Uphill Battle: Cycling’s Great Climbers
By Owen Mulholland (Velo Press, 2003)
Review by Jeffrey Morseburg
In bicycle racing, the ability to climb mountains well is a relative thing. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology and the invention of the derailleur and freewheel decades ago, many reasonably fit and determined cyclists can ride over the mountain passes of the grand tours. However, racing over them is quite a different story. When fit and motivated, virtually every professional rider can make it over a series of foothills or the short, steep “walls” that are found in Flanders with the group at the front of the race. Riding in the slipstream of the peloton, men who are not classic “climbers” but who possess highly developed aerobic systems can even make it over high mountain passes with the group that is leading the race. The fitness and ability to recover that develops from the undergoing the stresses of professional stage racing is difficult to overstate. After being tasked with doing incredibly difficult things time after time, a talented rider’s entire system becomes more and more efficient, and it reaches a sort of Nietzchen perfection.
I will never forget witnessing George Hincappie and Floyd Landis riding up to the La Mongie ski resort on Stage 12 of the 2004 Tour de France. My friends and I were deep in the Pyrenees, in that terrain that is so different from the alpine scenery that would come in the later stages that year. As leading domestiques, Hincappie and Landis had worked enormously hard in the day’s race. They rode “tempo” for Lance Armstrong for the better part of 160 kilometers, until the real climbing started with the famous Col d’Aspin, where they finished their stint by exterminating the breakaway that had escaped early in the race. Once the break was caught, accelerations began to blow the leading group apart. As Hincappie and Landis passed the spot where my friends and I were sitting on the steep climb to La Mongie, they were winding down, their work done for the day. The two workers were riding a steady tempo, sharing a coke and carrying on a brief conversation, still somewhere in the top thirty or forty on the day. It was a display of how strong the best of the support riders get from their tremendous workload, as stragglers were spread out over many miles of French countryside in their wake.
The strong men of the peloton just seem to have the ability to keep taking turns at the front for hours at a time. What recent top riders like Hincappie, Rolf Aldag or Jens Voight have in common with domestiques of the past like Victor Van Schil or Martin Van Den Bosche is that they become so strong, they can power themselves over a number of high altitude cols with the best climbers on earth. However, it is after days of racing in a grand tour, when one mountain pass follows another and the pitches grow steep enough that momentum is lost, where things change in a hurry. All of a sudden, what is left of the peloton or the lead group seems to implode and everything comes apart at the seams. After the riders have been climbing for hours at a fast tempo, near their limit, or “on the rivet” in cycling parlance, this implosion can happen in a matter of seconds, from just one or two accelerations on top of what was already an infernal pace. It is then that a rider suddenly finds out his relative status in the world of climbers. In the Alpine stages where every rider is racing by himself or with one or two other comrades of the road and dependant only on his own energy and abilities, he will soon discover whether he is a grimpeur, a rider who can really climb mountains, or not.
Uphill Battle is a book that explores the history of the climber, featuring the stories of the great climbers in history and their cat and mouse battles with the men of the general classification, the all-arounders who worked so hard not to let the climbers ride away into the mist. The book is written by the veteran cycling journalist Owen Mulholland, who authored some of the first articles that I read on European racing back in the early 1970s. I can still recall his accounts of the Bernard Thevenet victories in the Tour de France that put paid to the Eddy Merckx era. Mulholland is a knowledgeable cycling historian with a clear appreciation for and an understanding of his subject, and while some of these tales have appeared a number of times, they are told again here with some elan.
In the early years of the Tour de France, the first of the great national tours and the race this book concentrates on, no one was sure that riders could climb the major mountain passes on the heavy, rather crude bicycles of the day. The Tour de France was dreamed up as a promotional vehicle for a struggling sports daily named l’Auto, which eventually became l’Equipe. The brainchild of a sports journalist named Geo Lefevre, the first six-day-long Tour de France was backed by his editor Henri Desgrange, who became the promoter and virtual dictator of the Tour de France. In the first years of the race, which began in 1903, there were no true mountain stages, but rather only hills. It wasn’t until 1910 that the Pyrenees became part of the program. The following year, the Alps were added to the menu, creating the outlines of an event that would still be recognizable to modern fans.
