It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle. ~Ernest Hemingway
Moving eastwards, the subject is now the Southern Alps (no, not the mountain range in New Zealand). The area covered is divided into seven regions in France and Italy: Ironhead (including the fearsome Cime de la Bonette); Lauzes (with the even scarier Mont Ventoux); Liguria; the Route Napoleon; Gorges; Maritime Alps; and the Riviera.
After a most erudite introduction, touching on geology, Roman roads, fortification construction in the time of Louis XIV, William Blake, and crossing the Alps by bus in 1913, the book begins in earnest, if that term may be used for such a discursive text. Each chapter begins with a brief overview of the region, with an attractive if not-so-detailed line drawing map, followed by a series of truly superb photos by Pete Drinkell, before descriptions of each of the individual climbs is provided, including different approaches where that is possible, along with profiles. Some of these profiles are quite frightening and the interspersed accounts of racing events (Eddy Merckx blew up here! Ferdi Kьbler blew up there! Marco Pantani fell in a heap on the side of the road here!) tend not to make them less so.
There are plenty of websites that will give you descriptions of approaches and gradients but the Rapha guidebooks are much more than simply technical information. The text is packed with a great deal of peculiar information. For example, Mr. Fife notes the omnipresence of the Virgin Mary in a wide variety of representations. But it is clear that the weight of history has been felt here, with a particular focus on the Romans, the Holy Roman Empire, Revolutionary France, and World War II. Nor has the author overlooked natural history, or word origins.
The mountain roads covered include passes made famous in the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France. For example, the first chapter includes the Cols d’Izoard, Vars and Agnel, as well as the aforementioned Bonette, but one of the many joys of this book is the more obscure but interesting climbs covered. Mont Ventoux rightfully gets close attention, but who could pass up a minor col nearby named the Col de l’Homme Mort? Or how about the Col de Pommerol?
The road is very narrow into and down the gorge between those projecting buttresses of rock, like the Symplegades, the clashing rocks at the gates of the Hellespont through which Jason’s Argo passed, protecting the upper valley. From below the cliffs to the right, look up to see the deep caves and galleries, a free-standing conical pillar, like a giant petrified termite colony, a ruined natural citadel of this underground stronghold, hacked out of the living rock which has silted down and solidified in its own rubble.
The photographs remain a strong suit and an attractive counterpart to the text’s meanders. With deep but muted colour, they present a sometimes green, sometimes hard rock world, devoid of people and cars. At least we do see sheep and even a Border Collie but otherwise it is just the landscape and always, always, the road. There is a cyclist’s perspective here, and we can feel the quality (or lack of it) of the road surface, the dampness after rain showers, the stone walls towering around us. Curves beckon ahead, and scenic overlooks provide a place to ponder and recover.
But it is not all about grinding up and down hills and looking at nature. There are tips about places to stay (if even sometimes the innkeepers are “not overburdened with bonhomie”) and a good bit of information on regional cooking and specialities. And I must say that I regret not stopping for an omelette as the top of the Col de Vars now that I read Mr. Fife’s account of it.
One of my most enjoyable cycling trips was in 2008 when I travelled the Route des Grandes Alpes, including a number of climbs in this book. Reading it now, it not only makes one want to revisit the cols but to try undiscovered ones as well. This book is as beautifully designed and produced as the Pyrenees volume and we can only rejoice that the author indicates a further volume will be produced in what is turning into Rapha’s Great Massifs of Europe series.
The Rapha Guide to the Great Road Climbs of the Southern Alps
text by Graeme Fife, photos by Pete Drinkell
319 pp., Rapha Racing Limited, 2010
Available from Rapha.
When not considering climbing in Liguria, Leslie Reissner can be found watching his life go downhill at www.TinDonkey.com