Much of the August 2007 issue of Germany’s Tour magazine was devoted to the joy of climbing. There was a lovely essay that I felt was worth including here at Travels with a Tin Donkey in my own translation.
To conquer passes is his great passion: TOUR author Dres Balmer has already climbed passses beyond number in the Alps and the Pyrenees, most of them several times. In this essay, he sets out his personal philosophy of cycling passes.
Mountain passes divide landscapes, cultures, languages and countries. Pass roads, in contrast, want to bring them together. But to travel over passes by bicycle is a labourious exercise. People who don’t do this kind of thing shake their heads and wonder why cyclists would willingly subject themselves to it. Cyclists do it simply because the pass is there, because it towers thousands of meters above, because it has a meaningful name, because it has 48 beautiful hairpin turns and at the top it is decorated with snow like a cake with whipped cream. They do it because on the other side the road goes down into another valley, another language, another country where you can find out of what use are dreams. This is something strong, simple, elementary, primordial and it has something to do with longing as well.
The pass is a big, thick piece of cake that wants to be eaten. The cyclist believes it is whispering: “I am waiting for you.” The cyclist accepts this challenge, thinking: “I will demolish you.” But if the cyclist does it too quickly, a stomachache is the reward. It is much more refined to dawdle around the little cake, quietly, with pretty tableware. The cyclist can think he must conquer the pass. He can attack it with all his strength, putting the street behind him meter by meter. He can study little books that tell about distance and elevation and grades, suggesting gearing and thereby degrading the pass into a piece of workout equipment. This cyclist has not grasped the spirit of the landscape and he remains a show-off, boasting of his strength, as the blessings of mountain cycling remain denied to him, even if he would be faster.
Passes are cultural assets. They have a lot to do with history, with stories, with the beautiful and the less beautiful. Often there is an evocation of the character of the pass and its connection with the people living there, singing of the crossing into the next land, going where the lemon trees blossom. One thinks of the Stelvio Pass, undoubtedly. One of the worst battles of the First World War took place here at this then-border crossing. For three long winters the Tiroleans and the Italians harassed each other until at the end of the butchery one hundred thousand men had fallen. The neutral Swiss sat across the border marking this intersection of three languages and learned through field glasses how you make world history.
Happily, the passes are peaceful now. They wait there for us, inviting us to ride up. But against nature, against landscape, there is not much we can do, even when cycling up a pass. Nature and landscape are always stronger and we have to make them our friends. When we begin to climb we must enter into a dialogue with them, a joyful one when we speak to the mountains and take in their mood with our legs, our breath, heart, eyes and understanding. If you have some training in your legs you can play with the pass roads, never going into the red zone. When you can feel the blood beating in your temples, let up and relax as it is bad form to get to the top with a beet-red face and a tired brain.
On the subject of the brain, it is amazing what thoughts pour through it during a climb! Banalities, often: the unusually high cost of your last phone bill; the name of a South Sea atoll; the address of a friend to whom you will send a picture postcard of the pass. Why is it here that you dig around for lines of a poem you once had to memorize? The best would be, one thinks, not to think at all but not thinking never works. So just let the thoughts flutter through your brain like butterflies.
At the foot of a climb you are often passed by impetuous cyclists. Some of them offer no greeting and this is annoying and in the first moment you think: “I’ll show him!” and start to chase. It is smarter to let the others go and remain true to your own rhythm. Often you will meet up with them again, just a bit up the road and deep into their red zones, gasping for breath, wordless. It is a rule of thumb to climb at the speed where you have enough breath to carry on a conversation with your friends. Then you can discuss why so many people who in normal life are educated and intelligent throw taste to the wind and cycle in the beautiful alpine world wearing the ugliest jerseys in existence, billboards for coffee machines, a bank or a lottery company.
Sometimes things go differently: there are greetings, people chat, they ride the climb together, exchange the lead, gain courage and tell cycling tall tales. Before you realize it, you have reached the summit. Proud and a bit sad that the road is already finished. At the top of the pass it is windy and cold, the prices are a rip-off and the souvenirs pure kitsch. But this doesn’t mean anything and even coffee machines, banks and lotteries are all one and the same. It is here and now that the bliss of climbing reaches its real high.