A recent debate hosted by Cosmo Catalano on climbers in cycling raised two important questions: firstly, is there such a thing as a pure climber, a grimpeur; secondly, are pure climbers – assuming that there are such riders – becoming rare, due to better training by non-climbers and doping.
To address the first question, your author offered the following definition of the pure climber: the riders that win many mountain stages off the front and only ever rarely win a grand tour (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).
We have a couple of problems with this definition. Firstly, if you were to list some of the most prominent riders that one might consider to be pure climbers – say Charly Gaul, Federico Bahamontes, Lucien van Impe, Marco Pantani – just to name four, all of these riders have won grand tours, including the Tour de France. These riders typically started out making their mark as climbers but then matured into more well-rounded riders, able to hold their own in time trials and flat stages to protect their advantage in the mountains.
Against this list, we can put climbers who did not win the Tour de France, say Robert Millar, Lucho Herrera, Andy Hampsten, and Iban Mayo. But all these riders, and others, were contenders in the Tour, won other grand tours or came very close, and won other stage races. The pool of climbers who are threats just in the mountains, and win consistently on mountain stages, but are not contesting the overall is much smaller and perhaps unnecessarily restrictive.
But there is a certain romantic attachment to the idea of the pure climber, unfettered by the complicated goals of overall placings but who simply wants to win stages in the mountains and does so with style and panache. In recent years at the Tour, for example, we have seen some performances like this – Brice Feillu and Juan Manual Garaté last year, Juan Mauricio Soler in 2007, Carlos Sastre in 2003 (before he was a team leader), and Félix-Rafael Cardenas and Roberto Laiseka in 2001. The Giro, in particular, has seen some other similar and equally memorable performances. Where to draw the line in defining a grimpeur seems like to remain contested.
The second problem with the definition is the idea that climbers leave the flatlanders wallowing. A discussion of this problem also raises the other important question noted above: are pure climbers becoming rare.
Lucho Herrera, perhaps a classic example of a pure climber (although he won the Vuelta), liked to say that he knew when the serious doping started in the peloton because the riders with “fat arses” were climbing like “aeroplanes”. He undoubtedly had some specific riders in mind, but the broader point is that riders not considered to be pure climbers have done well, and exceptionally well, in the mountains. In fact, using the Tour as a reference point, the best climber was Lance Armstrong, who won 11 mountain stages during his seven Tour winning streak; that was one more than Eddy Merckx, who won 10. Those are better stats than perhaps the best Tour grimpeur of them all, Lucien van Impe (six mountains jerseys) who won nine; van Impe’s best year was 1975 when he won two, but Armstrong won four in 2004 and Merckx won three in 1969 and 1972.
The challenge for the climbers wanting to win individual stages is that those riders fighting for the overall in any grand tour are strong, motivated, and often have strong team support to shepherd them to the bottom of a climb or to pull them up it while chasing down breakaways. In many cases the climbers lose out to the contenders for the overall or their rivals. Even Bernard Hinault, not a ‘fat arse’ but hardly regarded as a grimpeur won 4 mountain stages during the years he won his five yellow jerseys, with six second places – an enviable record in the Tour for any rider; plus, in 1986 when he lost to Greg LeMond he claimed the mountains jersey and won on Alpe d’Huez.
So, climbers struggle when there are strong champions and their challengers. But has it become harder for climbers to compete and are they becoming rare? To answer this, or at least go some way toward an answer, your author looked back at Tour results during the reign of Jacques Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, Greg LeMond, Miguel Indurain, and Armstrong to see the extent that climbers were ‘crowded out’ by these champions and if there was any historical trend. As a simple methodology, their Tour winning years were considered (five for each, three for LeMond) with 5 points assigned for a mountain stage win, 3 for a second place and 1 for third. The rationale was to see if there has been a trend over time for multiple-Tour winning riders to be more dominant.
It is often noted that the template for winning the Tour de France is to dominate in the time trials – the true test of the strongest rider – and to defend in the mountains. Anquetil was the first five-time winner of the Tour and perfected this model. He won just three mountain stages in his Tour winning years and his other top-three mountain placings were few, giving him a score in this analysis of 22 points. In these years, he won 16 Tour stages in total, usually the time trials. Anquetil was strong in the mountains, but not dominant, and this allowed his rivals and the climbers to take stage wins.
Interestingly, some three decades later, this was the model followed by Indurain. Although he had won mountain stages prior, during his five wins he did not win any, despite winning ten stages in total between 1991 and 1995. He was, however, a strong climber and recorded several second and third places, which gave him 23 points by this analysis. This was the same number of points scored by Greg LeMond in his three Tour wins and also in his best other years, 1984 and 1985, when he was third and second respectively. He won just two mountain stages.
In between Indurain and Anquetil we have the Merckx era, which was not a happy time for other riders. Merckx was a major force in the mountains: in 1969 he won three stages and came second in three others (and won three other stages); in 1972 he repeated the feat again by also included a third as well. Across his five Tour wins he amassed 73 points in this analysis. Even Hinault, who was strong – particularly in his first three Tour wins – only recorded 40 points (although better than Anquetil, LeMond, and Indurain).
If we were to consider only the first five of Armstrong’s Tour wins, an interesting picture emerges: seven mountains stage wins and a series of other placings for a total of 49 points. Of the six champions analyzed here, Armstrong was clearly the second dominant behind Merckx, but not a massive gap from the discipline Hinault was able to impose. 2005 was a poor year for Armstrong, just a second place on one mountain stage (and one stage win in the Tour overall). But 2004 was a massive year with 4 stage wins and a second place. If we drop 1999 from Armstrong’s calculation (just the one mountain win) and add 2004, Armstrong clocks up 65 points – an impressive total of climbing dominance.
Overall, based on this limited analysis, the room for climbers (and other riders) to perform has varied in the years of the great champions – with less room under Merckx and Armstrong, but more under Hinault, Indurain, LeMond, and Anquetil in descending order. This is, of course, just a snapshot and a better analysis would delve into the results further to see whether mountain stages were won by ‘pure’ climbers, climbers who were also contenders, or others. But, as noted above, where the line is drawn for definitions is problematic.
By this analysis, there has not been a trend towards more dominance by champions in their peak years. Merckx and Armstrong in many ways bookmark a period of much variability. And turning to the issue of doping, the EPO era (starting in perhaps 1991) did make it difficult for some of the old school climbers, as this blog has discussed on a number of occasions. But new climbers coming up through the ranks also benefited – Pantani, Richard Virenque, Claudio Chiappucci, for example, who started out as pure climbers and then evolved into major contenders (and winners). These example were followed by climbers who doped such as Iban Mayo and Bernard Kohl.
What then of the current era? Recent articles have pointed to the benefits of better training and that experts have seen non-traditional climbers respond quicker to more scientific methods than those with natural climbing advantages. Bradley Wiggins is perhaps an excellent example. But this has cut both ways, as climbers have also benefited from better preparation for time trials: Alberto Contador, for example, is following the Merckx and Armstrong template of being strong in all types of riding. As well, we have the climbers like Andy Schleck who are serious podium contenders.
There is still room for the fleet of pedal and the light of weight to make their mark in the mountains, just as there has always been. The space for these riders to win has shifted with time. Some grimpeurs elect to maintain their aloofness to the general classification and focus on mountain wins, while others transform into major contenders.
With our understanding or power versus weight ratios much more scientific in the modern era, much of the mystery of climbing prowess has been stripped away. But as recent Tours and other grand tour races have shown, there remains space for the pure climber to play and they will continue to do so – reports of their death (however we define them) have been greatly exaggerated. They will, however, still have to work very, very hard to achieve success.