Mountains of the Mind

i knew at some point i’d get round to writing about hills, the thought and the intention has been there since i started to write these tentative pages, and today is as good a day as any, having got it right on belmont and experienced the euphoria of accelerating over the crest, knowing i judged it perfectly. i seek them out when on the bike – and feel unfulfilled if out riding with someone leading and and there is a palpable absence of ascents. i get edgy, and feel as though the day has been wasted; but become excited when hills appear, sensing from the layout of the landscape that at a key moment the terrain will shift and the battle with the contours will begin, the road rolling upwards in short shifts in the way english hills tend to do.

some of my favourite hills in the UK include: toys hill near westerham- a nasty and very steep climb i used to ride up with chums when living in london; ditchling beacon near brighton – a bit of a mecca and the nadir (paradoxically) for pootlers or bromptonauts on the annual L2B run (or chaos on bikes).

I also like burrington combe and any of the Mendip climbs – cheddar gorge, blagdon, belmont, backwell, dearleap – with their varying degrees of savagery. whilst visiting my mother up north i have tackled lots of west yorkshire beasts; these tend to be sudden and very sharp indeed – chat hill road, hebden bridge, widdop, trawden being prime suspects. the mendip climbs in particular have had an effect on others; most notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge, an early moutaineer (see robert macfarlane’s fantastic book ‘mountains of the mind‘) who wrote about the sublime, the profound feeling emerging from being on the precipice; of mountains and the effect on the soul (when not busy taking liquid opium and destroying himself). He even wrote about Brockley Coombe, a sub-mendip climb – now quite a shallow and steady road that runs up to the bristol airport, but then a stony ascent through woods.

With many a pause and oft reverted eye
I climb the Coomb’s ascent: sweet songsters near
Warble in shade their wild-wood melody:
Far off the unvarying Cuckoo soothes my ear.
Up scour the startling stragglers of the flock
That on green plots o’er precipices browse:
From the deep fissures of the naked rock
The Yew-tree bursts! Beneath its dark green boughs
(‘Mid which the May-thorn blends its blossoms white)
Where broad smooth stones jut out in mossy seats,
I rest: -and now have gained the topmost site.
Ah! what a luxury of landscape meets
My gaze! Proud towers, and Cots more dear to me,
Elm-shadowed Fields, and prospect-bounding Sea.
Deep sighs my lonely heart: I drop the tear:
Enchanting spot! O were my Sara here.

I think of Coleridge when riding up the Coombe, it’s funny to think of him ascending by foot, possibly on one of his perambulations from nether stowey to bristol. my preferred gear when riding for ‘pleasure’ is round about 72″, which is perfect for Brockley, and i regularly do training rides in and around the mendips on a fixed wheel, building stamina and leg power. this year i rode the burrington hillclimb and geared down to a 65″. i was one of four riders riding fixed in a  field of 60 and came 5th overall. the climb was won by tejvan pettinger, a slip of a boy with quite a pedigree, riding a gossamer-light bicycle.  i beat the national men’s v4 champion by 4 seconds, the national woman’s champion by over a minute (for what it’s worth, i was pleased anyway) and was the first bristol south rider across the line – gaining my first ever trophy. tejvan was a further 40 seconds ahead of me; i shall endeavour to narrow the gap for next year, at which point i will be aiming to build form solely for the nationals, which i think is in gloucestershire, and hope against hope for a top thirty finish.

this summer i spent some time in the alps, riding up mythical tour climbs which alternately blew my mind and tore my legs off. the galibier, lautaret, alpe d’huez and les deux alpes. it built a degree of strength though, and i think next year i shall aim to tackle the tourmalet and a few of the pyrenean monsters – but i am also drawn back to one particular mountain: Ventoux. i tackled it two years ago on an incredibly beautiful spring day in April with no wind at all – unusually for a mountain frequently ravaged by winds in excess of 150mph. the weekend before the mountain was closed by heavy snowfall, which left high drifts on the side near the top and added to the other-worldy beauty of the landscape.

