The mountains have names.
They have dates of birth.
They have a personality; they’re like men staring at you from the top. They don’t care about the riders. Those dwarfs climbing their roads, are impossible to be felt. Bicycles are light, the subtle wheels go round and round slowly, while thin legs try to stand up and not to slow down too much.
The great Tours (they are actually three in the world: Giro d’Italia, Tour the France and Vuelta d’Espana), are the way in which these countries discovered their shape. Who cared about the hexagonal shape of France before the Tour? Who thought about the different kinds of mountains? Who knew that mountains were so different?
Building the Tour, as building the Giro or the Vuelta, became a self-consciousness process of the countries at the beginning of XX century. The newspapers told the names of cities, of places, and the local riders came back from touring the rest of the country telling what it was like. A circular idea of the country imposed itself, with every part of wishing to be on the map, thus demonstrating its existence.
The Tour comprehends two main kinds of Montains: the Alps and the Pyrenees. The Alps are usually higher, steeper, with strong pendency. The Pyrenees are lower, with longer uphill, very long, that in the hot days of June tire the cyclists who can’t go too slow.
The French of the North, didn’t know anything about the rest of France. The ones who lived in the Alps, barely knew about the Pyrenees and viceversa.
In the middle, always in the south of France, there is the Massif Central. Between Alps and Pyrenees, these mountains, not very difficult, like the Puy de Dome, interval usually plain stages and provide a medium difficulty for riders who wait one of the two main mountain chains to appear on the horizon.
These mountains existed, the people around them knew of them, but they were on no map. They stood, useless, cold and covered with snow in winter, and hot with mule tracks in the summer. The cyclists themselves did not believe they could climb them.
The bicycles didn’t have gears. The cyclists would stop at the base of the mountains, turn the back wheel, that had two sprockets on both sides, and try to go up.
In the first years, the Tour rode only the mild Vosges, not daring to try mountains that, actually, had no roads, apart from some paths that did not really look like roads. Renè Pottier in 1906 ride his bicycle until the top of the Balon D’Alsace. Pottier won that tour, but also, tragically inaugurated a tragic gallery of grimpeurs that cannot resist life outside the race, and killed himself the year after.
In 1910, the Tour for the first time, climbed the Pyrenees. Alphonse Steinès, who worked for Desgrange at “L’Auto”, had the idea to try the Tourmalet, the highest road between France and Spain. He almost died when, a month before the race, he crossed it in metres of snow. a local guide found him, and back to the hotel he thought what to write. “Crossed Toumalet stop. Very good road stop. Perfectly feasible”.
The first one to cross the Tourmalet during the race was François Lafurcade. He didn’t say anything. The race had begun at 3.30 am, and he was just trying to get to the end. Octave Lapize, the second, cried: “you’re murderers, murderers!”. But the mountain was won.
The litany Obisque-Tourmalet-Colduportetd’Aspin-Peyresurde, to pronounce altogether in one go, became familiar in all the countries like Italy, Belgium, Spain, Netherland, Germany and England, which followed the Tour at the time. The people didn’t know where they were, but they were aware of the terrible combination of fatigue, heat, strength, required to go up there.
After the Pyrenees, it was time for the Alps, and quickly came the Galibier, the Madeleine, the Izoard, Telegraph, that, combined, would decree the winners of the Tour. Because, in order to win the Tour, you have to go through two series of two or three consecutive stages in the mountains. And every mountain is the result of a process of creation of the myth, usually associated to some tragedy or great effort.
Mountains is where things happen. Where small men who’d have no chance to compete, all at once become strong, for their weakness and their lightness. The game is to gain as much advantage going up in order to resist with all their strength in the races against time, the feared chronometer.
So the mountains, that represent the hardest stage of the Tour, are also the most benevolent opportunity for the most unlikely of cyclists to try to win. Here, they can shrug off all the limitation of their bodies to try to fly where the others can’t go.
The Tour became great for its mountains. Some of them now are not so difficult as they were: there are roads with asphalt, the bicycles are lighter, with 20 or so gears, everybody goes up there for sports. But still they are the turning point of the race, posing unanswered questions to anybody who has to try them.
Because, at the end of it all, the mountains are a challenge against ourselves, and the first one to beat is our desire to avoid them, our deep scare to not be men enough to make it to the top.