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Bookshelf: Great Road Climbs of the Northern Alps
It is that time of year when many of us put our bicycles aside and take out the guidebooks and maps and put together the dream trip, the once-in-a-lifetime adventure, the ultimate ride that we will train for all winter and spring and then make a reality in the balmy summer sun next year. And once again we have a fine Rapha publication devoted to the mountains as 2012 saw the unveiling of Graeme Fife’s third eccentric but endearing book of great road climbs, this one devoted to the Northern Alps in France and Italy (with a soupзon of Switzerland).

This beautiful book follows ones on the Southern Alps and the Pyrenees, reviewed as well here at Pezcyclingnews. It is in similar format, with an equally fine presentation of maps, climb profiles and astonishingly lovely photographs by Pete Drinkell. In the previous volumes, the photos were just landscapes with empty roads, with the odd stray cow, but this time the photographer goes wild as there are some buildings and other signs of human activity. There is a donkey or two and, wonder of wonders, one photograph of a solitary cyclist. But, as in the previous books, one should not make the mistake from my description that there is anything dull or emotionless about these pictures.

Absolutely beautiful pictures are in this book but they're difficult to reproduce with the put the book on the bed and take a photo method!

Every climb is different and depending on the season or the weather constantly changes. The region covered in the book is thick with familiar names from great races where the combatants in the Tour de France or the Dauphinй-Liberй made their marks: the Col de la Colombiиre; the Grand-Saint-Bernard; the Col du Galibier; l’Alpe d’Huez; the Col de l’Iseran; the Madelaine—so many famous ones, so many less familiar. Divided into seven chapters by region, “the Great Road Climbs of the Northern Alps” appears to miss nothing of interest in its 300 plus pages, although the author admits to the odd climb that did not make the cut.

One of my most memorable climbs was included: the Col du Granon, which was the highest summit finish of the Tour de France until the Galibier in 2011 and was where Greg Lemond crushed Bernard Hinault’s hopes of a sixth Tour de France win in 1986 (which Fife does not mention).

The Col du Granon is very hard. It is 11.5 kms in length and offers no respite as it averages nine percent, with a maximum grade of eleven percent. The author could have described it, if he was writing some kind of normal guidebook, in a straightforward way but no. Instead he describes driving up thusly:

Reader, when you get the chance to approach the lonely summit that is the Col du Granon, do as I did: go at six o’clock on a summer morning, when the light in the valley is of silvered pewter, the peaks of the ranges to the south-west, the summits at the edge of the Massif des Ecrins, are brushed with the dawn sun’s white gold and the world is still.

He began this section by quoting from a Belgian novelist who walked up Mount Fuji thinking about Zoroastrianism; he goes on to mention a bust-enhancing bra flask (does such a thing exist?) and make a joke at the expense of actor John Wayne. This is typical of Graeme Fife’s writing, a deluge of weird facts that would be tiresome in lesser hands but brings alive the mountains. He writes of word origins in local dialects; the actions of the Resistance in World War II; interesting flora and fauna; particular incidents in the Tour de France in 1959; the writing of Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto; and the passage of the Romans.

Typical, if that word can be used, is the four page segment devoted to the Col de Saxel, an 8 km climb unknown to me. It offers fine views of Lac Lйman and the col is described as undistinguished. But Mr. Fife livens it up pretty quickly as he writes about the Celtic settlers in the area who ended up allied with the Romans. Next we segue briefly to a Savoyard hymn, then a German massacre in 1944 as we follow the road through some intermediate cols. A reference to local accordion music elicits this truly classic paragraph:

The doyenne of French accordionists, Yvette Horner, accompanied, in both senses, 11 Tours de France, 1952-1964. Born Ivana Qukovci, of Serbian origin in Tarbes in 1922, she was paid by Calor, a race sponsor, to travel in the publicity caravan on board an open-topped Citroлn Traction-Avant in floral dress, silk scarf and Mexican sombrero, pumping out a repertoire of French boulevardier tunes and light classics.

The author takes us further along the road, with yet more intermediate cols and some ski facilities before heading down into Morzine, which he does not seem to like very much, describing it as “a heap of ski junk.” However it does provide him with the opportunity to discuss an outbreak of mass hysteria in the town in 1837, and then again in 1843, when the Bishop of Annecy, attempting to perform an exorcism, had to flee for his life. It is with some relief that the Col de Saxel description ends in Les Gets, which is apparently is now the Capital of Mechanical Music but was once thought in local legend to have been founded by Jews exiled from Florence in the 14th Century.

There is clearly a whole lot to think about while grinding up all those eight percent grades on your bike. Has there ever been a guidebook for road cyclists like this before? Well, excepting the previous two volumes in the series…

The author makes no attempt to hide his intentions:

“I see here, as I have sought in the other books, to get as far away from the notion of and form of a guide as I can. There is no wilful blending of facts or disinformation for effect, but the conventional catch-all approach is wanting, as the essential ingredient of paying attention is, I hope, there aplently.”

Should you have this book, you ask? Of course. Graeme Fife does provide good descriptions of what you can expect to experience on each of these wonderful climbs and his diversions provide an entertaining complement to the cool and tranquil photographs of Pete Drinkell. The maps and profiles are useful for getting one’s bearings but what makes this book special is the sense that you are travelling in some kind of Neverland, strange and beautiful.

It is not a guidebook that merely gives directions to the traveller but instead envelopes the reader in the myths and the realities, the layers of the past both of human and natural history, languages, food, and everything that intrigues us there among the exposed bones of the Earth in the Northern Alps. With his now having covered the Northern and Southern Alps as well as the Pyrenees, my only fear is that Graeme Fife will run out of mountains before his readers run out of shelf space.

“The Great Climbs of the Northern Alps”
By Graeme Fife
Photography by Pete Drinkell
Rapha Racing Limited, 2012, pp. 320, hardbound
ISBN 978-0-955-8254-4-6
Suggested Price: Ј45 at

When not hoping that Graeme Fife will in fact write a book on the Swiss Alps, Leslie Reissner may be found attempting to get in shape for a ride there in Summer 2013 at


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