Book Review: The Great Road Climbs of the Southern Alps

To relax with a book, perchance to dream. To rest one’s legs on an ottoman, curl up with a recovery shake, and flip though pages that allow you to transport yourself into a waking fantasy. This is the place to bathe in The Rapha Guide to The Great Road Climbs of the Southern Alps by Graeme Fife photography by Pete Drinkell. We’d recommend the hot tub, but it would be hard to relax with this book while water bubbles around us, or the massage table, but there it’s best to just drink in the muscle kneading.

The title is dry to the point of academic. It almost reads like a textbook for an introductory-level course of road cycling. But the title also lends an authoritative air to the work, which is certainly what Rapha, the publisher, intended.

The book is an epic episodic work. It seeks to detail all the great road climbs of the Southern Alps. By great, they aren’t just referring to cols that featured in races, but mountains that are worth ascending just for the view or experience. The tome balances photos with text.

This is the second book in a series of Rapha Guides. The first being The Great Road Climbs of the Pyrenees, also by Graeme Fife.

Much like Rapha’s other books, this one strives for immortality. The pictures are almost entirely devoid of obvious temporal elements like bicycles, cars, or people. Most of the building structures that appear could be hundreds of years old. About the only thing we have to go on for speculating the date of the images is the road surface and paint markings. You see plenty of flora and pavement and valleys and peaks, some road signs, some houses. It’s not hard to imagine that what we’re looking at was shot yesterday, last year, possibly one hundred years ago, if it weren’t for the color photography.

The organizational principle of the book is very much a classic outline. The introductory section explains the area in geologic, historic, and practical detail, information you need for appreciating the rest of the book. The book is then arranged into seven parts, each detailing a range within the Southern Alps. Each section opens with a page of text, then a hand-drawn map followed by a batch of photos followed by descriptions of the great climbs in the range followed by another batch of photos. The end papers include acknowledgements, translations of terms for bike parts, and an index.

There are no fewer than five climbs detailed in each section. Most sections also have short chapters on events that transpired on one or more of the climbs in the range being detailed. Many of the descriptions of climbs are also accompanied by a profile. “The End of the Cannibal” fittingly comes right after the section describing the climb of Pra Loup. In the Lauzes section, there’s a postscript called “A Word on Astronomy,” discussing the Flemish astronomer Wendelin because there’s a stele commemorating the man on a climb in Lauzes.

We started this book by flipping through the pictures. We love them, though they’re not particularly warm or inviting by conventional standards. Mostly, they capture empty roads on mountains or in valleys. Most of the images likewise feel like they were taken on cool, overcast days. It reminds us of hitting the road early, whether in a car to get to a far-away race, or riding out early to get a long, long day in the saddle. It also reminds us of having to race home before dark. Days when you need a base layer, arm warmers, and a vest. Exciting days. Inviting, but challenging.

Flipping through this volume, analyzing the pictures, reading the text is a puzzle and a tease. In many respects, the book is inspirational; places we want to go, roads we’d like to climb, trips we’d like to take. But the text is academic and matter-of-fact: cool almost to the point of being cold and inscrutable.

Fife’s work is thorough. Unless you’re already an accomplished student of alpine ascents, you will probably recognize few of the climbs profiled. We appreciate that he tells the story of the Alps in the introduction. It has been simplified to fit within the format of the book and some of the retelling does seem as if he’s glossing over or massaging events for the sake of narrative simplicity but the history isn’t the point of the book.

The chapters on the climbs are ostensibly descriptions of what you encounter on the climb, but Fife routinely digresses into history, local culture, road features, encounters with locals, and more.

We enjoyed the descriptions, though they’re best nibbled on as snacks rather than devoured in a feast. The prose isn’t particularly inviting, the pieces don’t fit a larger narrative, and inclusion seems to be more about the author’s fancy than any particular purpose. The capriciousness is something we generally enjoy; that the author is following his muse and only hitting on things that strike his fancy is often a recipe for delightful, thoughtful, insightful experiences. We didn’t feel that.

You’ll notice that we haven’t quoted from the book yet. That’s for a reason. Fife’s prose doesn’t lend itself to excerpting a sentence. However, the Author’s Note, which closes the book, is one worth citing. “For all you nerds out there who are ferret-quick to pounce on an inconsistency and trumpet it as a howler, your crowing is unhelpful, misplaced, and unseemly.” Maybe this is what we were feeling, a sense that Fife sees himself as a master and we his undeserving pupils. There is plenty of respect for the depth and breadth of the work, but telling us what to think and do is beyond his pay grade. He goes on to write, “If there are those of who to whom the actuarial exactitude of statistics matters more than the uplift of simply being in the mountains and riding them for the joy, the suffering, the overwhelming satisfaction with which they load us mortals, a taste of eternity, then this book probably ain’t for you. Your nit-picking letters and e-mails are certainly not for me.” Touching, particularly coming from someone who seems to have sweated more details than he has enjoyed the uplift of simply being in the mountains. This direct address shows him to be an officious prig.

While we don’t like the guy, we like the book. Nibbling The Great Road Climbs of the Southern Alps morsels is snacking on bonbons. Earlier, we mentioned the book was a both a puzzle and a tease. Here’s where we’re stuck. We’d love to ride these climbs, as many as we can manage. The problem is that the way to best enjoy them is to attack them when in peak condition, which means not only extensive planning, but carving out time to go and money for a plane ticket, but ramping up our riding at home so we’ve got the fitness to ride them rather than just survive them.

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