The climber

Do I dare
Disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.
— T. S. Eliot, ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’

Where do we go from here?
The words are coming out all weird
Where are you now, when I need you
— Radiohead, ‘The Bends’

Everybody going and I want to go too
Don’t wanna take a chance with somebody new
I did all I could, I did it right there and then
I’ve already confessed, no need to confess again
— Bob Dylan, ‘Thunder on the Mountain’

It is a damp and miserable March day on the island of Corsica. The third and final stage of the Critérium International 2013 is building to a conclusion. The peloton began the day in Porto-Vecchio and are now on the lower slopes of the Col de l’Ospedale. Richie Porte (Team Sky) wears the race leader’s yellow jersey having won the previous day’s time trial and safely negotiated the opening stage bunch sprint. His friend and teammate, Chris Froome, is fourth in the overall standings. Froome is the designated leader of Team Sky for this race, building and testing his form prior to the Tour de France later in the Summer for which he will be one of the favourites. The mountains are the territory in which he comes into his own. As the road begins to ramp up, it is likely that today’s stage will enjoy an explosive finish – if Sky can successfully implement their race plan.

One by one Joe Dombrowski, Jon Tiernan-Locke, Xabi Zandio and Kanstantsin Siutsou put in efforts that help control the peloton and limit the number of escapees, before themselves slipping back into the ranks. There follows a huge turn at the front by Vasil Kiryienka, stretching out and fragmenting the bunch, leading it into the foothills of the day’s final climb. By the time Froome floats to the front, there is only a select group of riders, all accomplished climbers, left chasing the last of the escapees. Froome puts in a dig and Porte stays back allowing his teammate to build a gap between himself and the group. Froome checks over his shoulder then accelerates away. Within moments he has caught and overtaken Johann Tschopp (IAM Cycling), towing Jean-Christophe Péraud (Ag2r-La Mondiale) with him. He pauses, assesses the condition of the other two riders then dances on the pedals again. Neither Tschopp nor Péraud can stay with him. Back down the road Porte bides his time, not leading the chase but monitoring the actions of those remaining in the group.

With 2km remaining, Froome has established an unassailable lead. It is at this point that Porte launches an attack of his own, catching and leaving all those who were chasing Froome. Sky have executed their plan to perfection, catapulting Froome to overall victory and enjoying first and second placings with Froome and Porte on both the day’s stage and the general classification. This will serve as a platform for greater things later in the season, with Froome going on to win the Tour de Romandie, the Critérium du Dauphiné and, the ultimate prize, the yellow jersey of the Tour de France. Common purpose, a shared vision, planning, practice and the magic dust of the climber freed from constraint will all contribute to this second successive season of stage racing accomplishment for Team Sky.

Chris Froome climbs Mont Ventoux

Chris Froome on Mont Ventoux in the 2013 Tour de France

As we continue our exploration of the peloton metaphor, then, it is to the climber that we now turn. This is the individual around whom myth and fable hang like a cloak. The nicknames acquired by these giants of the road speak volumes: The Angel of the Mountains (Charly Gaul), The Eagle of Toledo (Federico Bahamontes), Il Campionissimo (Fausto Coppi), The Cannibal (Eddy Merckx, who was in truth the master of all terrains and all road cycling disciplines), The Badger (Bernard Hinault, another accomplished all-rounder) and the drug-addled but nevertheless mesmerising Il Pirata (Marco Pantani). The stories that swirl around them speak of immense feats, defiance of the natural order, resistance of gravity and overreaching to the point of personal destruction. It is the stuff of comic books; dreams made reality, visions made manifest. These are people set apart from their companions in the peloton. As Paul Fournel puts it in Vélo:

From the first accelerations on the early slopes of a col, the peloton splits and transforms itself into a contest of grimaces and every man for himself. The climber dances, plays with the slopes and the hairpins, sometimes sitting, sometimes standing. Whereas the average cyclist opens his mouth wide and looks for a steady pace as protection against deadly accelerations, the climber takes up the pace of his kind and casts stones before taking off for good. Setting off at high speed, the small motor of the climber doesn’t seem to suffer from the lack of oxygen of Alpine altitudes. The climber hides a big secret in his little torso.

There is a great, perhaps apocryphal, tale about Spanish climber Federico Bahamontes racing ahead of the peloton up the climb of the Col de Romeyère in the 1954 Tour de France. The first to reach the summit, many minutes ahead of the next rider, he then wheeled his bike over to a metal cart and stopped to eat an ice cream. Bahamontes then bided his time waiting for his competitors to catch up. As a metaphor, I love this. The visionary trail blazer, showing the way, striking out ahead, leading his people to the summit. Then waiting for them to follow, in their own way, learning much about their personal abilities and potential. When the descent begins, he is happy for others to take the lead, following the wheels of fellow riders, reintegrating himself into the pack, seeking the protection and nurture of his teammates, who will again follow his lead when the next slopes are attained.

When I think of both the apparent physical delicacy, the single-minded vision, strong will and purpose of the climber, I cannot help but draw analogies with similarly driven business leaders like the late Steve Jobs or Amazon’s Jeff Bezos or Pixar’s Ed Catmull. Such people seem to be able to see things that many of us cannot even imagine until we suddenly find that we have been led there. Think the iPhone. Think the iPad. Think different. While we’re coming to terms with yesterday’s ideas, technology, entertainment and working practices, they’re busy laying the foundations for new cathedrals, building the future for our grandchildren to enjoy. They’re planting a flag on the summit, while we’re back with the gruppetto in the foothills.

Every company needs a climber. Someone to paint a vision of the future, forcing us to reach for the ineffable. Their energy and drive is what keeps entropy at bay.
You cannot tell a flower to grow, but you can provide the environment for it to bloom.
— Faisal Hoque and Drake Baer, Everything Connects

Yes, how many years can a mountain exist
Before it’s washed to the sea?
Yes, how many years can some people exist
Before they’re allowed to be free?
Yes, how many times can a man turn his head
Pretending he just doesn’t see?
The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind
The answer is blowin’ in the wind.
— Bob Dylan, ‘Blowin’ in the Wind’