If I write this column for 100 years, I will never commence it with a statement as lacking in controversy as this: everyone loves a climber.
To be a climber, it is not enough to be able to climb well. To do that all you need is a good power-to-weight ratio, and getting one of those is not difficult.
You train more and eat less, as the fitness pages of this magazine might occasionally mention.
A true climber can do that, but he or she also understands the art and the performance.
I’ll explain; the fastest way up a mountain is at a strong, consistent pace, one that is only just sustainable, with a few seconds of sprint finish at the end. (It’s essentially just like a time trial, but you must never, ever say this out loud.)
But the climber knows that if he climbs ‘badly’, he can bamboozle others into climbing even worse.
Consistency be damned, for a climber it’s about jumping out of the saddle, full attack, then slowing again, only to jump back up to take two or three pedal strokes before abruptly sitting down to assess the panic among the group.
His unpredictable style hypnotises them into following his every move, terrified that each move will be THE move. Everyone else suffers more from all the accelerations than the lightweight climber. They crack before he does, and he rides off sniggering like a flyweight Mutley.
That, at any rate, is the plan. For all the spectacle, pure climbers don’t win all that many stage races, and certainly not as many as we want them to win.
That’s because bad things happen to good climbers. The perfect grimpeur is defined as much by what they can’t do as by what they can.
For instance, I used to road race against a rider who had won several medals in the National Hill-Climb Championships. As the bunch stretched out on a climb, he used to do the whole routine.
Yet when he finally danced gleefully off the front, no one reacted.
“Shouldn’t we…?” I said, nodding up the road. “You’ll see,” said a wiser head.
Right enough, on the first corner of the descent there was a Simon-shaped hole in the hedge. He eventually reappeared in the group with twigs sticking out of his helmet.
Next lap he repeated the routine so exactly that he exited through the same hole without touching the sides.
The climber is a folk hero largely because of this sort of thing. Frankly, after going up like an angel, we like them to go down like a clown.
Watch: Which is faster – climbing in or out of the saddle?
It’s not just descending. The perfect climber has a time trial position that looks like a frog sitting on a matchbox. Ideally they time trial while wearing a skinsuit three sizes too big.
I can remember Fernando Escartin in a suit so baggy he could have turned around inside it, like one of those cats with skin so loose it can look out of its own arse. That’s how we want a climber to dress.
It’s not meanness of spirit on our behalf. It’s simply that if climbers could do other things, they wouldn’t be climbers. They’d be all-rounders. And who wants one of those? What everyone likes about a specialist climber is their fragility.
They are the polar opposite of invincible. I’m not sure if ‘vincible’ is a word, but if it is, the dictionary entry might as well be a picture of Marco Pantani.
For a climber to win a stage race using his only weapon, everything has to go perfectly. And it so very rarely does.
But the upside: when a pure climber wins a Grand Tour, shonky TTing, watching-through-your-fingers descending and all, we remember it for years.