Before it had even entered the imaginative realm of cycling, it became an eye-opener for Petrach; who climbed it in the 14th century. He had this to say:
‘the mountain, which is visible from a great distance, was ever before my eyes. It is a very steep and almost inaccessible mass of stony soil. It was a long day, the air fine. We enjoyed the advantages of vigour of mind and strength and agility of body, we had no other difficulties to face than those of the region itself… but as usually happens, fatigue quickly followed upon our excessive exertion, and we soon came to a halt at the top of a certain cliff.

At first, owing to the unaccustomed quality of the air and the effect of the great sweep of view spread out before me, I stood like one dazed. The Alps, rugged and snow-capped, seemed to rise close by, although they were really at a great distance.

I rejoiced in my progress, mourned my weaknesses, and reflected on the universal instability of human conduct. I could see with the utmost clearness, off to the right, the mountains of the region about Lyons, and to the left the bay of Marseilles and the waters that lash the shores of the mediterranear, altho’ all these places were so distant that it would require a journey of several days to reach them. Under our very eyes flowed the Rhone.

Petrarch finished by describing the revelations that came to him:

men go about to wonder at the heights of the mountains, and the mighty waves of the sea, and the wide sweep of rivers, and the circuit of the ocean, and the revolution of the stars, but themselves they consider not. We look about us for what is to be found only within. …. How many times did I turn back that day, to glance at the summit of the mountain which seemed scarcely a cubit high compared with the range of human contemplation?”
The mountain in effect led to him to realise the real size of human imagination and our capacity to do achieve the infinite and transcend our humble origins. It opened his mind. Some 700 years later, Mont Ventoux retains its power to intoxicate, overwhelm and also destroy. It is famous now as one of the most difficult tour de france cycling climbs, and particularly as a mountain that has ended many cyclists hopes of winning the overall race. It holds a mythical place in cycling history, the Everest of bike racing. It appeared again this year for the 13th time, and is more dreaded than the fiercely steep Tourmalet, which has featured in the Tour 67 times. A common view is that whilst the Alps create drama, Ventoux creates tragedy.

In 1955 the Swiss veteran Ferdi Kubler attacked in scorching heat at the foot of the 14 mile climb. Raphael Geminiani warned him in no uncertain terms: “Beware, Ferdi, the Ventoux is not a climb like the others.” Yet Kubler, wearing a cotton racing cap, unaware of the perils of hubris, the visor turned up like a challenge, replied: ” I’m not a rider like the others.” In the stifling and heavy heat he fell like Breughel’s Icarus; the arcane and dangerous rules on water bottles no doubt sealed his downfall… the Ventoux was suffocating. Geminiani saw Kubler weaving around on his bike, heard him swear; he zigzagged, his nose dipping toward his handlebars, curled over his frame, with his cap now turned askew. At one point he accidentally went the wrong way back down the mountain; such was his mental and physical exhaustion. He left the tour that evening and never rode again.

The most famous British cyclist ever, until the current glut of worldbeaters, Tommy Simpson, rode up in 1967 in stifling heat. He was under real pressure to improve on his previous placing of 6th overall in the tour, but had been suffering in the run up with a debilitating stomach complaint. Nearing the top, past Chalet Reynard, he began to weave wildly across the road before he fell down. He was delirious and (alledgedly) asked spectators to put him back on the bike, which he rode to within a half mile of the summit before collapsing, still clipped into his pedals. Simpson was transported by helicopter to the Avignon hospital where he died that evening. There is a memorial to Simpson near the summit which has become a shrine to fans of cycling, who often leave small tokens of remembrance there. i recommend Vin Denson’s autobiography, as well as Put Me Back on My Bike, for a moving – and honest – account of his death. In 1970, even the cannibal, Eddy Merckx, the most famous cyclist of all, rode himself to the brink of collapse while winning the stage, as did Andy Hampstein.  Merckx received oxygen, recovered, and won the Tour. In 1955, it forced Rick Van Genechten and others to abandon the race and even Lance Armstrong never won on ventoux.

