The church of the high mountain

Roland Barthes wrote of the Tour de France as being in the tradition of epic. Yet there is much to be said for the race as in the tradition of religious experience.

It is perhaps most evident in the veneration of the mountains and the sanctification of those whose glory shines upon them.

According to the Nicene Creed “We are one holy catholic and apostolic church”, or in lay terms a diverse bunch of fans.

When cycling fans, on foot or bicycle, make their journey along the mountain, they follow in the same passion as the riders. For some that passage into the mountains is an act of pilgrimage in an age where religious devotion is frowned upon.

My most recent act of devotion to the mountains took me to the top of the Col de Pailheres, an experience which felt closer to martyrdom than pilgrimage in the spectrum of quasi-religious experience.

Riding or walking up a mountain road is a catholic experience. We all suffer the thinning air, the gradient, the weather differently. Our weight, fitness, adaptation and so on vary wildly.

Yet we are one apostolic body in doing so. We all hold a belief that in the undertaking of, or witness to, the climb we are revealed something devine about humanity and its desire and need to overcome difficulty.

Mont Ventoux is defined by the journey from woodland to the calvary of white rock. The communications mast and the cluster of buildings at the summit, a cubist vision of the crucifixion. Alpe d’Huez counts 21 corners like stations of the cross in its narrative, each recalling an angel ascending into the heavens.

Fallen angels are elevated to sainthood in this church. The flaws of personality that make truly great climbers unable to endure the vicissitudes of the peloton are the same ones that have lead to beatification down the ages.

And like the rolecall of saints, we chose those whose path calls us most strongly. Pantani never called me to his patronage because the suffering was too evident, the redemption so lacking. In Contador I saw a transcendent beauty in his climbing, a fervour that redeemed his evident failings.

In Quintana I see a new icon to take their place in the pantheon, alongside those who have travelled the road before, revealing damascene their brilliance in full view of the church of the high mountain.

Come, worship, one holy catholic apostolic church of the high mountain.

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