The Death of the Pure Climber

Jan 11 2010

Cycling isn’t a sport that lends itself to idle boasting. The most flamboyant and outspoken rider in recent memory was Mario Cipollini, who managed to put together a small collection of Giro stages—among other prizes—to back up his chatter.

So it seems highly out of place when a guy like Jose Rujano says “I’m the third best climber in the world”. Even when Rujano was a notable—half a decade ago—I still don’t think he was the third best climber in the world. The tactical complexity of the ’05 Giro makes a definitive statement difficult, but had the Smurfish Venezuelan showed his cards sooner, and had Ivan Basso not been laid low by the runs, I think the heads of state would have kept Rujano on a far shorter leash.

Rujano wasn’t satisfied with simply tooting his own horn, and followed up his previous statement by kicking at one of cycling’s most contentious ants’ nests—the notion of a “true” climber. You may remember that Gilberto Simoni, a bit flush from the success of his win at the ’03 Giro, ran his mouth about how the Tour de France didn’t have any real climbers; needless to say, the Tour hit the Alps, the Italian went backward, and dessert was served.

Rujano appears to have done the same thing last week—just without winning a Giro first. While admitting that Andy Schleck and Lance Armstrong are “good in the mountains”, he added that “they don’t have the capacity of a pure climber”. While I understand the attraction to the romanticized image of a climber tearing away from the pack in the hills at some ridiculous distance from the finish line, daring the others to come chase him down, I really question the impact a “true” climber can have in the modern sport.

It’s no leap of the imagination to believe that a rider like Rujano could best a rider like Armstrong in a simple battle from the bottom of a col to the top*. But—with very few exceptions—that’s not how cycling works. Mountainous stages in Grand Tours come after days of battling on the flats, staying out of trouble, and practicing the Zen art of struggling to save energy.

While a rider like Schleck or Armstrong can put out the raw wattage needed to hold a wheel in the sweet spot of a peloton screaming into the line at 60kph, it’s a much bigger ask for a rider like Rujano, whose climbing prowess is built as much on low body mass as power. Multiply that effort by six or seven days, then factor in the increased risk of mishap, and seconds spent in the wind each time you’re bumped out of line, and it’s a very different story than simply watts/kilos by the time the race hits it first climb.

And even then, the climbers aren’t out of the woods. Stronger teams have made an art form in recent years of cranking the pace up to and into the first pitches of big climbs (Chris Anker Sorenson, at right). As the pack strings out, vast handfuls of time materialize, and any grimpeur not alert or rugged enough to hold in the top 10 will have their work cut out for them.

So is it any wonder that, year after year, these “good in the mountains” riders have kept pace with—and even beaten—the “pure” climbers in their native habitats?* Or that the most recent “pure” climber to win a Grand Tour—Carlos Sastre—did so with the support of the strongest team in the field and tactical pressure from two highly placed teammates?

Cynical as it sounds, the modern sport may have converted the storied “pure” climber to a GC contender who’s deficient in the TT.

*I would be remiss if I did not mention the theory that the proliferation of improved blood doping and oxygen vector drugs like EPO have made climbers non-competitive by giving heavier riders superhuman aerobic capacity. Certainly, the results of the most notable uphill TT—a true, bottom-to-contest—in recent TdF memory don’t refute this notion.

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