Inside the minds of climbers

What makes them different from the rest of the peloton? And what would a Tour de France look like without any mountains?

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We see climbers like Tadej Pogačar, Jonas Vingegaard, and Annemiek van Vleuten and marvel in awe at their prowess of cycling uphill. We see their legs churn, their bodies rock from side-to-side as they battle the gradient, and we see them cross the finish line often minutes ahead of the rest of the elite field, the dozens of other men and women who are the best in the world at riding their bikes.

Climbers, especially GC riders, often leave a lot unsaid. They prefer to let their legs do the talking.

So what sets elite climbers apart from the rest of the peloton? How has climbing changed over the years? We caught up with cycling journalist and author Pete Cossins at the recent Tour de France, while we were watching the battle between Pogačar and Vingegaard unfold, to hear about his new book, Climbers: How the Kings of the Mountains Conquered Cycling, and what he learned about the skinny men and women who capture our attention all of the year, but especially in the month of July.


Jonny Long: What did you find out about climbers that makes them different from the rest of the peloton?

Pete Cossins: I guess it’s the fact that they’re drawn to that terrain, which always kind of fascinated me.

When you look at the professional climbers in both the men’s and women’s side of the sport they’re riding fast all the time but when you see them riding uphill and the speed they go up at is just absolutely extraordinary. I kind of wanted to find out about why they did that, how they train themselves like that, particularly the mental side of it. And then when you start to get into that you realise there are things that set them apart from from other riders.

They’re often quite fastidious in terms of what they eat and how they train but there’s perhaps more of an individuality as well, because it’s such a solo effort. For example, if you’re Mark Cavendish going through a sprint you’re relying on five or six teammates, not all the time, but most of the time, to put you in a position to win, and climbers rely on that to a certain extent but ultimately it’s just down to them and their legs being right and everything kind of falling into place for them.

One of the things that I’ve always thought is really interesting about cycling is if you’re a sprinter, I mean, it’s perhaps not the case in this Tour, but they haven’t had many chances. But certainly in previous years, they might have had eight chances to win a stage. Whereas if you’re a climber, you might, if you’re lucky, have probably only one chance and you’ve kind of got the thing of ‘when is that effort? When can I best cash in on that effort?’

You can have a bad day or somebody’s stronger than you or you don’t pick up a feed bag or something and it all goes wrong for you and you finish way back. That might be the one chance you have and you’ve blown it and it just kind of feels like they’re riding on a knife edge all the time, that all kinds of things can go wrong. In a sprint, obviously that can go wrong, but if you’re sprinting you can come back the next day and have a go. Climbing it’s all or nothing.

Was there one specific thing that you learned about climbers that you just had no idea about before?

Dan Martin spoke about the differences between the Alps and the Pyrenees, and why do some riders prefer one over the other. I remember years ago interviewing Damiano Cunego after he won the Giro and he was trying to win the Tour, and he just could not get to grips with the Pyrenees. He said they’re sort of low mountains and forested and the roads are heavy and he hated them. But Dan Martin said one of the most marked differences is that … they’re so heavy because they put gravel on top of them whereas the Alpine roads are much more engineered and smoother so the gradient doesn’t change as much.

So when you’re riding in the Alps you can sit on the wheel for a long time and it actually makes it much harder to attack in the way you attack in the Pyrenees because they’re going much quicker, like two or three kilometres an hour quicker. So people are drafting and it’s hard to get away, whereas in the Pyrenees you don’t get the benefit of that draft as much. People aren’t going as quickly, so it’s possible for a punchy climber like him to make a jump away and to get a gap.

You spoke to climbers from different generations. Was there any sense of whether climbing has changed at all over the years?

I think the tactics change and often it’s quite difficult from the outside to see how they do change, but they’re changing all the time. We’re kind of seeing a change now in terms of the way that there’s a much more aggressive approach. We talked the other day about Eddy Merckx and of course there’s a sense with Pogačar that he’s riding in that same kind of aggressive way. Although I mean it’s certainly much more controlled than it was.

When you look back at the footage from the ’40s and ’50s and even into the ’60s it looks odd the way they climb, because they’re not climbing in a long line. They’re all climbing next to each other, side-by-side across the road. Almost as if it’s a race with their own lanes.

