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Higher Calling is a book that will resonate with all cyclists who cycle up big hills voluntarily. Those who fit that description recognise that non-cyclists (and some cyclists) don't understand why we would want to do it – let alone enjoy doing it. Whichever group you are in, if you want help understanding (or justifying) the appeal then this is the book for you.
It's certainly no coffee table book with glorious images of mountains: there are only a few small black and white pictures, so they are not the main attraction. It isn't a guide to all the best climbs for cyclists, although some mountains are ridden, and some guidance is given. And it doesn't relive all the epic battles in races that have taken place on mountain slopes over the years, although some are mentioned, and author Max Leonard frequently refers to their importance in cycling's history.
Those references to the world of pro cycling are one of the four themes Leonard explores throughout the book; another is the psychology of climbing, 'about the mental challenges we face – and seek – in the hills'.
The third part is called 'How is that even possible', and acknowledges that 'one of the big draws of cycling in the mountains is the physical exertions it demands'.
The fourth has the same heading, and 'might be the most neglected of all the strands'. It's about the reason for the roads being there, 'the geopolitics that have shaped human life in the mountains', and it covers the most wide-ranging and eclectic selection of topics.
Leonard explores a lot of mountain-related matters over the 10 chapters – some are to be expected, some are entirely unexpected, and all are informative. It makes for a delightful and varied mixture, and the book is full of anecdotes and musings that you can think about (or tell your companions) as you winch your way up any climb.
He investigates the story that the categorisation of mountain climbs by race organisers is based on the gear required by a Citroen 2CV to conquer the gradient, and debunks the myth because the categorisation appears 'a year before the advent of the 2CV'.
The issues surrounding altitude training and the appeal to cycling teams are discussed: it can certainly be effective, but as Professor Hugh Montgomery says, 'The main reason that people do it...is as a way of legally blood doping.' Achieving the same effect through the use of EPO is not allowed under current rules, but is the distinction logical?
The coverage of some of the wars that have taken place in the mountains, and the legacy they have left behind, definitely belongs to that fourth strand. In many cases that legacy includes the roads themselves, as 'the ground beneath our wheels has been won and lost, defended and fought over fiercely' – which is to be expected when so many mountain ranges mark the borders between countries.
Equally thought-provoking was the discussion about rural depopulation, and how one of the results in the high mountains is a reduction in the number of farmers and an increase in wolves – followed by an increase in attacks on livestock. I did say that some of the topics were unexpected.
The one mountain that Leonard returns to throughout the book is the Col de la Bonette, as it encapsulates so much of what is discussed in the book: it is not the most famous, or longest, or steepest, and not really the highest, despite what is often claimed. They even built an extra loop of road (the Cime) onto the pass (the Col), which serves no purpose other than to claim the prestige of being the highest tarmac in Europe – which would then release enough state funds to maintain the whole road. They got the money, but not the title.
Leonard opens the book with a story of two men called George Mallory. The first was a British explorer who died while trying to become the first person to summit Mount Everest, and was responsible for the most famous answer ever to the question 'why?': Because it's there.
The second is his grandson, who is responsible for the concept of 'Everesting' by cyclists, which is to climb the equivalent of the full height of Everest in a 24-hour period on the same climb. It required the arrival of GPS and the internet to become as popular as it has, which prompts more stories for Leonard to pursue.
One of those is Strava: 'the name means 'strive' in Swedish'. It was launched in 2009, though the founders had the idea for 'a virtual locker room' more than 10 years earlier – but at that time the technology wasn't sufficiently advanced to allow the idea to work. It has become popular very quickly because 'it simply tapped into cyclists' pre-existing thoughts and desires'. It is no coincidence that the King and Queen of the Mountain leader boards are so popular on Strava.
The book is aimed at helping you understand the question, 'why do road cyclists go to the mountains?' I would say that if you already 'get' the attraction, not only will you enjoy the book, you will identify with much of what Leonard says; if you don't 'get' the appeal, then you might not be converted, but you will at least be better informed.
You can shave £6 of the full price by choosing an eBook, and a further pound if you wait until May for the paperback version.
Love them or hate them, you won't find a more unusual book about mountains
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road.cc test report
Make and model: Higher Calling - Road Cycling's Obsession with the Mountains
Size tested: n/a
Tell us what the product is for
From Yellow Jersey Press:
Why do road cyclists go to the mountains?
After all, cycling up a mountain is hard – so hard that, to many non-cyclists, it can seem absurd. But, for some, climbing a mountain gracefully (and beating your competitors up the slope) represents the pinnacle of cycling achievement. The mountains are where legends are forged and cycling's greats make their names.
Many books tell you where the mountains are, or how long and how high. None of them ask 'Why?'
Why are Europe's mountain ranges professional cycling's Wembley Stadium or its Colosseum? Why do amateurs also make a pilgrimage to these high, remote roads and what do we see and feel when we do?
Why are the roads there in the first place?
Higher Calling explores the central place of mountains in the folklore of road cycling. Blending adventure and travel writing with the rich narrative of pro racing, Max Leonard takes the reader from the battles that created the Alpine roads to the shepherds tending their flocks on the peaks, and to a Grand Tour climax on the 'highest road in Europe'. And he tells stories of courage and sacrifice, war and love, obsession and elephants along the way.
Tell us some more about the technical aspects of the product?
Title: Higher Calling
Author: Max Leonard
Publisher: Yellow Jersey Press
I have marked it down for the lack of picture interest
Tell us what you particularly liked about the product
The unexpected topics that are explored.
Tell us what you particularly disliked about the product
The pictures could have been better.
Did you enjoy using the product? Yes
Would you consider buying the product? Yes
Would you recommend the product to a friend? Yes
Use this box to explain your overall score
Don't be put off by the topic if you are a non-climber: the book provides many unexpected and interesting thoughts about mountains, bringing new perspectives to our attention.
About the tester
I usually ride: My best bike is:
I've been riding for: Over 20 years I ride: Every day I would class myself as: Expert
I regularly do the following types of riding: commuting, touring, club rides, sportives, general fitness riding