April 2010

By Graham Jones
CyclingRevealed Historian



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Temple of Doom, Field of Dreams

Since the very early days cycle race organisers have sought to create challenges that would take man and machine to the brink of feasibility. As with most sport, the objective was to make money from a superior athletic spectacle. With modern road racing we look at the cobbled classics and the lofty mountains of the Grand Tours as the extremes which inspire awe and admiration of the pro peloton.

Lapize: "Assassins..."
[photos from Archive ]

Paris-Roubaix and the Tour of Flanders in particular, are the closest that we can get to the conditions raced by the pioneers of the sport during its early decades. Back then cobbles and unmade (or poorly surfaced) roads were normal. In fact those types of conditions were very common even into the 1960’s.

Until the modern post-war era, bikes lacked the superb technology which is now commonly available to us all. Even into the 1970’s, steel bike with clinchers, leather saddles, toe clips and woollen clothing were still common. Prior to the 1930’s racing bikes had either a single gear or two if the wheel was fitted with two sprockets. As the 1920’s gave way to the 1930’s gear blocks and changers (crude mechanical affairs at first) started to dominate the pro peloton.

It was the combination of terrible road conditions and antiquated bike technology that initially helped race organisers to produce epic races. Henri Desgrange (Tour de France founder) was continually pushing the envelope in his dream to create the perfect bike race. In 1910 he introduced the Pyrenees and immediately the rugged ascents of the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet and Aubisque became known by the riders as the “circle of death”. The fact that the roads were little more than logging trails roamed by bears, was no more than mere details to Desgrange. On that first day in those mountains Desgrange waited for hours at the base of the Aubisque. When the first rider finally appeared he could not, or would not, speak. About a quarter of an hour later Octave Lapize (who went on to win that Tour) rode by, glared at Desgrange and spat out the word “assassin”.

It is said that Desgrange was extremely pleased with the rider response. The almost inhumane ‘torture’ imposed on his racers became fertile fodder for his famous articles. His colorful and sometimes fanciful prose helped to dramatically increase sales of his newspaper. And ultimately that was the objective of his efforts. His point in creating extreme routes was that the Giants of the Road, as he called the peloton, demanded Roads of the Giants. And thus the colorful lexicon of cycling was born. To this very day we still know Desgrange’s collection of Pyrenean climbs as the ‘circle of death’ and, due to easier access, these monster ascents now draw millions of spectators to the Tour’s roadside.

The infamous Koppenberg climb
[photos from CyclingRevealed

But it has not just been the monster climbs of the Alps, Pyrenees and Dolomites that have become almost hallowed temples of cycling. The “Hell of the North” (as Paris Roubaix is lovingly known) and the “Helligen”, cobbled climbs, of the Tour of Flanders have become icons of the sport.

In the Roubaix Velodrome a battle weary, mud encrusted Bernard Hinault had just won the 1981 Paris-Roubaix. An interviewer asked him his opinion of the race. “It’s a pile of shit”. “Will you ride it again?” asked the interviewer. “Sure it’s the most beautiful race in the world”. Everyone around exploded in laughter. And therein lies the secret to the continued fascination with cycle racing for riders and fans alike.

While mountains, cobbles, unmade roads and adverse weather may turn races into Temples of Doom for riders not up to the challenge. Those that succeed see them as their fields of dreams where they build their reputation and even legends.

Most cycle racing fans are more than familiar with the 20 or so cobbled sectors of Paris-Roubaix. They have been part of the race for a century. Likewise the two dozen or so cobbled ‘helligen’ climbs of the Tour of Flanders have burnt their way into cycling lore. Climbs like the Tourmalet, Galibier, Alpe ‘d’Huez and the Hautacam of the Tour de France, and the Stelvio, Gavia and Sestriere of the Giro d’Italia, are synonymous with the names of every great champion going back to the beginning of the sport. Yet cycling is not living on history alone.

The New Wave
Most of the familiar stretches of roads in all Five Monuments and the three Grand Tours have been annual fixtures throughout the history of cycling. However in recent years bold experiments to introduce new challenges is demonstrating that the formula to create truly great cycle races has in fact changed little.

Spanish sign announcing the Angliru
[photos from Archive]

For example in 1999 the Vuelta a Espa ña introduced the brutal Alto del Angliru climb in the Asturias mountains in the north of Spain. This 12.5km climb averages 10.13% and is close to 24% at it’s steepest. In 2002 it wasraining hard on the Angliru. Team cars stalled and could not get traction again. Crashes and punctures were numerous and it was virtually impossible to get mechanics to riders needing help. Britains David Millar crashed three times on the climb and just as he approached the finish line he stopped and handed in his race number out of protest and sheer disgust. He had been ninth on GC at the time and later, on reflection, regretted his act and apologised to his team. In 1910 Octave Lapize spat out “assassins” to Desgrange. Nearly a century later his spirit lives on!

In Italy the Giro d’Italia recently introduced Monte Zoncolan and the Plan de Corones climbs. Both ascents feature brutally steep ramps and include unmade or very poor quality sections of road. There are three ways up the Zoncolan and each route is a leg breaking ascent of between 9 and 13.5kms with average grades exceeding 9% and featuring sections as steep as 24%. Both climbs are hated by the teams and riders which only adds to their attraction for the fans. This year, 2010, the Giro features both the Zoncolan and the Plan de Corones. The race up the Plan de Corones will be a 12.5km time trial on a road that is unmade in it’s upper reaches, tilting up to 24% as it approaches the ski resort.

The dirt roads of Montepaschi Strada Bianche
[photos from Archive]

While the Grand Tours are finding new horrors that sew fear into the riders hearts and total excitement for road-side and TV/internet fans, Italy has come up with another race destined to become a classic. The Montepaschi Strade Bianche is a stroke of innovative brilliance that has captured the imagination of fans and riders alike. First run in 2007, this one day race courses across the white gravel roads of the Chianti hills in Tuscany near Sienna. When dry, riders create huge plumes of white dust. When wet the white dust turns to mud and sticks to the riders tires like glue. Covering approximately 190kms, the race typically includes eight sections of dirt road with some sections over 10kms long.

For over 100 years races like the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix have established their legendary reputations with names like the Arenberg Forest and the Mur de Grammont which are known to every cycling fan around the world. Along the sinuous dirt roads of the Montepaschi the fifth dirt section, known as the Monte Santa Maria, seems destined to become similarly known, loved, hated and respected depending upon a riders or fans viewpoint. This section is 11.5kms long and includes two challenging climbs. But here, as with many of the other dirt sections, it is the descents, many off-camber,  that test the skills of weary riders looking like something out of cycling’s very early pioneering days.

In recent years the Grand Tours have started to incorporate sections of the great one day classics into their race routes. This year Giro is scheduled to tackle some sections of the Montepaschi roads and the Tour de France will be bouncing over some of the cobbled horrors of the Paris-Roubaix course.

Those racers who aspire to become truly great champions may, along with the rest of the peloton, hate having to race on ancient roads or up almost impossible climbs, but they understand that it is exactly these ‘battlefields’ that are the crucibles of legends. Like moths to a flame, it seems that every year increasing numbers of fans are drawn to these irresistible Temples of Doom that for the chosen few champions become Fields of Dreams.

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