Mountains by Michael Blann
Mountain roads have a special place in cycling, venerated and the subject of secular pilgrimages every summer. A lot of this makes sense, a ride in the mountains brings great scenery and many want to test themselves on the same roads as the big races. This book covers many of these famous climbs with fine photos but doesn’t stray into the mythology so often associated with these climbs. Instead the expansive photos capture the road and the environment around it, including all the artificial features from ski lifts to hotels.
It’s said that a few tourists, especially those from Japan, are hospitalised in Paris after a nervous breakdown. The reason is the shock of the real. Paris enjoys a romanticised image for many and for a few the reality experienced is so overwhelming it makes them ill. Instead of a population dressed in haute couture looking like they’ve stepped out of fashion show or the film set of Amélie, the Parisian experience is more mundane. Similar phenomena seem to exist in Tel Aviv and Florence among other places.
Do any visiting cyclists face similar stress when they ride in the Alps, Pyrenees or other mountain ranges? Certainly the big races and their rich history means these roads can have a mythical status that can prove disappointing on a wet Wednesday when there are more clouds than crowds. This book is a collection of photos of these famous mountains but steps back to show both the natural glory and the human clutter. To read this before a visit to the mountains is to prepare for the reality of the landscape.
Michael Blann is a photographer and a cyclist. He’s done ad campaigns for Shimano among others but you sense he’s happier in the wild compared to the studio. In his introduction to the book the word “context” appears twice as he explains the aim of the book:
For the last thirty years I had absorbed the history of the sport; I knew the names of the riders, the races and even all of the famous climbs, but I had no connection with the physical landscape in which they raced. I didn’t know the location of, say, the Col d’Izoard in relation to the Col du Galibier, nor the characteristics and terrains of each climb…
…I wanted to document the permanence of these landforms, their relative scale and their sheer presence. I wanted to capture the unique character of every mountain – the roads and man-made structures that punctuated the landscape, its vegetation and impact of the seasons.
The pictures are almost always taken from afar, these are wide landscapes that make you look for the detail rather than presenting items to be found along the way. For example there are seven photographs of Mont Ventoux but not one of the Simpson memorial. Sometimes there’s a cyclist in the shot but they’re usually a detail in the distance, whether it’s a lone cyclo or a participant in the Tour de France. The quality of the 173 images is excellent, browsing the book is like walking around a photography exhibition.
It’s the landscape that matters to Blann, both the natural and the man-made. Verdant landscapes with rocky peaks are regularly juxtaposed with redundant ski lifts, carbuncular hotels and power lines. At times the pictures are brutal but that is the reality and while the cyclist may gaze longingly at the hairpins of the Stelvio pass, surely true lovers of nature or horrified by the tarmac scar and the traffic it brings? As much as we cyclists may lament the ugly nudity of ski station during summer that’s because we’ve just exploited the access road.
As well as the prolific photography There’s text with short essays by professionals past and present including Robert Millar, Tao Geoghegan Hart and Romain Bardet among others. These provide a verbal explanation of what makes the mountains determinant in a race and they’re enjoyable and amusing but some tales might be familiar while Blann’s photography seems to be all about taking a fresh look at these places.
There are similar books, notably Daniel Friebe’s Mountain High, which catalogue the climbs and accompany them with lavish photos. Here Mountains is primarily a collection of photographs and the landscape, while Mountain High sees each climb accompanied by photographs, writing and a fact box with maps and profiles: all together more practical. Mountains has writing but there’s less of it and the maps and profiles are in index at the back. Should you buy one or the other? That depends on what you are after but browse both and you’ll soon have the feel of what is right.
Has Blann succeeded with his aim to “capture the unique character of every mountain – the roads and man-made structures that punctuated the landscape, its vegetation and impact of the seasons”? Yes, or as far as a 200 page book can reasonably go because the character of these mountains are always changing, whether daily because of the weather or over time because of human influences like construction. The quality of the photography is is outstanding. What’s refreshing is the way the landscapes are presented, no ugly buildings are cropped out of the shot: it’s take it or leave it. Fortunately the quality of the photography is so good that if you’re in the market for a book about cycling’s mountains and browse this there’s a good chance you’ll take it.
Mountains is published by Thames and Hudson. More book reviews at inrng.com/roads