The early stages over the mountain passes were not so much races but survival contests. At more than 200 miles, the stages were so long that the races started and often finished in darkness, and search parties with torches had to be sent out to look for stragglers. Because the mountains didn’t have real roads, just rocky goat paths, the speeds up the passes in the early races were slow and the gaps between riders could be huge. On the first ascent of the fabled Tourmalet in the Pyrenees, Breyer and Steines, the men who planned the climbing stages, were by the side of the road when the second placed rider on the road passed them, the future great Octave Lapize. As Lapize made his way up the steep incline on his single speed bicycle, he yelled an accusation at the planners: “You are assassins, yes assassins.” Of course, he would be back for more the next year. While Desgrange, the “father of the Tour de France,” was not sure about the mountain stages in the months leading up to the 1910 race, the peaks gave the race an epic quality that captured the public imagination like no other French sporting event. So, despite the rider’s anger at the organizers, the high mountains were in the Tour de France to stay.
Now, lady luck always plays a role in the grand tours. Even today, an untimely puncture can determine the outcome of a stage and an accident can ruin a rider’s entire race. However, with the type of support modern riders receive, dame fortune takes a backseat to the many other factors that determine the outcome of a tour. In the early years of the Tour de France, even the “broom wagon” that swept up the riders that were well off the pace could be hours late. And, the bicycles of the day, with their crude rubber tires, suffered punctures frequently, and the frames were known to simply fall apart. This would not have been a major problem if there were reliable support vehicles with spare parts, but in the early years of the tour the rider had to actually perform all the repairs himself. Bicycle companies, who recognized a golden promotional opportunity when they saw one, sponsored all the early trade teams. “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday” is not just part of the NASCAR lexicon. The concept worked just as well in the France of the early 1900s.
The early years of the Tour de France were a test of machine as well as the men, and one of the sad stories that Mulholland relates here is that of the great French rider Eugene Christophe. He was doing well in the 1913 race when his forks broke after a car hit him on the d’Aspin climb in the Pyrenees. This mishap necessitated a 14-kilometer hike to the nearest village, where the race officials watched like a hawk to insure that no one assisted him in repairing his bicycle. Christophe actually had to learn how to repair the forks from the local blacksmith, so he could make the welds himself, a long, difficult task that put him out of contention for the general classification, the first that would be figured on the rider’s overall elapsed time rather than points. And to add insult to injury, the officials – who bear a striking resemblance to some their unreasonable modern brethren – then saw fit to penalize Christophe another minute for having the blacksmith’s son work the bellows while he welded his frame! Poor Christophe – despite his class, he was never destined to win the tour.
Mulholland relates the tale of the poor Italian stone mason Ottavio Bottecchia, who moved to France, where he would not be in the shadow of the veteran champion Constantine Girardengo and the young Alfredo Binda. Instead, he rose to prominence on the team of the contentious Pelissier brothers, who were famous for their rows with tour director Henri Desgrange. Bottecchia went on to win the Tour de France twice, and was the first Italian to wear the maillot jaune in Paris. To refute Desrange’s poetic tale of the race, Plessier described the real agony of an Alpine stage in 1923:
…I spent a long time on foot, at the side of Bottecchia under a burning sky, pushing the bike with one hand and with the other swigging from my bottle and sharing it with my companion who was worse off than I. There was no question, at the moment of the maillot jaune and victory, Monsieur Desgrange, We struggled in a daze, like two soldiers lost in a desert, merely to survive, and if you would have passed our proximity, I, like anyone in my place would have treated you as a murderer!
There are chapters here on the Belgian hero Lucien Buysse, who won the Tour de France and proved that a rider could come from the low countries and a background in Six Day track racing and still be a climbing hero. There was the Italian Alfredo Binda, second of the Campionissimos (as the great champions are called by the Italian sportswriters), the man who won the Giro d’ Italia no less than five times and captured the World Championship three times. There is a chapter on Victor Fontan, who grew up in the Pyrenees and started his first tour in 1928 at the age of thirty-six. His was another epic story of bad luck, for his forks broke in a crash while he was wearing the yellow jersey. He walked to the next village and, borrowing a small touring bike, rode the following 145 kilometers through the Pyrenees carrying his original bicycle because the rules stated riders had to finish on their original machine. Alas, he didn’t make the time limit and was out of the maillot jaune and the race!
Mulholland covers the stories of the other great pre-war climbers like Frenchman Andre Leducq and the Spaniard Vincente Trueba, the small, wiry prototype for many of the great Spanish climbing machines. There was the introverted Antonin Magne, who was known for his careful preparation and rectitude. Called “The Monk,” he looms large in French cycling, not only because of his two tour victories, but because of his later role as mentor and team manager, the director sportif to later champions like Bobet and Poulidor. Then there is Magne’s rival, Rene Vietto, the stylish young rider from the French Riviera. Afterward, there were the champion Italian climbers, Gino Bartali and the immortal Fausto Coppi, who were establishing themselves as war loomed. When Italy joined the Axis, Bartali was already an established champion, but Coppi had just won his first Giro d’Italia, the 1940 edition. The war took away a number of each rider’s best seasons, and Coppi spent years in a North Afriacan P.O.W. camp. Poor Bartali – he was 32 when racing resumed in 1946 and so only had a few remaining good seasons.
