppi (they’re like a married couple on Facebook at this stage – Alex-and-Paul, Cameron-and-Susan, Bartali-and-Coppi – neither capable of existing without the other). While get get to learn what each of these riders won – via race reports, mostly from the Tour – we get very little insight into what drove them. They’re reduced to data, data, data. Soulless.
We do get to learn that the blesssèd Gino saved the Jews, “sheltering one family in his cellar and, during his training rides around his home near Florence, ferrying documents that enabled hundreds more to evade capture.” Anne Frank’s landlord meets Oskar Schindler, who could find fault with a story like that? But it is a story disputed. Michele Sarfatti, a leading scholar on the Shoah in Italy, argues there is little evidence to support the claims and what there is is, well, bunkum. Even those who once promoted it now dispute it. John Foot now says it’s all bunkum. Stefano Pivato now says it’s all bunkum. Give it a few books and Cossins will probably be disputing it and telling us it’s all bunkum too.
These capsule biographies are followed by more capsule biographies – Bahamontes, Jiménez, Fuente, Ocaña – mixed with some cod philosophy (Lorca’s duende) and an unhealthy dose of cycling exceptionalism: “there is arguably no sporting activity where duende is more apparent than on the mountain stages of the world’s most prestigious and challenging road races.” (Spanish riders. Hence the cultural stereotyping with duende.)
The Spaniards are followed by Van Impe, York (née Millar), and Hampsten (the ubiquitous Andy Hampsten, who is on his way to setting a world record for the number of cycling books he’s been interviewed in). Here the story changes from race reports to more general conversations about what the Tour was like in those days. The longer Climbers goes on the easier it is to believe you’re just reading yet another collection of some of the Tour’s greatest hits.
Next up are the women, corralled off into a chapter of their own lest they distract the men, I guess. The first of these is Marianne Martin, who you probably don’t know won the inaugural edition of the Tour de France Féminin, a women’s version of the Tour de France, organised by the Société du Tour de France. Which further cements the belief that if it’s not the Tour de France, it’s not history. Me, I’d have probably started with the women taking their bikes over the big mountains in the nineteenth century and then warbled on about Marthe Hesse and the Touring Club de France’s 1902 event that included two ascents of the Tourmalet. She also rode up Mont Ventoux the following year. But since she didn’t ride the Tour she doesn’t exist, I guess, even though Cossins does discuss the TCF’s 1902 event and the men who took part in it and subsequently went on to ride the Tour. The women Cossins does deem worthy of discussion are the “waif-like” Maria Canins and the “elfin” Jeannie Longo. More stars of the Tour de France Féminin, in case you hadn’t already worked that out for yourself.
The capsule biographies are wrapped up with a whole chapter on Pantani. Up to now Cossins has had little to say about doping. He hasn’t talked about how stimulants like amphetamines clouded the picture as to who the really great climbers were. He hasn’t talked about how steroids like cortisone clouded the picture as to who the really great climbers were. He hasn’t talked about how the blood transfusions of the 1980s clouded the picture as to who the really great climbers were.
Cossins does talk, a little, about EPO, more to just acknowledge its existence than to engage with its impact. And then we’re into a new clean era, thanks to the Athlete Biological Passport. Which, if memory serves me, hasn’t caught anyone since 2019 and hasn’t caught anyone doping at World Tour level since 2017. But hey, if you want to believe that Evans winning the 2011 Tour signalled the birth of a new era of credibility then good for you.
Climbers peters out into a fog-filled finale in which the modern era is discussed and things get repetitive. I only need to be told once that Dan Martin won stages in all three Grand Tours but Cossins feels it’s something worth reminding me about. And there’s whole paragraphs that get repeated. Here’s Philippa York talking on page 185:
you look down at the other riders and they’re not two inches from your back wheel – a bike length behind at the most – and you can see them chewing the handlebars, trying to stay with you. And in those conditions, seeing that just makes you go even harder. In those conditions, it’s still painful but becomes quite enjoyable, if only because you’re going so fast that it’s unbelievable.
And here she is again on page 299:
In those conditions, it is actually quite enjoyable, but only because you’re going so fast that it’s unbelievable. You also get a lift from the fact that the other riders are struggling. You look down and they’re not two inches from your back wheel, a bike length at the most, and you can see them chewing the handlebars, trying to stay with you. That just makes you go even harder.
If nothing else, Climbers is a book that clearly supports recycling: recycling the books of others; recycling your own books; and even recycling itself. And who could find fault with that?