Higher Calling: Cycling's Obsession with Mountains
by Max Leonard
Pegasus Books, 2018
Any book that seeks to sing the praises of manifestly irrational behavior must strap on its dancing shoes pretty much from Page 1 and just keep tappa-tappa-tapping for all its worth. Anything less, any slowing of the tempo to the pace where normal life is lived, will result in readers blinking, holding the book at arm's length, and saying, “This is not my beautiful wife.”
Max Leonard, in his new book Higher Calling: Cycling's Obsession with Mountains, knows this perfectly well. His goal here is not only to chronicle his own introduction to and fascination with the utterly daft idea of riding up a mountain on a bicycle but to sketch the history of that fascination in Europe and its development into a freakish modern-day sport with organized events and a vocal fan-base. In all of this he's working against the universal, fundamental understanding of the whole point of riding a bicycle, which is to pedal enough to get to the parts where you're not pedaling. You ride your bike uphill not to test your inner mettle or refine your awareness of life's challenges or any such sheep-dip – no, as even small children know, you ride your bike uphill in order to then ride your bike downhill.
Except for mountain cyclers. “If the downhill is not the point, what is?” Leonard asks at one point, tragically non-rhetorically. “Why do we love doing something that's so hard?” Such questions guarantee the onset of fancy dancing, and you have to give Leonard credit for not phoning it in. He not only goes on an extended riff on Ishmael's “damp, drizzly November in my soul” spiel from the beginning of Moby-Dick, he flirts with the idea of some kind of Band of Brothers brain-switch:
As kids, we all love going down things. First on a slide, perhaps, or in a buggy, and then for many of us on a bike. When we're adults, bicycles return us to the freedom we had as children – the freedom seemingly to go anywhere and do anything, to whizz downhill with our feet off the pedals sticking straight out in the air, almost like flying. But for a few of us, when we take up road cycling, some kind of switch flicks in our heads and we start to love going uphill instead. It's not a straight swap: I still like the downhills too, but the reward of the downhill (which lots of non-cyclists assume to be the 'point' of all that uphill) never factors into my thinking about why I want to ride in the mountains.
It's a neat bit of rhetorical jiu-jitsu, putting those scare-quotes on 'point' in an attempt to make the rest of us sound like the weird ones, but a picture is worth a thousand word-games: just one glance at the photos that fill Leonard's book, picture after picture of lean, smiling lunatics hunching over their handlebars as they grind their way up a glorified goat-path in the Alps with thousand-mile sheer drops on etiher side of them will cause most normal, well-adjusted readers to snuggle down a bit deeper in their warm beds.
Leonard is no idle researcher; he's one of those lean, smiling lunatics – that's him on the US cover of Higher Calling, happily pedaling along a snow-crusted mountain path, no doubt surrounded by bears, wolves, and balrogs. How readers react to such photos will be an excellent gauge of whether or not this book is for them. For moutain cyclists and those wayward souls looking to become mountain cyclists, Leonard has written a minor-key classic, the alpine cycling equivalent of Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods.
“Why am I doing this?” Leonard writes. “It's one of the fundamental mind-games of the fight that goes on in the mountains: the mental fight in which you wrestle to control the physical and mental, all too aware that the impossible situation you're in will 99.9 per cent of the time only resolve into another impossible situation. There's only one way out.” Yes, anyone sane enough to have confined their cycling to the gentle planes of Iowa will instantly respond. Turn your bike around,stick your feet straight out in the air, and coast back down to civilization.
Some people, honestly.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.