The post-war era is now seen as a “golden age” because there were a number of great champions who were capable of winning the grand tours, including the elegant Swiss star Hugo Koblet, his countryman Ferdi Kubler, who won four hundred races in his career, the three-time Tour de France champion Louison Bobet and the returning pre-war Italian champions, Bartali and Coppi. These riders fought it out on the climbs of the Tour de France, the Giro d’ Italia and the Vuelta de Espana, which was just coming into its own as a major race. There was also the eccentric Spanish climbing machine Federico Bahamontes, who could race for mountaintop victories or the overall title, depending on what type of mood he was in. As the 1950s progressed, Luxembourg’s Charly Gaul emerged as cycling’s greatest climber; he could dance away from anyone on a given day. Famous for his epic solo attacks, in 1956 the “Angel of the Mountains” was the first foreign rider to triumph in the Giro d’Italia, which he again won in 1959. In 1958 the quiet, 140-pound rider won the Tour de France as well.
Then, there was Jacques Anquetil, one of the most interesting personalities in the history of cycling. A rider who made no bones about the fact that he was in it for the money, the calculating Anquetil tried to win with as narrow a margin as possible. Although on a given day he could be impossible for even the best climbers to drop, the champagne-drinking Norman based his unprecedented five Tour de France victories on his ability to time trial, a discipline he dominated for more than ten years. Towards the end of Anquetil’s reign, the popular Raymond Poulidor emerged. He was a consistent climber who won many stages in the Alps and Pyrenees. “Poupou,” as he is affectionately known in France, was born a peasant and in spite of the fact that he never won the Tour de France and was known as “the eternal second,” he was and remains a man of the people and France’s most beloved cyclist.
Poulidor’s career began late and bridged from Anquetil’s era of prominence to the complete domination of cycling by the greatest bicycle racer of them all: Eddy Merckx, the feared “Cannibal” of the peloton. Merckx was not a classic climber, but rather an incredibly strong all-around rider who could power his way over the passes of the Alps or Pyrenees with the best of the smaller men because of the incredible pace he was capable of. In great contrast to Anquetil, Merckx never sought to win by the narrowest margin, but by the widest. He won everything in sight, gobbling up no less than five editions of the Tour de France, five Giro d’Italia’s and even a Vuelta d’Espana, along with three World Road Championships and fistfuls of classic single-day races. Winter Six Days, spring classics, summer tours and fall classics, Eddy Merckx raced so hard and so much that he seemed to just use himself up. Because of his great strength, the barrel-chested Belgian rider seldom had to fear the climbers, but on occasion, pure climbers like the Spaniard Luis Ocana could out-duel him. Ocana managed to best all his competitors once in the Tour de France, in 1973.
The Frenchman Bernard Thevenet ended the Merckx era for good. The square-jawed Peugeot trade-team leader won the race twice, in 1975 and 1977. An exceptional climber, Thevenet was the great Gallic hope who finally vanquished Eddy Merckx on an epic day on the Col d’Izoard, on the French national holiday of Bastille Day no less. His day in the sun was brief and so his list of victories was not long – the two tours, two Dauphines, the Tour of Romanie and a large number of lucrative criteriums. Because he was caught for doping and felt steroid use contributed to his later health problems, Thevenet has never been one of the most admired riders, but he represented a changing of the guard.
Ironically, one of the most consistent climbers of the 1970s came from the flatlands of Flanders, the compact Belgian Lucien Van Impe. He was a true climber whose mentor was Ferderico Bahamnontes. However, because he was raised in bike-mad Flanders, Van Impe knew how to ride on the flats and in crosswinds, something many climbers had difficulty with. He won the Polka Dot jersey of the winner of the mountains classification of the Tour de France no less than six times and the mountain classification in the Giro d’ Italia twice. Because he wasn’t powerful enough to be a great all-around rider, Van Impe focused on the mountains classification from early in his career and targeted the big tours to the exclusion of all else. Now, in recent times, the polka-dot jersey has often gone to a climber who is not in the first rank, someone who goes out early in a stage to collect little contested mountaintop points, but Van Impe was the real thing. He ended up high on general classification from time to time, but this was more of a by-product of his mountain obsession than by plan. However, in 1976, while racing for the new director Cyrille Guimard’s Gitane-Campagnolo team and facing off against Joop Zoetemelk, he finally went for it. The ‘76 Tour de France that had no less than seven mountain stages in a row, so it was a unique opportunity for a climber. On a stage from Saint-Gaudens to Saint-Lary-Soulan in the Pyrenees, he attacked early and hard – only after Guimard claims to have threatened to run over him with the team car – and he succeeded in taking the maillot jaune, which he wore the rest of the way to Paris. The little Belgian ended up doing fifteen Tours, just one short of the all-time record.
