North Dakota is absolutely flat – flat like, Holland-flat. It’s in the Upper Midwest, a state of the Great Plains and formed from a glacial lake, which creates a two-dimensional landscape; there’s length and breath and a tonne of wind but no depth, no mountains. I started cycling in North Dakota and by then I’d seen mountains and knew about mountains and cycling but I’d never ridden them. They were a mystery to me.
When I started travelling as a junior racer I got to spend time in Colorado, where the American Olympic Committee has a base. Colorado Springs is a town on the edge of the Rocky Mountains and from here we’d have training camps. Riding with the seniors was hard, we go and do local climbs and they’d test us. I wasn’t particularly fitter than anyone else but as soon as it got steep and a little bit longer I found that I could climb really well. Those camps were the foundation for my career.
The older guys would give us advice, instructions on climbing. Relax, let your body work. It was stuff that would stick with me forever. Coming from the plains, where the wind buffers you around and beats you up, riding in the mountains was a relief, the workload was still hard, extreme. But battling with gravity somehow seemed easier. Maybe it was because I was light – it gives you a psychological advantage – but I’d instantly have an advantage on the others, especially the non-climbers who battled from the start of the climbs. Riders who were 10 years older than me and racing at the Tour de L’Avenir, guys who were winning national championships, could see how good I was at climbing and so I focused on it.
I asked my coaches for hilly rides and sought out Bob Cook and other great American climbers to ask what I should do and what I should be thinking. For me climbing became similar to time trialling, where I had been told to think of my legs – pedal the whole 360 degrees and not move my upper body. As a skinny guy I had very little horsepower, so everything all had to count. The more I rode the more I developed my technique, which was essentially just to sit and spin and stay as relaxed as I could.
I didn’t take long for me to start getting results in races with mountain-top finishes. I remember seeing a Kinesiologist a few times when I had knee problems. The guy didn’t know a lot about cycling, and he asked me, “I hear you’re really good at it, when you’re climbing how do you feel? Are you fighting and pushing against something or is something pushing against you?”
I told him that it was like trying to break through the resistance, like trying to counter gravity but above all it was just such a relief that it wasn’t windy and that I didn’t have to stay crouched over on the bike.
This guy found the idea of climbing really interesting and challenged me to imagine that there was a string connected to my chest pulling me up the hill. This image told me to just let it happen, to imagine I was being winched up the mountain. I initially thought it was a bit odd but I tried it training, and it really helped me. During a time trial in the ’88 Giro I needed to protect my lead, as I started to roll I closed my eyes and thought I’m going to feel that cord and let it all happen. When things were going well I’d call on that thought and it worked.
Like most climbers I like attacking people when they’re hurting with a few ks to go. When you’re on the attack you’re always trying to find people’s weaknesses, which means that you come across as a bit gruff but when you’re trying to keep up with someone it’s not about making conversation.
I’ve raced a lot of climbs that I certainly didn’t win. So often there were surges in the pace where I’d get dropped. In this situation it’s tempting to panic but I found myself able to calm down even more and catch my breath. I’d tell myself that they’d soon slow and start to assess each other. If I kept it steady I’d get back to them. And I did – that happened many times.
Later in my career I’d go round Italy and France to do some of the climbs I did when I raced. I’d go alone and take time to look around and to get a feeling of the place. I remember being in races, seeing these incredibly landscapes and thinking, “I need to come back to this place,” but in a race those places are gone in an instant. It’s a joy to repeat the climbs I did in those Grand Tours, without the stress of a race on my shoulders.