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'Conversation shifts to the Col de la Madone; made famous by Lance Armstrong'

An extract from Higher Calling, the book that asks 'why?' when it comes to cycling up mountains

Max Leonard
6 Jun 2017

Cyclist contributor Max Leonard has released a new book 'Higher Calling: Road Cycling’s Obsession with the Mountains.' The book seeks to find out what the appeal of riding up mountains is for profesisonals and amateurs alike.

Here we feature an extract about Lance Armstrong's preparations for his Tour de France 'wins', along with the origins of Strava to give you an idea of the themes explored throughout.

Higher Calling: Road Cycling’s Obsession with the Mountains by Max Leonard

It is a few days before one of the Grand Tours in 2015, and Cannondale-Garmin’s Joe Dombrowski and his flatmate Larry Warbasse (also an American pro cyclist) have convened a barbecue for their friends, some of whom will be racing too.

There aren’t too many carbs on view, but we eat delicious chicken and sausages and salad on the terrace, and at some point the conversation shifts round to the Col de la Madone.

You might have heard of the Madone. It was made famous by Lance Armstrong in his book It’s Not About the Bike (now found led under ‘fiction’ not ‘autobiography’) and he recounts how it was where he went to test his form, his watts-per-kilo and all that kind of thing, sometimes with the notorious and disgraced Dr Michele Ferrari.

Armstrong frequented the Madone when he lived in Nice. It starts very close to the promenade in the seaside town of Menton, around 35 kilometres away, and then winds up into the mountains, reaching a height of precisely 927 metres in around 13 kilometres.

That ‘around’ is important, as you’ll see. It’s a small road with very little traffic, and therefore a good spot to do a 30-minute all-out training effort.

Before the 1999 Tour Armstrong vowed to take his time below 31 minutes. ‘If I went to the Madone two weeks before the Tour and went as hard as I could, I knew if I was going to win the Tour or not,’ Cycling Weekly has quoted him as saying.

He did get under that magic 31-minute goal just before the 1999 race and duly went on to win . . . and the rest, all the rest, is, as they say, history.

The Madone has, thanks to Lance, become something of a celebrity climb. The Trek Madone bike range was named after it, and when roadies come to the area to cycle it’s one of the first to tick off the list.

However, the Madone had pedigree before Armstrong. It was Tony Rominger, a Swiss pro who won the Giro and three Vueltas in the 1990s, who first used it as a training ramp when he moved to Monaco.

It has pedigree after Armstrong too, because there is still intense interest in the Madone from local pros. Just a week or two before the barbecue it was reported in the cycling press that Richie Porte had beaten Chris Froome’s Madone time, and Porte was now the acknowledged King of the Madone among pros.

Both of their times were significantly quicker than Lance’s, but I confess to the assembled barbecue-munchers that I’m unsure how comparable any of the times are because there is – in the non pro-cycling fraternity, at least – some confusion about where all these guys were starting their stopwatches.

Confusion, in part, because a sub-50-minute time is hugely respectable for an amateur, and that gap of 20 minutes – 20 minutes – makes you feel they might as well be riding another hill altogether.

Around the table it is quickly agreed that the Team Sky start is at a certain bus stop, while most people think that Lance began at the Menton-with-a-slash-through-it city limits sign a little further down.

There’s even a moment where it looks like someone might text Lance to find out.

But I don’t really mind if we get to the bottom of it or not. I like the legend, and I like it that it’s still a real live thing that inspires passion.

That even when they’re off duty the pros’ competitive instincts still stand all aquiver about a certain climb that has never featured in a real race, and that there is a circle of friends and rivals where it carries significant meaning.

Tony Rominger
Lance Armstrong
Tom Danielson
Chris Froome
Richie Porte

That said, the Madone is not one of Joe’s favourites. The ride along the coast to the start is a bit hectic, and the Madone’s surface is too patchy and its gradient too irregular to make it a must-ride destination for training intervals.

He confesses he’s never done a proper effort up it: ‘I mean, it’s a good ride, especially in the wintertime because it’s south facing and it’s close to the coast,’ he says, ‘But, I think, part of what I like about riding in the mountains is being “out”, and on the Madone I don’t really feel like I’m out, you know.’

He continues: ‘There are lot of pros who are kind of too cool for Strava but are into the Madone. I mean, I don’t care if I have Strava KoMs or not – Strava’s fun and I like to show people what I’m doing.

'But there are certainly a lot of pros who are not into [Strava], and it’s interesting that the Madone is more or less the same thing – except it’s done by word of mouth, and I would say it carries a lot more weight.

'It really is a thing. Like, to the point that Chris and Richie will go up there with full race kit and race wheels and see how fast they can go.’

You’ll notice that Joe used the ‘S’ word there, a word without which no discussion of the modern art and science of riding up mountains would be complete.

Strava: a website and smartphone app for recording your rides – distances, routes, speeds – and sharing your achievements with an online community, which has over the past few years become something of a phenomenon, with millions of enthusiastic users around the world.

Perhaps its most addictive feature is the King of the Mountain and Queen of the Mountain (KoM and QoM) leaderboards. Search for the Madone on Strava and there will be at least one user-defined ‘segment’ marking the start and the end of the climb, probably plus a few segments for key bits – the first half, say, or the last kilometre.

And each segment will have a leaderboard showing the fastest times recorded on it.

Strava allows cyclists to record, compare, congratulate and boast, providing inspiration, motivation and validation in different quantities depending on the individual user, but for Michael Horvath, one of the founders, the most important thing is the ‘friendly competition’, and the connection to people who are passionate about the same activity.

Strava – the name means ‘strive’ in Swedish – was created by Michael (who is of Swedish extraction) and his friend Mark Gainey.

They had been on the Harvard rowing crew together, but after graduating found themselves no longer at the heart of a group of buddies who pushed each other to train harder and get better at their sport, and so they began to train less.

‘What was missing in our lives was that sense of team that we had at Harvard,’ Michael says. ‘And we thought, what if we build a virtual locker room?’

However, this was in the mid-1990s, and the internet was not ready for it: people did not put personal data online, websites were nowhere near dynamic or sophisticated enough to handle it, and GPS tracking was only accurate to around 50 metres. They shelved it and did other things, including launching an unrelated tech start-up.

When they thought about it again, in the mid-2000s, technology was catching up with their ideas. They began to create the virtual locker room – the social aspect that would later chime with millions of users.

But the KoMs and QoMs that are the hyper-addictive hook came from the work of a software engineer called Davis Kitchel.

Kitchel was the third original member of the Strava team. He had also been an elite rower and he was working on rowing technology ideas for Dartmouth College, but in his spare time he was tinkering with algorithms that would let him take two different GPS tracks of him cycling up a hill (one that happened to be near Mont Ventoux in France) and compare them.

The emerging program would, he realised, also have to consistently recognise the starts and finishes of uphill stretches of road – i.e. know what a ‘climb’ actually was – and then categorise them in Tour de France-style numbers, so that cyclists would know how hard it would be. The segment was being born.

‘To me it intuitively made sense to create this thing that is now “segments”,’ Davis says.

‘It was born out of the idea that there are these really important stretches of road which are a big part of the reason people are on their bike in the first place.

'It’s a piece of geography that’s always there. There are sprints and other things that are important and also exciting, but they can happen anywhere.

'The climbs, they’re there forever, and their story is constantly being written by people riding them.’

He continues: ‘There’s a clarity, a purity of what climbs mean to cyclists. Everything else falls away when you’re on a climb.’

Higher Calling: Road Cycling’s Obsession with the Mountains by Max Leonard can be found in independent bookshops around the country. Bookshops are great places, visit one