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‘Higher Calling’ by Max Leonard

Last year I undertook the Raid Alpine – from Geneva to Nice across the Alps. One of the iconic climbs on the route – and the only one I didn’t complete (the flies and the heat did for me) – was the Col de Bonette, one of the highest paved roads in Europe. Coincidentally, the Bonette forms the centre-piece for Leonard’s book which is described as an investigation into the fascination that cyclists have for climbing. The book intersperses Leonard’s climbs of the Bonette with interviews with Joe Dombrowski – then with Team Sky, now with Cannondale – descriptions of great climbs, including Teide in Tenerife, the Galibier, Tourmalet, Ventoux, Alpe d’Huez, etc, accounts of the building of the great Alpine passes, an explanation of the latest craze for ‘Everesting’ (climbing 8000 metres in 24 hours)  and descriptions of some of the great climbers of the past, including Charly Gaul and Federico Bahamontes. Leonard (coincidentally, author of Lanterne Rouge – review coming soon) is a fine writer and his book is a lyrical, at times poetic, and elegiac evocation of the attraction of climbing and descending in the high mountains. The interview with Dombrowski unfortunately provides few insights, but why should it? Dombrowski is a cyclist, not a poet. To my mind, Leonard never really answers his own question but then maybe there is no answer. He starts his book with a description of George Mallory’s famous answer when asked why he sought to climb Everest – ‘because it’s there.’ And ultimately, I guess that’s why we do it and why we love it so. I saw a sign on a Sportive a few weeks ago – ‘It’s a hill – get over it.’ Maybe that’s all you really need to know.

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