The Curse of the Climbers

It’s a strange how what you’re good at can often also define you as a character and even determine your mentality. To some people all cyclists are just athletes, guys who ride bikes fast, yet anyone who’s even followed the sport or participated to any degree will know all too well that different riders are better than others at certain disciplines within the sport, and that the higher the level of the game the more defined that difference becomes, and that they tend to be very different personalities.

The highest level in pro bike racing is of course that of the grand tours, this is where riders are sorted into their different slots, and that’s pretty well where they tend to stay, apart from the grand champions, who are seemingly born to great at just about everything. The rest of the riders are clearly defined, not only by their physical abilities and capabilities, but to a great degree by their mental strengths and characteristics, this is where the differences between different kinds of bike riders becomes defined the most.

I guess there should be five main categories really; the grand champions, riders who are physically supreme, and mentally dominant. Then come the rouleur's, the archetypal bike riders, average rounded Joe’s. The time trialist's, strange characters, maybe the office geeks. As for the sprinters; explosive in every way. Temperamental, larger than life showmen. And lastly there’s the climbers; ultra lean athletes with lungs larger than footballs, the ability and will to suffer more than almost anyone else, often insular and silent, but always noticed when they stamp their feet on the pedals.

We all know what it’s like to suffer on a bike, especially in the mountains. But climbers; these are guys who get their kicks from inflicting pain on themselves, and even more pain on their counterparts. There are many ways that a physiologist could rip them apart and put things right, but really and truly I think they’d be stabbing in the dark, although that same basic mental strength lies within most climbers, there is also a great fragility embedded in many of them too, and it’s ultimately this fragility that seems to destroy so many of them when they find themselves off their game, or even more so when the game is over.

In recent years we’ve seen the terrible and shocking decline of two of modern histories greatest climbers, and two great characters of the sport; Marco Pantani and Jose Maria Jimenez. Pantani was the last of the true great climbers to win the Tour, an amazing feat from this supreme climber, who even managed to return to the top following a potentially crippling road accident. But then it all went wrong for the iconic Italian. Here was a man loved by the public, but a man who found it hard to live with himself. 

Following doping incidents and being thrown out of the Giro he literally fell apart. Falling into deep depression he soul searched for reasons and justification, and eventually turned to drugs. Marco’s untimely demise in a lonely Rimini hotel room in February 2004 through an alleged overdose was one of the saddest moments in the last decade of cycling, a moment that shocked almost every cycling fan.

Not too long before Pantani’s death another of the great climbers, Jose Maria Jiminez, began his ultimate demise. Chava, as he was affectionately known was, although not quite so rounded as Pantani, straight out of the same mould. A supreme climber with explosive power and a certain exuberance in the mountains, on his day. The problem was his days were numbered, in every sense. After taking leave from his Banesto squad to get his act together it became clear that he was in fact not getting things together, depression had set in, in a big way. In December 2003 Jiminez died of a “heart attack” in a psychiatric ward of a Madrid hospital, circumstances of the incident have never really been clarified. Two of the greatest climbers of the past era both gone, in a similar fashion, and within 3 months of each other too.

The curse of the polkadot seems to have its casualties, to varying degrees, in almost every decade. The 1990 Tour King of the Mountains was Frenchman Thierry Claveyrolat, a super climber who following his cycling career bought a bar near to his native Grenoble. After being involved in a road accident where a family was badly injured Claveyrolat fell into a depression of guilt, and ultimately committed suicide by shooting himself.

Another great climber of the same era, Robert Millar, also disappeared of the face of the planet for a few years. Very much a harsh character and a reclusive man Millar took on several career moves after cycling, and gradually withdrew from public life, although he has returned as an online commentator in the past couple of years.

A similar fate befell the “Angel of the Mountains” Charly Gaul, the great Luxembourg climbing star and Tour winner also who completely disappeared for years. Gaul was always of a reclusive nature, but following his retirement he simply disappeared, and was eventually tracked down to a small wooden hut in the woods, where he was living like a true hermit. Eventually he returned to a more stable life, just in time to appear at the Tour start before he passed away.

Delving back even further and the hermit theme continues. One of the great climbing stars of the thirties, and tour runner up in 1936, Frenchman Rene Vietto was always known for being temperamental, and after his retirement he too fell into depression and became a remote living hermit.

And it doesn’t stop there; the climbers curse goes right back, as far as the grand tours themselves. Back in the days when conditions for the ill prepared and equipped riders were near inhuman the first ever climbing star emerged; the near silent and glum faced Frenchman Rene Poittier won 4 mountainous stages back to back, and the Tour de France its self in 1906. Early on a January morning in 1907 Poittier went to the Peugeot team bike shed and hung himself on his own bike hook. It is believed his wife had been having an affair while he was away racing.