Carnage on the climb: Why does The Mountain always win?
You can say that climbers suffer the same as the other riders, but they suffer in a different way. You feel the pain, but you’re glad to be there – Richard Virenque
As much honesty as there is in words of Virenque, it should be noted that he is a popular French rider of the past who just happens to have won the King of the Mountains competition on the Tour De France a record seven times. When he uses the word suffer, he means racing up mountain finishes when even the tour contenders lie low and let the climbers take charge. For him, the pain of climbing mountains is rewarded with a wad of money, a glorious polka-dotted jersey, screaming fans, an adorable stuffed bear, bone-chilling kisses on the cheeks by a couple of models, and a post-race interview, which, hardly few tune into. I might mock him sitting behind the shine of my laptop, but deep down, the very thought of attempting to emulate a pro climber’s efforts makes me shudder in my seat. What match is a cocky, skinny lump of laze against a veteran rider notoriously recognised for his assaults on The Mountain?
There is not a microscopic shard of possibility that my abilities come in remote proximity to Virenque’s. But that doesn’t take away from my little adventures on the great Himalayan front. Out on dreary mornings, panniers loaded on my rear wheel, I can safely say that I have a limited understanding of what it takes to climb mountains and be tempted to come back for more. Over the course of three years, I have had a lot of low-scale encounters with The Mountain which have made me reconsider my feeling towards the big man. What started out as fear, slowly evolved into desperation, mutated into excitement, switched momentarily to cheeky overconfidence, has finally settled down as calculated enthusiasm. It’s been a few months since I last climbed up a slope, but memories of my previous attempts are as fresh as the air in French countryside. I’ve come to a realisation that no matter how intimate and small scale my tours might be, they’re usually packed with bursting excitement and incident. More so, while in the mountains.
The first climb was back in 2015, when the only calculated risk I took was when aiming at a cubicle in a crowded pub. Four days of sitting in the saddle, and yours truly was ready (or so I thought) for his first mountain tour. My most vivid memory is of the final day, when my mate decided to call it a day on the final climb to Manali, and we sat by the side of the road, hoping to get picked up by a genial local lorry driver. Sitting in the back with our bikes quivering in harmony, we were elated to have made acquaintance with The Mountain after a vicious 260 km uphill battle. In that moment, climbing definitely felt like the best feeling in the world, second only to the post-dump relief. Some have argued late after the midnight lager that nothing is better than sex. To them I say, try getting onto a bike, cycle up an outrageous gradient, and let me know exactly how you feel. Better yet, do the same all over again, this time with a gush of emotions looming over your bottoms.
At the end of the carnage, all a climber seeks is compassion, and it often comes in the form of a few words of encouragement over the radio, or a quick exchange with fellow riders about the damn wind. But its not so for the solo climber, no, there’s no one to leave behind to twist in the wind. At the end of it all, all I’m doing is pick my line on the climb and look out for the next milestone. For compassion, all the touring cyclist can find is a cold pint, the perennial favourite of the lonesome traveller. Going back to my second big climb, the pints were all I could think about. The climb from Bombay to Goa was rather unexpected. The seaside tarmac soon turned into verdant hills, and what seemed to be a cruise along the ocean, soon turned into a exhausting tragedy waiting to take over. Climb, sweat, pull over, watch the waves crash on the rocks, climb some more, and drop dead on the hotel bed with a beer in hand. It doesn’t get better than this, does it? Hah.
It’s at moments like these that I wonder why I put myself through such gruesome torture. What is the reason for me to take on long climbs and keep coming back for more? Riding my bike, especially in the mountains, is my form of meditation. We all have that one thing we keep going back to in times of stress and emotional turbulence. When I’m on my bike, all the troubles disappear and keeping my head up and counting my miles is all that runs in my head. Specifically, touring is what gets me going. There’s no better way for me to live my twenty-four hours. Wake, rinse, ride, eat, rinse, sleep.
Along flat roads, the architecture is fine, the meadows are lush, the pubs are plentiful and the local pride, really, is genial and endearing. In the mountains, the punishment takes its toll and the distractions seem worthless. It’s never really about ending the climb and calling it a night. Climbing is more about swimming against the tide, to try and breach one’s comfort zone and really see if flesh and bones can deliver when the beasts of burden attack. ‘Cometh the moment, cometh the man’, you know what I mean?
I once saw a road sign that said If everything comes at you, then you’re in the wrong lane. Once I’ve realised I’ve picked the wrong line to ascend the tricky hairpins through soul-sucking headwinds, the fat lady has sung, reached home, undressed, and is fast asleep. At the end of a well-deserved overnight haul, I pull out a pair of fresh socks and get ready to head out again, only to see mud stains and thorns on the cotton – a gentle reminder of what went down (or in my case, up) the previous day. Even after a good wash, the stains refuse to budge, just like my urge to saddle up, switch to first gear, and strategize my next attack on the climb.
In the last few months, the focus has switched completely to paying my regards to the Great One, more so because the joyous realisation that the upward journey is going to be a fruit of my labour is rather incomparable. When it gets tough on the legs, the coarse voice of Mick Jagger starts ringing in my ears, and a streak of cocky self-belief floods my veins, asking me to dig deep and channel that Forrest Gump vibe hiding behind tar black lungs. Pull ET, pull!
Mountains are the history books of the planet, and if you can read them, it’s the greatest story ever told. For me, that story is yet to reveal itself. I can say without a speck of shame that I’m yet to go face to face with a mountain pass, yet to pitch a tent in the alpine fields, and yet to pull out my stove and savour an alfresco meal. For now, my fights with The Mountain have been restricted to a few One Day Classics and a couple of week-long hill climbs. The gradient has been cruel, the sweat porous, and the mind shaken up, but there’s still so much more to explore and attempt. The next few tours I’ve planned all revolve around a similar theme – climbing. In no order of difficulty – Ladakh and Nubra, Spiti Valley, the Pamirs of Tajikistan, and the Tien-Shans of Kyrgyzstan. Whatever The Mountain has thrown at me, I’ve taken in my stride, but there will come a day when the legs cave in and the wheels refuse to roll. I’ll possibly bow down in defeat, once again, and walk up the ramp, waiting for the storm to pass. I really have my fingers crossed, hoping that my legs can step up and work like a Trojan when the odometer starts ticking and The Mountain attempts to throw me into the depths of hell.