THE BIG CLIMB
By Stephen Norman
Smiths Hall Publishing, 2019
isbn 978 1 9162489 0 8
Reviewed by Steve Dyster
With Columbian cyclists turning in so many great performances in the big races, it is handy to have a new book to help explain the background to their success. I’ve really enjoyed The Big Climb, and can recommend it to anyone who wants to be introduced to a fascinating, exciting, history of one of the world’s toughest mutli-day road races, and just why it is so important to so many Columbians. There are times when you have to remind yourself that this is fact and not fiction, but the roller-coaster is thoroughly researched, well-presented, and timely.
Stephen Norman wanted to know more about Columbian cycling and cyclists; finding nothing much, in English, to help, he decided to write about it himself. In fact, he’s done more than write about it: the book is full of fab photos and links to video, too – just scan away at the QR codes. The latter come courtesy of Pamela Gowland, an Argentinian film-maker and TV executive. The result is an informative, inspiring, pacey introduction to the Vuelta a Columbia, pro-cycling in the country, and, very pertinently, why Columbians are producing such great performances in the big tours.
Packed full of photos does not mean that this is a coffee table book. However, on initial glance through, it was the images that took my eye. Labouring cyclists slogging along dirt roads lined by fans, winners wading rivers, Bernard Hinault dressed as a cowboy, and, drug-magnate, Pablo Escobar, to mention but a few, feature among many others.
This is a colourful book, in more ways than one. Many of the cyclists and other people are even more colourful than the photos – yes, I know many of those are black and white, but there are plenty in colour, as well as maps and diagrams. Interviews, mini-features, and stories, bring the race descriptions to life. I love the nicknames given to the star riders, including “the flea” and “the tomato”. A shame it is, in my opinion, that the modern-day riders are known by their real names.
Race descriptions of each edition of the Vuelta a Columbia provide the core stability of the book. Conceived in 1950, with the first edition in 1951, the race caught the imagination of the Columbian people. The participants rapidly became heroes. Quite right, too. Massive climbs, treacherously rapid descents, fickle weather, plenty of dirt roads, and incredible mountain scenery, made the Vuelta a Columbia a spectacularly arduous affair.
Many of the race descriptions are accompanied by single-page profiles of the leading riders. Others expand on other aspect of the race. The whole is interspersed with a broad, thoughtful mix, of explanatory features and interviews. There’s a taste of Geography and an explanation of how living and training at altitude impacts of the physical condition of athletes. Fancy having a bash? Well, there are some hints at the best climbs, and some businesses that will help you experience the best of Columbian cycling.
A race is not just about the riders, though they take centre stage. So, alongside an interview – originally in the newspaper, El Tiempo – with Rafael Antonio Munevar, nick-named El Nino, come features, on the photographer Horacio Gil Ochoa, amongst others. The first, describes the tough route to the top for a great champion, the second the evocative photos combining Columbian life with the excitement of cycle racing,
Then there’s a fascinating chat with pro-team doctor, Carmilo Poveda: impact of altitude, the dangers of cycle racing, and, of course, doping, are given some coverage. Without going into depth, there’s enough to intrigue, but also a feeling that there’s more to be said.
There’s no way of avoiding the terrible times of the Colombian drug wars. Pro-cycling could not avoid involvement. Drug Lords wanted to find ways to use their fortunes. What better way than to use legitimate businesses to sponsor pro-racing teams. The infamous Pablo Escobar’s elder brother was an elite rider, too. The outcome was not good.
I like the political and social contexts included by the author. I’d like to know more, but, in fairness, that is not within the intended scope of the book; nor easy to do in this format. Even so, current developments in women’s cycle sport, and cycle tourism, amongst others, are introduced. With those, and the way those Columbian guys are going, there’s likely to be scope for additions in future editions.
The Big Climb grew out of the authors research for a novel set in a major tour. I wish him luck with that, but hope he will find time to tell us more about the fascinating subject of the Vuelta a Colombia - a race that despite numerous doping scandals, continues to inspire Columbians and produce so many leading pro-cyclists - and Columbian cyclists and cycling.