Words: Jack Thurston Illustrations: Jo Burt
Mountains possess a dangerous allure – that stomach-churning sense of foreboding when you first glimpse the dark slab of rock looming above as you approach along the valley floor.
Squinting, peering up at the summit ridge, so far away, so far up, you say to yourself, “Yes, that’s where I’m going.” You then look down and think, “But these legs, can they get me there? Can they?”
Whether you are an elite racer or cyclotouriste, riding up a mountain means riding on the edge. Hit it too hard, raise your effort beyond your body’s limits and you’re certain to blow up.
Once you crack, there’s no coming back – just a new definition of pain as you struggle around every hairpin, every turn of the pedals demanding a monumental effort. Nowhere to run to, nowhere to hide.
So you try to find a rhythm, a perfect beat. You stay in the saddle and stroke the pedals. Keeping your arms wide, hands on the outside of the brake hoods, you open up those lungs and breathe deeply.
You’re desperate to take in more air. It’s getting thinner every minute. Don’t grimace, don’t frown: it will cost you energy and, what’s more, it will show the world how much you’re hurting.
Slowly, imperceptibly, as you advance onwards and upwards, your awareness draws in closer around you.
You follow the wheel ahead, or the white lines on the road, dash-dash-dash, a meaningless Morse code leading you onwards, upwards. Wisely, you don’t look up at the ridge to see how far is still to go.
Instead you look down at your sweat dripping on to the bars; you feel it saturating your eyebrows, salt stinging your eyes. Your lungs are two great bellows, filled with doubt. Why can’t I take in more oxygen, why are my legs so hungry, why is my mouth so dry?
Climbing brings a simplicity and a purity to road racing. On flatter terrain where speeds are so much greater, the laws of aerodynamics come into play, shaping the peloton into bunches and echelons, requiring riders to work together.
In the mountains, gravity is the enemy, not wind, and each rider knows that ultimately he will ride alone.
Extract from issue 17.