Monday, 8 July 2013

Book Review: The Breakaway - Cycling the Mountains of the Tour de France by Rolf Rae-Hansen


The Alps are looming just around the corner and without getting out on a bike and actually riding the climbs of the Tour, the closest most of us come to the mythical French mountains is watching the pro's ride them on TV and of course they make it look far easier than it actually is. The Breakaway - Cycling the Mountains of the Tour de France by Rolf Rae-Hansen looks not only at the climbs and their history but at just what it takes to ride them both physically and emotionally, their effects upon the soul, on body and mind in a Journal that truly bares all on the mountainside...

This is no number crunching manual for the discerning cyclist on an alpine holiday - we have seen plenty of them come and go - instead this is the manual that's tells you all the things the others didn't: The physical drive and determination it takes to get up each climb, the mind-numbing boredom between hairpin bends, the frightening reality of the descents, the beauty, the atmosphere of the climbs and views coupled with the immense strain they take on the mind. In all, the true reality of such a task. Those other 'manuals' should come with a warning: Ride these col's at your peril.

The Breakaway revolves around author Rolf Rae-Hansen, his cycling companion known only as 'Drew' (for reasons that will be come apparent later) and their half-concocted, possibly drunken notion of embarking on the trip of a lifetime cycling the Tours toughest climbs through Italy and France, 33 of them in fact (including the likes of the Stelvio, Galibier, Alpe d'Huez, Mont Ventoux and the Tourmalet). The trip starts with good intentions but it soon becomes clear that the pair have bitten off more than they can chew as a combination of 'prison like' accomodation, altitude sickness and a longing for home begin to take their toll on the pairs ambitions and ultimately their friendship which slowly suffers a distinct but none the less dramatic breakdown.

I don't want to give too much away but Rae-Hansen seamlessly manages to combine a real knowledge of the climbs, the facts and figures, their place in history both in and away from the Tour whilst tackling some difficult, altogether more serious issues like the passing of his Father and the frailty of emotion that comes with such a huge undertaking. The trivia that Rae-Hansen plucks from an obvious deep understanding of cycling, the legend and terrain of the Tour de France is wonderfully dispersed amongst the wider narrative providing plenty for the pure cycling enthusiast whilst the book could just as easily reach out to a non-cycling audience as a story of (mis)adventure, longing, relationships and loss.

The book is laden with interesting anecdotes and hilarious occurrences throughout - from the analysis of those tunes that become stuck in the brain and plague us on long rides, typically British encounters with language barriers, standing in as a make-shift GP and coming close to an 'emergency evacuation' of ones bowels on La Plagne but there is an underlying, darker tone behind these tall tales as things are obviously not all love and joy in the camp. Rolf describes the climbs and climbing from a riders point of view - it's all about the road, the views, the pain and suffering it takes to reach the top rather than crunching the numbers and talking pleasantries but if you think this book might make you want to reconsider taking to two wheels and riding these climbs think again - the sense of achievement Rolf describes on reaching the summits is plain to see in his writing, it's a book with an 'It's all worth it in the end approach' and if anything the sense of brutality and punishment only serves to make the reader want to get out there and try to achieve the unachievable themselves.

It's worth noting that at the time of writing the book is only available for download as an ebook and it's a format I'm not familar with (I know - I'm yet to join the modern world) so I had reservations about reading it but was very pleasantly surprised with how the book was constructed and laid out in an easy to read format. I'm certainly glad I made the effort to read it and at £3.99 it's more than worth the money!

With Mont Ventoux and the Alps on the horizon this book makes the perfect accompaniment for the remainder of the Tour de France but be prepared to have a newfound respect for those riders tackling the climbs - they do make it look easy on TV but Rolf Rae-Hansen will set you straight...

The book is available now for download on Kindle and can be purchased here:

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