Even before i got to the Ventoux, it had embedded itself in my psyche, the knowledge lurking that i would be tackling the climb in a matter of weeks, then days, then hours, a knowledge underscored by the awareness that it was a possibly beyond me. I had no way of knowing until I tried. The day before I was anxious, and even on the climb itself was constantly worried that it might be too much. Knowing, after 45 minutes, and 7 miles, that I was approaching halfway and had done the easy bit did not help. I did not overdo things, and was not racing, but even in april the heat and the effort required to cycle for nearly 2 hours uphill was extreme.  I made it in 1hr 40mins – the record is about 55 minutes by Iban Mayo – and on the way back down stopped to pay my respects at the Simpson memorial, a man who paid the ultimate price for the pursuit of glory and personal achievement. David Millar, Wiggins, Wegelius and Cavendish all did the same in this year’s race.

As to why i sought out a version of burrington coombe, but 7 times longer; i’d instinctively say that i don’t know the answer – but in truth, I do. It sought me out, and was always there, waiting; a tantalising figment of my imagination and a myth to be constructed and composed in my own words, rather than the quotes of others. And when I rounded the final bend, turning past the weather station to see the top, the sense of achievement, the view, the sense of escape from everything, was entirely novel. And now, when talking to others about cycling, about rides we have done, or the tour de france, the conversation inevitably turns to Ventoux – it featured in this year’s tour for the first time in 8 years, and I casually mention that I have ridden up the mountain, the giant, and it was difficult, but incredible. And that fact that I have done it is enough – the achievement is permanent.

the video below sums up the mythic nature of the climb, through a lovely, lyrical phil liggett commentary: “for one hundred and seventy one young men, it would be the place where they would dare to ask themselves the questions of greatness“; although the idea of a contre-la-montre up ventoux seems to be the devil’s idea.


Going back to Coleridge for almost the last word; he saw hills and mountains as an escape, a way to move further away from the suffocating claustrophobia associated with family life; his passion for climbing hills and scaling mountain peaks has an imaginative link with his internal desire for escape. The panoramic view from a peak often brings moments of intense vision; the atmosphere seems thinner, distance reduced, the air itself bracingly alive. He was, in effect, climbing out of civilisation, reflecting a longing to free himself not merely from the restraints of domesticity, but from the world. We climb to escape, but also to broaden our view and open our minds.

and this is probably the central truth, i ride uphill because at some point, somewhere along the line, everything is left behind, my body and mind soars higher, far away from the everyday. the struggle becomes transcendent, the metaphor of the mountain ceases and the moment becomes all that there is, the only compassable reality, the point where you hold eternity and truth in your hands, and pedal onwards and ever upwards.

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6 thoughts on “Mountains of the Mind

  1. Tejvan December 8, 2009 / 9:48 pm

    Good post PJ! My folks live in Yorkshire, though I tend to ride the climbs of North Yorks rather than around Hebdern Bridge. Try the climbs around Hawes and Muker some time. Long and Steep!

    • bertraum December 8, 2009 / 10:02 pm

      i will indeed – googlemap here we come! i like the solitude of west yorkshire on a sunday, but really should get up into the dales and beyond.

  2. Kieran December 10, 2009 / 12:05 am

    Great entry PJ. Very inspired to go and experience some of the great climbs of the TDF. A 2011 trip is on the cards.

  3. bertraum December 10, 2009 / 8:51 am

    i’m going over next summer, not sure where yet, possibly pyrenees, or alps or back to ventoux. endless choice.

  4. Kieran December 10, 2009 / 7:56 pm

    Doing it next year was a thought but I doubt my form will improve enough by then to make it a challenging but enjoyable experience!

  5. bertraum December 15, 2009 / 6:46 pm

    you’ll be fine – it’s more a question of time in the saddle than form, and riding within yourself.

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