Great Road Climbs Of The Pyrenees, Graham Fife (2008)

Lavish homage and cyclists’ tour guide to the Aubisque, Marie Blanque, Tourmalet, Peysorade and much, much more

Rapha 9780955825408 23x25cm 320pp £40

Also: Great Road Climbs Of The Southern Alps (2010) – De La Bonette, Ventoux, Izoard, Pra Loup

Rapha 9780955825422 23x25cm 320pp £40

And, Great Road Climbs Of The Northern Alps (2012) –Télégraphe, Galibier, Gladon, Croix de Fer and Alpe d’Huez

Rapha 9780955825446 23×25 cm 320pp £40

There is something unique about cyclists’ relationship with hills – particularly those of the Alps and the Pyrenees. For most of us, we know them first as the backdrops for sporting spectacles where duels are contested on Alpe d’Huez, the Galibier and Tourmalet. Television coverage of the Tour de France fixes the roads and ski stations in our minds and renders the mountains as mythic arenas where gods do battle.

Later, we make pilgrimage, to confront the contours. Our rather more sedate ascent of these vertiginous trails affords a granular appreciation of the engineering that makes such passes possible, as well as the breathtaking, untamed peaks all around. Hours on end at lactic threshold distils an already heady experience.

Walkers and climbers know the crags too, of course – but their exposure to the mountains is not preceded by televised saturation. Golfers enjoy the same ability to follow in the steps of champions – but their backdrops bare scant comparison to the geological wonder of Europe’s highest peaks.

And now there is a third way to take in these high-altitude thoroughfares – Graham Fife’s remarkable ‘The Great Road Climbs’ series of books. His third volume is just out – ‘The Northern Alps’. It follows ‘The Pyrenees’ and ‘The Southern Alps’.

It is hard to believe that they have been produced as a commercial undertaking, so lavish are they in research, writing, photography and production.

In the forward to the latest volume Fife gives some indication of the nature of this publishing endeavour: “I extend most fulsomely once more (thanks) to Simon Mottram (Rapha’s chief executive), fons et origo of these books and so much else. (He) has not only backed a project somewhat tangential to (his) main business…but also invested it with unwavering belief. That I have been allowed the extraordinary privilege of writing the books is beyond the calculation of thanks”.

These are essentially devotional works produced as a form of, and aid to, mountain worship. For those for whom the bicycle is but a means to expedite a journey, they will be extravagantly over-rich. To those who have sampled the natural highs of mountain-pass cycling, they have the capacity to take on biblical qualities – as well as being gazetteer, almanac, geological and historical primer and travel guide.
At first glance these stout volumes might appear as coffee-table books – their heft certainly makes them best enjoyed at a table. And photography does account for possibly a third of their pages. Pete Drinkell’s pictures are beautiful – although anyone other than a cyclist would almost certainly not appreciate the many images of empty ribbons of tarmac snaking upwards.
The bulk of Fife’s text provides a col-by-col description of each climb. His level of detail and the breadth of the cultural references that he weaves through this catalogue, however, are breathtaking. These are leavened with maps, contour profiles and pen portraits of some of the Tours most dramatic battles.

He also provides a fascinating history of the hills – in the case of the Northern Alps book, concentrating on the little-known role that the mountains and their communities played in the French Resistance in the later years of the Second World War.

With this third volume, I understand that the series is complete. They are a remarkable achievement and will reward the investment of any cyclist whose dreams have been inspired by the mountains.

TD June 12

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