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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9 Responses to “The Death of the Pure Climber”

  1. Sebastian 11 January 2010 at 7:55 pm #

    Hmm — what do we mean by a “pure” climber here? Do we mean someone whose only skill is climbing and who therefore has to build a Tour victory on mountaintop victories alone? Or do we mean someone who climbs with a certain “pure” style, i.e. with high cadence and sudden accelerations instead of with brute power (à la Indurain and Ullrich)? The second definition seems more meaningful to me, and it would seem to put Contador (and even pre-“Tired of Being Tired” Armstrong) into the category of pure climbers.

  2. cosmo 11 January 2010 at 9:11 pm #

    Well, that’s another thing I’ve never been too clear on. I’ve always assumed it as a climbing specialist, the sort of person that the best GC riders could limit their losses to, but never touch in the hills.

    I think your second definition plays a big part of that, because as far as I can tell, you need that ease of acceleration to try and open those gaps and leave the race behind on the highest pitches.

    That said, I don’t think Armstrong really fits the bill—I remember him complaining about Mayo’s tempo changes on L’Alpe back in ’03. He always seemed to make one big attack, and then settle into his tempo, where as Contador, if I remember 2007 correctly, made repeated punches during his (moot) battle with Rasmussen.

    The names I usually see dropped after the apellation are Gaul, Pantani, Bahamontes and Mayo. I’ll bet Le Grimpeur could cook up a better definition for the term.

  3. Sebastian 11 January 2010 at 9:44 pm #

    I think there are also examples of “pure” climbers who didn’t use that out-of-the-saddle style. Delgado, for instance, usually climbed sitting down and gripping his bars near the center. (I may be wrong, of course, since all I have to go on is that highly edited John Tesh coverage!)

    I think the high-cadence, quick-burst style may partly reflect the necessities of the post-USPS era, in which the burden is on the climbers to gain all of their gaps in the final few kilometers of a stage. Back in the days of Gaul and Bahomontes, “pure climbers” usually were guys who could crest multiple mountain passes alone off the front — not that many of them couldn’t also do the Contador dance if necessary.

  4. Guy 12 January 2010 at 12:20 am #

    Thanks for the invitation to contribute!
    Gosh, always a nuanced question, but in my mind the pure climbers are the riders that win many mountain stages off the front and only ever rarely win the Grand Tours (though many famous ones have done so). They duke it out for the mountain points and leave the flatlanders wallowing – unless those flatlanders can also hold their own (Anquetil, Hinault, Fignon, LeMond).
    Now, one could be mischievous and say that no pure climbers have been competitive since about 1991 (as Lucho Herrera said, “when I saw riders with fat asses climbing like airplanes, that’s when I knew…”) given blood doping. Or one could say that current pure climbers are only now coming back into their own, but are still having to contend with riders that are much better trained in the mountains (there are several training theories on this).
    As for Armstrong, he seems to be the exception that proves or disproves any rule…

  5. rainbow 12 January 2010 at 5:53 am #

    I don’t think the pure climber really exists; the impure climber appears to be all we are left with. The devolution of race tactics away from the strength of the individual to the power of the team and brains trust ‘following’ (? Sic) has eliminated the opportunity for such a elite species to exist let alone prevail. The only place that such a creature may dwell is in the minds of its proponents, and the mouths of fools judging from the accolade spouting individuals we’ve been bestowed with in the recent years. I could peel of dozens of platitudes exemplifying th shortcomings and fragility of the pure climber. But their names, demises and some early deaths, are enough for us to ponder on to answer the question of the existence of the “Pure Climber”.

  6. joe 12 January 2010 at 6:03 am #

    When I look at Contador and the Schlecks, they look like climbers who have set their goals for the GC

  7. Big Mikey 12 January 2010 at 4:33 pm #

    The notion of a pure climber is a logical fallacy in the sport today. The requirements to win a GT are to be able to climb in the top 5-8 riders in the peleton on a consistent basis, and to time trial in the top 5-8 riders on a consistent basis. Rujano, during that Giro, was unstoppable. But likely juiced, remember he came from almost nowhere to do that and that’s usually a sign that someone is doping. The only way a “pure” climber wins a GT are if the contenders’ teams aren’t strong or focused enough to pull back dangerous breaks.

    Heras, Mayo and others are/were gifted climbers, but have no realistic ability to win a grand tour against the likes of Armstrong, Menchov, the Schlecks, etc., who owe speed to mostly power, as opposed to low mass.

  8. cosmo 13 January 2010 at 11:05 pm #

    @Guy: thanks for chipping in. I like the definition—I think it comes closest to the notion I had in my head.

    @Big Mikey, Rainbow: Pantani’s ’98 win was a pretty classic example of a “pure” climber spotting a weakness in a rival’s armor (Ullrich never did like the rain) and taking the Tour.

    Heras, doping conviction aside (he competed against plenty of other dopers—Rumsas, Nozal, Mancebo etc) still won a fistful of Vueltas. Simoni also has a couple Giros. I think it’s definitely still possible for a good climber to win a Grand Tour.

    As I see it, what’s stopped the climbers at the TdF is that, since Landis ’06, no real Tour favorites have cracked. Part of that may be the safe, negative racing that rainbow mentioned, but I feel like it’s only a matter of time until it happens again.

  9. Fashion 28 October 2010 at 12:19 pm #

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