The man who finished more editions of the Tour de France than any other rider was Joop Zoetemelk, Holland’s greatest cyclist and Van Impe’s 1976 rival, who started and finished sixteen incredible chapters of Le Grand Boucle. “Joopie” as he was known to Dutch fans, does not have a chapter in Mulholland’s Uphill Battle, which is the single glaring exclusion of this excellent history of le grimpeurs (as climbers are known in French). Because of his consistency, this Netherlander, who married a French woman and later settled outside Paris, should be known as “Monsieur Tour de France.” Zoetemelk was the true “eternal second” who finished on the second step of the podium no less than six times and incredibly, had a career that bridged virtually all of the Merckx and Hinualt eras. As a young rider he placed second to Merckx at the tour in 1970 and he came second one last time to Hinault in 1982, when he was an aging champion. The criticism of Zoetemelk was that while he had great all-around skills, he was not an aggressive racer and when faced with a ruthless Hinault or Merckx, he couldn’t win. He finally triumphed in 1980 when he joined Peter Post’s disciplined but always aggressive, on-the-attack TI-Raleigh squad, led by Gerrie Knetemann and Jan Raas. The Raleigh men were a wrecking crew that year and won no less than eleven stages, and they drove an ailing Bernard Hinualt to retirement from the Tour de France, leaving the laurels to Zoetemelk. The Dutch rider, who eventually took French citizenship, also won a Vuelta de Espana, more confirmation of his status as an exceptional climber.
Judged by his record of victories, Bernard Hinault is, after Merckx, the second greatest stage racer that ever lived. The Frenchman, who had a face of pure determination when he was racing, was the last great patron of the peloton, whose qualities and strong personality made him the dominant leader of his day. Hinault was nicknamed Le Blaireau (the Badger) for his stubbornness and never-say-die spirit. He won his first Tour de France in 1978 and the last of his five in 1985. Hinault stood 5’8” inches tall and had a stocky build for a bicycle racer, so he was a compact powerhouse who powered up the climbs with the best of the small, lithe climbers. Hinault took a page from the Jacques Anquetil playbook and rarely extended himself for mountain stage victories in the Tour. He knew that all he needed to do was to distance his general classification rivals on the climbs. As long as he kept close to the mountain specialists in the Alps and Pyrenees, he could then drop the hammer on them in the time trials, a disipline he was unchallenged at until his younger teammates Laurent Fignon and Greg Lemond began to mature. In 1979, his best year, he obliterated the competition in the manner of Merckx with no less than seven stage wins. In Uphill Battle, Owen Mulholland makes the point that Hinault was often a more aggressive in the mountains of the Giro d’Italia, which he won three times, and the Vuelta de Espana where he triumphed twice. It was probably easier to ride with more elan when he was not in his home tour and subject to the constant criticisms of the French press. In 1983 Hinault made up lost ground on two mountain stages in the waning days of the Vuelta, surprising the Spanish riders and press. Incredible as it may seem, his last of five victories in the Tour de France was the last such achievement by a French rider, the reasons for which have been the grounds of endless speculation.
Most top flight cyclists seem to have a five- or six-year period when they are at their best and capable of winning the biggest events. For some riders this window comes early in their career, while others mature later and reach their peak – especially for the arduous three week national tours – in their mid to late twenties. So the window for a talented rider to prove to the team’s management and his teammates – the support riders who are known as domestiques in the French cycling vernacular or as gregarios in Italian – that he is capable of being a team leader is short. Some riders are thrust into a starring role because of an untimely injury, accident or collapse of their team leader and others show so much early promise that they are groomed for the role of leader. The Frenchman Laurent Fignon is an example of the former and the American Greg Lemond the latter. Unfortunately, they were almost the same age and by 1982 both were racing for the same Renault-Elf-Gitane team, so ultimately the team would not be big enough for both of them. Fignon and Lemond’s career’s were both interrupted by misfortune that altered the trajectory of their lives and they were destined to be pitted against each other in the epic 1989 Tour de France.
