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A Case for Suffering: Climbing the inclined plane

In his latest entry, Chris Case talks about finishing a 100-mile ride with almost 16,500 feet of climbing

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In January 1910, only months from the start of the Tour de France, Alphones Steinès, the course designer under the leadership of organizer Henri Desgrange, set off to find some high mountain passes to add new flavor to the Tour route. It was an idea he had pestered Desgrange with for years; whereas Desgrange was afraid the racers would be incapable of riding over high passes in inhumane conditions making the Tour a farce, Steinès felt that placing such magnificent obstacles in the way of these men would allow them to demonstrate an unfathomable ability to ascend and, in so doing, grow the public’s adulation for their athleticism, will, and determination.

Steinès headed for the Pyrenees, on a mission to evaluate roads and conditions and report back to Desgrange.

In Pau, in southern France, he hired a driver and set out for the Col du Tourmalet, buried under Pyrenean snows so deep that the pair couldn’t drive but halfway up the highest road in the range. Steinès abandoned the car — and, it would seem, any sense of safety — and, with the aid of a shepherd, managed to find his way to the summit, only to become disoriented in the growing darkness and fall into a ravine. At 3 a.m. he was discovered by a search party. The next morning, he sent a telegram to Desgrange: “No trouble crossing the Tourmalet. Roads satisfactory. No snow.”

And so it was that the Pyrenean cols of the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, and Aubisque found a place in the 1910 Tour, and Tour history forevermore. It may have also been the birth of cycling’s obsession with climbing the most precipitous, arduous, soul-wrenching ramps on the Earth’s topography.

Here in Boulder, Colorado, we have equally sick individuals to Steinès, those who like to reach into the depths of themselves, or others (these are the promoters), and tap great athleticism, will, determination, strength, stupidity, and that all important quality of pain tolerance. In 1910, a climbing revolution began, and it rages on today as the lithe among us try to cram as many meters of vertical gain into as few miles as any map will allow.

Enter the Fearsome Five. Boulder county has its fair share of precipitous steep canyon climbs, and the F5 is an attempt to take in as many of them as possible, while keeping the ride as close to 100 miles as possible. Mark Lowe, a member of the Rocky Mountain Cycling Club, routed us over the five devils in as cruel a configuration as he could imagine. We gathered in downtown Boulder on a chilly Sunday morning. Casual chatter was mixed with curious glances toward gearing choice. Then, with Mark’s gentle words about the torture that we were about to face, we rolled out, north through town to the first of what would actually be eight distinct climbs. Five of them are monsters, and, in total, those who would finish would climb nearly 16,500 feet. Who could really say, but some suggested it was the hardest century in the U.S.

Maybe their names don’t ring out like Tourmalet and Aubisque, but the details of these climbs are, nonetheless, impressive.

Olde Stage Road: 2.9 miles at 4.8% (16% maximum)
SuperJames: 9.4 miles at 5.2% (11% maximum)
West Lee Hill: 1.3 miles at 7.1% (15% maximum)
Bow Mountain: 2.8 miles at 6.7% (18% maximum)
Sunshine Canyon: 9.0 miles at 6.2% (12% maximum)
Sugarloaf Mountain: 4.7 miles at 7.6% (12% maximum)
Magnolia Road: 4.5 miles at 9.1% (17% maximum)
SuperFlagstaff: 4.6 miles at 8.2% (14% maximum)

A lead group of five, myself included, quickly established itself, despite any attempt to distance the 30 other riders in this challenge. That’s the thing about a ride like this; yes, we were wearing numbers, simply for identification purposes at checkpoints, but this wasn’t exactly a race. You had a maximum of 11 hours. Go ride. Go fast. Or not.

I wanted to test myself, not only because I’m always wanting to test myself, but because I’m gearing up for some longer races (including the Ronde 100, a re-creation of the original 324km Tour of Flanders, and Dirty Kanza 200, on consecutive weekends). As many miles as I can gobble up between now and then, the better off I’ll be.

