Ah, mountains! Perhaps they share only with the sea something that universally arouses us to flights of poetry and fancy. Naturalist John Muir wrote in his journal: “We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.” And mountains have a special place in the hearts and minds of cyclists, of course. For many of us, climbing is the only cycling discipline that really matters because, well, we can only dream of doing it better. “Higher Calling” is a book by Max Leonard that endeavours to explain this attraction to “up.” Beautifully written and multi-faceted, it elegantly ranges from the personal to the historical to the geographic and even to the macabre.
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The Germans have an expression for a local mountain, a climb that is just outside your front door. The “Hausberg” for cyclists is the kind of pass where you know ever turn, every pothole, every place to catch your breath, and every place your breath gets taken away. Max Leonard’s Hausberg is the magnificent Col de la Bonette, in the French Alps and close to the Italian border. The road peaks at 2715 m above sea level, one of the highest paved roads in Europe. From the southern side, where Mr. Leonard resides in Nice, the climb is 26 kms (16 miles) long, with an average gradient of 6.4%. The pass has been included in the Tour de France only four times, most notoriously in 2008 when South African John-Lee Augustyn fell off after being the first over the summit. It appeared in the 2016 Giro d’Italia and “Higher Calling” uses this event as the structure holding the book together.
The book offers up a prologue which combines the lore of mountaineering with cycling. George Christopher Lee Mallory, the grandson of the legendary British climber lost on Mount Everest in 1924, joined an expedition to climb the mountain and came up with a way to train for it: riding his bicycle up and down his own local Hausberg in one day to accumulate the same vertical gain as Mount Everest, or 8,848 m (29,029 feet). Mallory managed Everest in 1995, but the story of his training rides passed around in this age of the Internet and “Everesting” became a thing. In a later chapter in the book, Max Leonard relates how he accomplished his own Everest on a hill in Sussex (not noted for its Himalayan-style ascents). George Mallory makes an appearance in “Higher Calling” when the author has the opportunity to ride with him in Europe. An excellent rider, Mallory comes across as somewhat pedantic as he clocks off Strava age-group King of the Mountain rides in business-like fashion.
This is only a slight detour. The book really begins with an interesting account of French road workers removing the snow on the Col de la Bonette as the author accompanies them in late Spring. Alpine roads are often not clear until June and the decision of the Giro to include this high pass is risky; the Stelvio is often included in the Giro and often cannot be ridden either due to snow.
From this unusual perspective, we move into somewhat familiar ground with the history of the Tour de France and its expansion into the mountains. A famous myth is, sadly, destroyed: mountain classifications are not based on what gear ratio you need in your Citroen 2CV to get over the top (ie., Category 1 = first gear). Although the author tests this idea with an actual 2CV, history tells us that categorization predates this motorized symbol of rural France.
Joe Dombrowski enjoying the Giro
We are introduced to some noted climbers, past and present. The present is represented by Joe Dombrowski, a young American rider who turned professional in 2011 and won the Tour of Utah in 2016. He currently rides for the EF Education First-Drapac team (previously known as Cannondale-Garmin) and provides insight into today’s peloton. The stories of the past come through the remarkable and entertaining Federico Bahamontes, the famous “Eagle of Toledo,” winner of the 1959 Tour de France and six-time winner of the King of the Mountains jersey in that race. Bahamontes enjoys relating tales from the past, relishing how much better (that is, tougher) it was in the Good Old Days.
Federico Bahamontes the ‘Eagle of Toledo’
Those days were not always so good as we learn the sad tale of René Pottier who won the Tour in 1906 but was a troubled person, as appears to be the case of many great climbers. Another one was René Vietto, who never quite got it together to win the Tour but was much loved. So loved, in fact, that a fan still has a piece of him in a jar and this is the subject of a particularly weird but amusing section in the book. Nasty old Charly Gaul (the “Angel of the Mountains”) gets a mention too.
La Vuelta a España
There is an enormous amount packed into this book. We learn about how the roads in the French Alps were built by the famous road crews, known as the “Blue Devils” from their clothing, to address defence matters against the Italians, a precaution which turned out never to be needed but gave cyclists some amazing roads. Alpine forts, now barely visible from the road, make an appearance. There is lots on sports physiology and the effects of training at altitude. How to climb most efficiently in a race. We learn what it is happening in rural communities in the mountains and about the lives of shepherds. Local festivals are mentioned. The Giro finally arrives.
Military fortifications in the Alps
But particularly thought-provoking are the personal insights.
- “Without the incentives of racing, let alone professional sport, what do we amateurs get out of cycling up a mountain that mitigates this? Succeeding in a challenge; feeling the achievement of reaching the top; being relieved in our effort in a place in which we are allowed not to pedal any more…certainly all of that. But part of it, I’m sure, is in the complicated relationship between pleasure and pain itself.”
There are lots of books about the great climbs of cycling and they have better pictures than this one. But “Higher Calling” is different, an exploration of an obsession that brings us closer to the world of mountaineering than cycling at many points. It is adventure and travel writing and pro cycling and amateur cycling all rolled together. For those who love climbing, for those who can’t do it well but want to, for those who love to think about what cycling means to them, “Higher Calling” is an excellent choice to read this winter. Before the snowplows come.
“Higher Calling: Road Cycling’s Obsession with the Mountains”
by Max Leonard
326 pp., hardbound, with some small black-and-white photos
Yellow Jersey Press, London, 2017
Suggested Price: UK₺ 16.99/C$ 35.99