Laurent Fignon came to cycling relatively late and only began to make his presence felt as a junior when he was seventeen and eighteen. Thus he wasn’t selected for the Junior World Championships or the 1980 Moscow Olympics; these early selections are usually what brings notice to young riders. Fignon was selected for the French National Team in 1981 and rode so well in the Tour de Corsica, an “open” race where the amateur national teams raced against professional teams, that Cyrille Guimard, the clever manager of the Renault-Elf-Gitane team, signed him up for the following season. Fignon began winning professional races in the early spring of his first season when his team leader, Bernard Hinault was still getting rid of his winter fat. In his first grand tour, the Giro d’Italia, he wore the Maglia Rosa and helped Hinault win the race.
In 1983 Fignon helped Hinault to the Vuelta title the following spring, and when Hinault injured his knee the young Frenchman started his first Tour de France. In spite of his inexperience, he rode confidently, and when Pascal Simon, the leader of the race was injured, Fignon was waiting in the wings and triumphed. When Hinault switched to the new La Vie Claire team and came back in 1984, the two men faced off and Fignon dominated the Tour de France, showing his climbing chops by attacking in the Pyrenees and Alps and proving he could be the equal of the great Hinault, even in the highest mountains. It was next Fignon’s turn to have a serious tendon injury, then crashes and illnesses, and so he experienced several years with many more downs than ups.
Meanwhile, Greg Lemond was becoming American cycling’s golden child. He began racing with his father as a method of staying in shape for free-style skiing, but once in became clear that he was a unique talent, he devoted his life to cycling. By the time he was fifteen and sixteen he was riding with the best seniors in the United States. Lemond was a member of the 1978 Junior Worlds Team and earned a Bronze Medal in the Team Time Trial. The following year he captured a Silver Medal in the Individual Pursuit and won the Junior World Championship Road Race. In the spring of 1980, as a member of the United States National Team, Lemond raced in France and won the Circuit de la Sarthe against professional competition at the precocious age of eighteen, marking him as a exceptional all-around talent. When the United States boycotted the 1980 Olympic Games, Lemond finished out the season in France. That fall, Renault’s Cyrille Guimard signed him to a professional contract. Groomed for a leader’s role, Lemond gradually tackled more and more difficult races and in 1983 he won the Criterium du Dauphine Libere, France’s second most difficult race, as well as the World Professional Championship, where I had the chance to see him solo to victory on a demanding course in Switzerland. He won the Prestige Pernod Award that year as the world’s top professional cyclist. In 1984, he did his first grand tour, finishing a quiet third behind his teammate Laurent Fignon and his mentor Bernard Hinault. Lemond won the Maillot Blanc of the best young rider and climbed well in the Alps and Pyrenees, but did not manage to keep up with the aggressive Fignon.
By 1985, Lemond had also switched to the La Vie Claire team, and when Fignon was injured before the race it made it a competition between the maturing Lemond and his teammate Hinault, who was somewhat diminished by a crash. Lemond seemed to have the measure of the great Hinualt in the mountains, where he had to wait for his team leader, and despite Hinault’s superiority in the time trials, Lemond was less than two minutes in arrears in Paris. In 1986 Hinualt promised to work for his younger teammate, but it seemed like the older rider could not resist the temptation of trying to be the first man to win six tours and he attacked repeatedly, cracking Fignon, who was not yet himself in the ’86 race and testing Lemond, who was able to rise to the challenge. The American came into his own as a climber, winning in the classic Pyrenean stage from Pau to Superbagneres, taking the Maillot Jaune on the stage from Nimes to Gap and then climbing the Alp d’Huez alongside Hinault, which was the final signal that there was a changing of the guard.
Unfortunately, Lemond was shot in a bizarre hunting accident the next spring and with the trauma of a life-threatening injury and the long recovery, he spent the 1987 and 1988 seasons in the wilderness at the same time Fignon was coming back from a passel of injuries and issues. That set up a show down between two riders who were struggling for redemption in the 1989 Tour de France. Fignon, still allied with Guimard in the colors of Systeme U, was coming of a great victory in the Giro d’Italia, but Lemond still seemed to be well short of presenting a challenge.
By 1989 the American was now filling Hinault’s shoes as a time trialist and so the Tour de France became a see-saw battle between Fignon’s shark-like attacks in the Pyrenees, where he took the yellow jersey, Lemond’s prowess in the time trial where he regained it once again, and then Fignon’s mountain prowess in the Alps. While Lemond climbed well in the 1989 Tour de France, Fignon had his measure, but the advantage was slight enough that everything came down to the unusual final stage, a time trial into Paris, which Lemond won, giving him overall victory by 8 seconds, the narrowest margin in history. Lemond returned to the Tour in 1990, but was not his best. He kept the Italian rider Claudio Chiappucci in sight in the Alps and Pyrenees and then did well enough in the final time trial to overcome the deficit, winning his third and last Tour de France.
Rating: 4 Stars