And, of course, I love to climb.

To me, there’s no better character-shaping discipline than climbing. If you’re heavy or light, predisposed to floating or destined to sink, you can learn more about what you’re capable of — and what you’re incapable of, or how deep you can go, or how badly you want more, or what joy can be wrung from the difficult — through the slope of a KOM segment than any town sprint. At least for me. Maybe that’s because the rise over run of a climb is really about the mind over matter inside your skull. You versus physics. The fascinating power of the brain.

The irony, of course, is that the simple machine that is the ramp — the inclined plane — is meant to make the work of moving things easier. At least that’s what any textbook would tell you. The trade-off is that to save effort, you have to move things a greater distance. The longer the climb, the easier the grade. Tell that to any cyclist 25 miles into a climb up 14,265-foot Mount Evans. It ain’t easy. Nor were the shorter and steeper climbs we were tackling on this day.

Still, to rate one climb against another is to miss the point of getting to the top. There’s nothing that tests your ability to defy physics — for however long you can handle — than turning skyward. And getting to the top of whatever mountain you happen to be climbing is meaningful for myriad reasons. They’re as hard as you want them to be, or need them to be. And if you aren’t into it, you can always turn around and coast. Maybe it’s just like life.

When asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, it is often said that British mountaineer George Mallory famously quipped, “Because it’s there.” Unfortunately, he never said just that, but it makes for a good tale. If you go deeper, you’ll learn that Mallory was an artist and a philosopher as much as he was a mountaineer. If you read his longer explanations of why he climbed, you can glean much about why anyone would want to climb anything — for the first time in history, or the first time in your life, faster than you’ve ever gone before, by bike or by foot.

How to get the best of it all? One must conquer, achieve, get to the top; one must know the end to be convinced that one can win the end — to know there’s no dream that mustn’t be dared…Is this the summit, crowning the day? How cool and quiet! We’re not exultant; but delighted, joyful, soberly astonished. Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves. Have we gained success? That word means nothing here. Have we won a kingdom? No…and yes. We have achieved an ultimate satisfaction…fulfilled a destiny. To struggle and to understand — never this last without the other; such is the law.

Back in Boulder, we all kept climbing away, some slower than others, all of us churning internally and externally, rhythmically singing with our legs as our heads told us the fat lady had started a tune. I rolled along for most of the ride quiet and alone, in the best of ways. I had found a place for placid, metronomic contemplation. But I was never lonely; I felt a continual presence of everything and everyone that has made me push. My legs filled with the combustible spirit of rotation, turn upon turn. Rhythmic, yes, the revolution of the cranks like steps on the circumambulation of a sacred summit. Methodical.

Seven hours and 47 minutes after the churning had begun, I rolled up to the last checkpoint, turned in my card which proved I had climbed to the top of each climb (there were questions on the card that could only be answered by getting to the top, e.g. “There is a sign opposite the mailboxes on the top of Flagstaff summit. What does it say?”); I had “won.” I had been chased all day by a cadre of strong riders, each in their own worlds of inclined planes and, I feel it’s safe to assume, thoughts of real food and inner struggles to turn circles with their spindly legs. They understood why they were there, and what they were doing to themselves.

In the words of Mallory, climbing makes perfect sense, to those who do it.

If you don’t understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of [a] mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life…

I’ve already contacted Mark about next year’s course. Together, I hope we can make it harder, and more joyful. Long live long climbs.

Editor’s note: Managing editor Chris Case has spent enough time racing parking lot crits to know there are far more enjoyable ways to spend time racing a bike. In his quest to find pain and pleasure in equal measure, he has sought out the most unique, challenging, and captivating competitions to test his mind, body, and equipment. Follow along with his experiment to race the best and most difficult courses, the iconic and the emerging, the most punishing and most promising, on and off road. Live vicariously through him, poke fun at him, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram @leicacase. Questions or concerns for his well-being? Send him a note at [email protected]