Why didn’t they ride behind each other? Merckx would do that with his teammates and [Fausto] Coppi would as well but then when they got to the final bit it’s almost as if they’re basically just trying to see who’s the strongest and the most obvious way to see is by not drafting each other but by seeing who actually was the strongest.

Those changes are really hard to pick up. If you look not too far back to the Sky era and the way that they rode very differently to how we’re seeing riding now, it’s impressive but it was actually crushingly boring to see the guys riding in trains. And I think the riders themselves are not keen on riding in trains either because it’s just not natural. When you’re on a bike you want to race, you don’t want to just sit in and not really do anything. You naturally want to race and we will see more of that now.

The other day you told me that quote about how 15% of Tour stages are in the mountains and 90% of the legends are created there. So, how would the Tour look today if they had never ventured into the mountains?

I think it’d be a pretty dull affair. If you look back to when they didn’t have mountains, not until 1919 did they go into the high mountains. The first two or three editions it was just an endurance race and they had no tactics really and all just went off like the clappers and the strongest person won.

But it’s an innately human thing to explore. For this book I read a lot of books about mountain climbing just to get a feel of how they actually discovered the mountains and the first expeditions at Mont Blanc and things like that in the 19th century. You just see all the time that every few months people were pushing one another on to get further and further up Mont Blanc, and then people could conquer the top of it.

There were guys staying up there for a week and doing all kinds of meteorological experiments and whatever. And then you kind of have this range right across the Alps of peaks everywhere and you look at them and say ‘I wonder if anybody’s been up there?’ And they have been, probably a long time ago they first conquered them.

There’s that same thing in cycling and we still see it today of people finding the next big peak. People are naturally drawn to these wild regions. And that’s what I mean: without cycling up mountains you would really just be watching the Tour just to see how lovely France is.

Were there any differences in what male and female climbers had to say?

When I spoke to Ashleigh Moolman Pasio there was an edition of the Giro Donne she was racing, in 2018 I think, against Annemiek van Vleuten up the [Monte] Zoncolan and they had a summit finish. Van Vleuten almost inevitably won like she tends to do but Moolman Pasio rode really strongly and she was second that day. And I was saying to her I’d gone through the route of the Giro Donne and the other races and it seemed exceptional that you went up to the Zoncolan, why is that? She said they just don’t have many races with big climbs and so they don’t train for those big climbs.

I think the Tour de France Femmes organisers have been really clever about this in terms of the climbing tests that they set for this first edition. They’re going to around 1,100 or 1,200 metres but we’re not seeing Alpe d’Huez, Mont Ventoux, the Tourmalet because they’re not training for that [normally] else they will train on those climbs.

I guess that’s the big difference. I know ASO got a lot of criticism because when they announced the route of the Tour de France Femmes, people were saying there aren’t any of the iconic climbs here and you think they could have put one on there, but it just would have a complete anomaly in terms of what women’s racing is doing at the moment. So those those things will come. I think they’ll come quickly.

You live in the Pyrenees, what is your relationship like with the mountains?

I could just sit down in front of the mountains with a cup of tea, or a beer, or a glass of wine in my hand and just stare at them. I could do the same with the sea as well. With the mountains it’s just changing all the time and it kind of dominates you; it calls out to you as well like you’re being pulled towards it. You want to be up there. That’s my overriding feeling whenever I go to a bike race. Obviously the thousands of people doing that today [ed. this conversation happened at the foot of the Peyragudes].

My house looks across at the first ridge of the Pyrenees, the first high ridge. Obviously that view basically doesn’t change but all the time it changes – there’ll be things happening there, or you’ll see right across on the other side the cattle moving across the meadows through the bracken and you can see these big white herds of cattle, or there are people paragliding off the top and you suddenly see a flash of colour as a paraglider comes down.

We see the glint of the the cars as someone’s going up to have a walk. It always changes, as does the weather. You see the storms coming over the top, then suddenly the clouds will go black and you think “OK, let’s batten everything down, it’s gonna be hellish here in a minute.” You can’t get that in a city; it’s a different environment. It’s just that feeling of being overwhelmed by nature which I like.

Climbers: How the Kings of the Mountains Conquered Cycling, by Peter Cossins, as well as his other books, can be found here.

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