Your genes are what determine if you are a good climber and that’s something that you simply can’t change; the natural climbers are lightweight little fellers, the ones who weigh less than 60Kg.
And whilst it’s true to say that everyone can improve their climbing ability through training, if you’re not blessed with the natural physique, you’ll never be great in the mountains. Robert Millar was the perfect example of a small guy who made climbing look easy. Roche had good climbing ability but he wasn’t a natural climber. Stephen was there to get through the mountains. He had the grit and the determination to get to the top but he’d often lose a bit in the final kms and that’s the difference.
When you do a lot of Grand Tours your memories of those mountain stages get muddled up. I climbed Alpe d’Huez six times but I can’t remember the difference between those six stages. In fact there was no difference; it was always bloody torture. What’s more, when you’re climbing it on a normal day outside of the Tour it’s not a spectacular climb, the views aren’t impressive and there’s no magnificent scenery – there’s not a lot to mark it out.
Back in the 80s Alpe d’Huez always came at the end of a long stage. You could have ridden 200km and still have to climb The Alpe. When you’re 72kg that mountain is a killer and there were a lot of times when I only just made it to the top. Today the mountain stages are much shorter, so the riders don’t arrive so fatigued, Alpe d’Huez is about more than just survival these days.
In 1989 I was riding for PDM. It was a year that I remember quite clearly because it was one of those days when the mountains upset the dynamics of the team. There were four of us, including Uwe Ampler, in a group of 15-20 riders. As you come in towards Bourg-d’Oisans there’s a small climb, a little kick of around 3 km, just passed the reservoir before you drop down to the town. After that the run in starts and it can be really hectic, fast and frenetic.
I came back to the team car to get some fresh water before the pace went up; trying to give out bottles in the run wasn’t a good idea but as we reached the summit of the small climb an attack went away off the front. LeMond, Thierry Bourguignon and a couple of others got clear. Breukink was our man in GC contention, he was the one who could make the podium or even win the Tour, so I knew we had to ride him back into the group but I couldn’t do it on my own. I needed Ampler to ride too but he point blank refused. He was 4th year professional and still quite young to cycling and he simply said he didn’t want to ride.
“Get him up here,” I said to the DS, [Jan] Gisbers in the car. “We need to close this gap or keep it to a minimum to get to the Alpe in a good position.” The riders in the breakaway knew that it was a good opportunity to get rid of the some of the GC riders and they were naturally riding flat out.
I was getting towards the end of my racing career at PDM but Ampler hadn’t become a professional until late. He’d ridden for his country, East Germany and was used to being the leader, so to take on the role of helper wasn’t for him. I rode Breukink right to the bottom of The Alpe. As he went away I lost contact quickly but I got into my rhythm and I caught up to Ampler a km from the end…
If you’re riding in the front group you can make a race with the guys you’re with and it keeps you going. If you’re suffering and you’ve been blown out at the bottom of a climb it’s a different kind of pain – it can be really morale breaking, and it’s difficult to keep your focus. Some riders can deal with the psychological blow – they lose contact with the leaders but don’t let it affect them. They get into a rhythm and really bring it back but others can’t and there were times when I found it really tough but I’ve never climbed off my bike, you have to keep focus and be rational.
When the café du Colombia team arrived on the Tour it was clear that they were exceptional climbers. They were certainly better than Hinault and the Tour de France contenders. After their arrival the attacks started happening further out. People used to wait until the final climb of the day but they always went early and the races became more aggressive and faster. They weren’t that well rehearsed at descending though and there was a good chance that you’d be picking them out of a ravine on the other side.
I believed that I could get on the podium in the Tour de France but I never made it. I think it was because I was over raced at the beginning of the season. The Tour of Spain was in April then and in the mid 80s I rode for KAS, which was a Spanish Team, so it was their focus. I raced the Classics too so I’d already done well a lot of racing before the Tour and it didn’t work well for me. LeMond would ride the Giro really out of shape and get stronger towards the Tour. He was like Armstrong and Indurain – their focus was to start well in France but I often had other priorities.
Despite that I did wear yellow. In stage 9 of the 1983 race I’d got the yellow jersey by a second the day before. It was a scorcher of a day and a difficult day. I’d just won the bunch sprint in Pau, which gave just me a one second lead.
The next I was in difficulty straight away. It was brutal. The first climb was the Col d’Aubisque and I lost contact in the first kilometer. I was over heating and not feeling good but to add to my troubles there were photographers on motorbikes, who wanted to get a picture of me struggling in yellow. The bikes surrounded me and the fumes from their engines made it even more difficult to breathe.
There was so much going on in my head, I was thinking ‘Shat what am I going to do here? How am I going to walk out this one?’ When you’re feeling like that you have stay away from the red, so you don’t explode. When you lose contact you still have to keep your focus. I had the team trying to talk me through it, saying it will get better but by the time it gets better you’ve lost a lot of time. I could hear the radio from the motorbikes and they were saying, “maillot jeune lâché” (dropped), “perdre contact” (lost contact) – you get paranoid and think everyone can hear it…
I have virtually no memory of riding the second climb, the Tourmalet that day. I was usually pretty good at the descent but when you’re suffering that much you don’t even try and descend fast. I finished in Bagnères-de-Luchon ten minutes down on the winner, Robert Millar, but I reconciled it by knowing that at least I had the jersey for one day.
At the end of the stage I folded that race jersey and left the pins in to remind me of the effort of that day. After the race finished in Paris I went back to the team hotel and I packed it in my suitcase then put the case in the car. My car was parked just metres away from the hotel entrance, so I went back in to say goodbye to some of the guys. When I came down half an hour later the car had been broken into. They’d taken my suitcase with the yellow jersey and my green sprinters jersey inside. I called the police and they found the suitcase and some of my possessions in a nearby street, but not the yellow jersey. The Tour de France did send me a replacement jersey, which is framed at home and sits alongside the jerseys from Milan-San Remo, Paris-Roubaix and the other big Classics I won, but it was devastating to lose the one I’d actually worn.
Written by Sean Kelly for Mountains: Epic Cycling Climbs