Photographer Michael Blann has spent three years documenting cycling’s obsession with mountains. In Mountains Epic Cycling Climbs he poses the idea that whilst we may scale these imposing landscapes in truth we can never truly beat them.
There’s something very primeval about making a passage over a mountain. From Hannibal to Napoleon, history tells us that these cols, peaks and summits present an immortal challenge to human physicality; their demanding gradients make us raw and challenge our self-belief. To conquer them demands a slice of your soul. As a cyclist, you leave a little bit of yourself on every mountain you ride.
For cyclists and spectators of cycling alike, our experiences of a landscape are intrinsic to a sense of place. The characteristics that make somewhere special help us to develop an affinity with, attach a story to, the physical environment. It follows that, for every cyclist – professional or amateur – each journey into and out of an Alpine landscape is distinct.
From the solitude imposed on the last man on the road, to the resolute descent of a rider dropped by the group and the deep suffering of a glycogen-depleted athlete, every ride is a deeply personal journey defined ultimately by the mountain.
There is a hierarchy of mountains, defined by the stories they have helped create and the punishments they have meted out. Gradients and lengths of climb lend them notoriety. And for every climber there is a tipping point. One mountain too far, one acceleration too hard, one bad day on the bike, and dreams and aspirations can melt away.
Nature is indifferent to our obsession, and cycling is but one visitor to the mountains. We are allowed to stay only briefly, and on nature’s terms: our ascents are limited by where the road goes, what the seasons will allow, and what the weather delivers at that specific moment. Yet the moment that the snows abate, the summits emerge, and the landscape allows cyclists increasingly to claim ownership of the space.
This sense of belonging has grown with the popularity of cycling and will no doubt continue to grow. The mountains call riders from all corners of the globe – cyclists desperate to identify with the struggle of riding against a gradient, riders who want to know what it’s like to suffer.
Pro Riders on the Mountains
‘The day the strong men cried’
During Stage 14 of the 1988 Giro a blizzard had engulfed the Passo Gavia. It was a day that became known as ‘the day the strong men cried’. Whilst others climbed off their bikes Andy Hampsten staged a blistering attack which led him to become the first and only American to win Italy's greatest bicycle race.
“Around 10km before the climb, shivering under four layers of soaking-wet clothes, I told myself to shake off the self-pity. I studied my competition, like climbers do: Franco Chioccioli, who had the leader’s jersey, Erik Breukink, Urs Zimmermann and Flavio Giupponi. It was like a death march: they looked like ghosts. The snow was getting heavier and people were scared but, nastily enough, it encouraged me to push on. ‘I’m a bike racer …,’ I said in my head.
“By now I had only one gear (the rest had frozen), and my shins were covered in a layer of ice, but I was done with moaning, shouting and asking God for help. I just had to make it to the Santa Caterina and then another 13km to the finish. With 8km to go, Breukink caught me; he must have been right behind me all the time. I couldn’t hold his wheel, and my mind was racing with thoughts: ‘Is it warmer to put the brakes on and go down this hill at 15kph, or is it better to go 60–80kph on this straight 8% slope and risk hypothermia?’
“Breukink won by 7 seconds, but that day was my greatest moment as an athlete. I can’t put into words what went through my mind, how hard it was, how I terrified myself, and how I suffered like I’d never suffered before.”
The Masterplan at La Plagne
Stephen Roche’s legendary comeback against Pedro Delgado, on the climb to La Plagne during Stage 21 of the 1987 Tour, was an extraordinary act of bravery that propelled the Irishman into cycling’s hall of fame. Key to this thrilling stage was an attack on the descent of the Galibier, a move launched by Roche and a group of riders including Delgado, Roche’s rival for the yellow jersey.
“Towards the top of the Galibier, the contenders for the general classification – Jean-François Bernard, Charly Mottet, Pedro Delgado and I – were all there, and we began to talk. If we waited until the next climb, the Madeleine, and the Colombians did the same again [attack], we’d run the risk of getting dropped, so we made a pact: ‘Let’s make them ride downhill.’
“Descending is an art. To take a descent fast, you have to know where to break and which line to take. You need to understand about weight transfer and how your body moves on the bike.
“We rode together as a pack, took huge risks, took the corners like madmen, but we were mostly in control.
“The road is narrow in places, there are long stretches without barriers, so one mistake and that would have been it. But it worked; that descent blew them out, and they never came back.”