A Review: ‘Higher Calling’, by Max Leonard

If you’ve read any of the rest of my blog, know anything about me, or have applied a little critical thinking to the name of this site, you’ll know that I’m a mountain man.

Those that haven’t ridden a bike up a seriously sized mountain don’t really get it. Even those that are keen riders, but perhaps haven’t had the blessed opportunity to climb for over, say, an hour, are yet to experience that exquisite and torturous journey, the combination of balancing physical and mental resilience with the strange sort of zen that can mentally descend on you as you physically ascend. As the road slows beneath your wheels, so does your mind and your focus. On a good day, you seem to think about everything and nothing, awoken only to the outer world by the sight of the summit ahead, or a kilometer marker denoting your progress.

This transcendent state that can overcome you on a climb is, I think, largely a product of the world around the mountain as much as the road and the act of climbing in itself, and it is this that Higher Calling: Road Cycling’s Obsession with the Mountains explores in a touching and fascinating way.

Don’t expect a detailed discussion of Armstrong, Coppi or Pantani, or a thesis into how to build your watts/kilo to the point that you can climb faster in this book – although these things are touched on. Rather, the author looks to capture the essence of the mountains rather than just the act of overcoming them on a bike, and seeks to engross the reader in the history and secret world of these mysterious and otherworldly objects. This brilliant book is as much a collection of vignettes and insights into all things ‘mountain’, from discussion of the lives of the shepherds that tend the flocks that graze on hillside pastures, to a series of insights into how it is to race at almost unfathomable speeds over the high roads in the pro peloton.

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For me, though I love tales of suffering on a bike and insights into how to make you suffer faster, the unique charm of this book lies in the tales based outside of the unique and unusual activity of making yourself hurt. Some of the chapters that stand out best to me and which I remember with most fondness are those recounting the lives and labours of the men that work though the spring to clear snow from the high peaks, leaving the high snow banks that are so characteristic of the high peaks of the Giro D’Italia (and which Steven Kruiswick decided to make into his crashmat in 2016 when in the leader’s jersey), or the tales of the solitary wonderings of the shepherds that tend those huge ragged sheep you see in Alpine meadows, and which have a fondness of wondering into the road when you’re decending at 60kph. In explorations such as this, Leonard gives us brief insights into a world which so shape the character of a mountain and our act of pedalling over them, but which we don’t necessarily dwell on when out in the saddle. And the book isn’t just informative on this cultural level, but also historically; for example, we’re enlightened as to how the Route Des Grande Alpes (the series of roads traversing the Alps from the Maritime South down to the Savoie North) was formed through the ages, and the political and economical necessity behind its development. 

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p.31 – Clearing snow on the Col de La Bonette

The book is not purely a study of the background behind random elements of mountain life however, and is also very rooted in the riding habits that we all are engrossed in today. For example, the term ‘King of the Mountains’, now so common a parlance in the sport originally due to its use for the climbers’ jersey in the Tour De France, and later usurped in it’s glory by the term made better known though Strava and Zwift, is  explained and exploreda. The somewhat modern madness of the desire to ‘Everest’ a climb – that is, to repeatedly ride it until you’ve clocked up 8,448m ascent – is also discussed.

The exploration of everesting is another great example of one of the ways in which Leonard make this book so unique, memorable, and enjoyable to read. The author commonly ‘steps into’ the book and recounts his own experiences on the bike, in this instance, discussing his own ‘Everesting’ attempt on Firle Beacon in south England, bringing the book a beautiful sense of the personal and the real. Sometimes, a book made up of vignettes such as Higher Calling can feel that of a research project – something that any Tom, Dick or Harry with Google and a well-stocked library could have produced. However, Leonard is clearly a cyclist, and a man who loves to climb. The book is peppered with tales of his own riding (mis)adventures, and reassures the reader that the book is written with a passion and experience for riding, not just a desire to make money from an increasingly popular pursuit in the world of MAMILS, Pinarellos, and the Etape du Tour.

As well as grounding the book in personal experience and the life of an everyday cyclist, the book brings the world of both historical and modern Pro cycling into play. Insights into the world of altitude camps, life in the current pro peloton, and tales of Grand Tours of yore, are all touched on. For me, one of the particular highlights of the book lies in the way that stories and interviews with Joe Dombrowski – young American Cannondale / EF-Drapac climbing star – feature prominently, to the point that he becomes almost a secondary protagonist in the book, alongside Leonard himself. Dombrowsi is a rider who pops up frequently in more prosaic niches of cycling press, such as the Cycling Podcast and (formerly) in Cycling News, as he is an insightful, thoughtful and intelligent thinker that adds a lot the book. Leonard speaks with him frequently in Higher Calling about all sorts of aspects of pro life, from the intense scrutiny on weight for climbers to the way in which Joe prepares mentally for a tour stage as a way of exploring the other end of the climbing spectrum experienced by you and me….. Not pedalling up a climb as fast (or slow?) as you can, but racing – sprinting, covering attacks, drafting – whilst going uphill. Dombrowski adds an extra dimension to the book that, alongside Leonard’s personal experiences, add a brilliant counterpoint to the more distant exploration of the life around the mountains.

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p.282 – Dombrowski doing his thang

Leonard focusses a lot of his discussions around the Col De La Bonnette, the 2,715 meter monster col in the southern Alps, on the border of the Alpes de Haute Provence ‎and Alpes Maritimes. This adds a further level of intrigue to the piece – I’ve ridden this col twice, and its endless slopes have battered and beasted me both times. The sheer scale of it, at 50km of road from one side to the other, provides a brilliant backdrop for talking around the sheer variety and expansiveness of life in the mountains and the history behind these behemoths. To discover more about this col, which has occupied some very slow and painful hours of my life, adds a nice extra dimension – although I appreciate this may not apply to all.

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As the book is broken down into clearly delineated topics and chapters, each of an easily digestible 20-30 pages, Higher Calling can be read in a few voracious sittings, or just as comfortably dipped in an out of over months. Leonard writes with a nice balance of wit, charm, and authority, and the prose is never too heavy or high-falutin’, making it easily read. Despite the clear chapter format, the book doesn’t feel fragmented, as Leonard uses common threads to hold a sense of narrative continuity – for example, repeated returns to discussions with Dombrowski, or references back to the Col De La Bonette – which provides the reader with a sense of unity in the book and a sense of satisfaction on its completion, as you may feel on finishing a novel for example.

So, what am I saying….?

Higher Calling is a true Hors Categorie addition to your bookshelf.

Buy it, and you’ll devour it in a few days, with the appetite of a rider that has just reached the peak of the mightiest of cols.

Yet, like the mountains, this book will forever be fascinating, and one that you want to return to again and again.

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