Alpe d’huez

With its fa­mous 21 hair­pins and a his­tory of race-defin­ing mo­ments, Alpe d’huez sits at the very peak of clas­sic Tour climbs

Cyclist - - Contents - Words EL­LIS BA­CON Pho­tog­ra­phy GE­ORGE MAR­SHALL

The iconic Notre Dame des Neiges church is an ap­pro­pri­ate land­mark on one of the Tour’s most bru­tal climbs – be­cause by the time it ap­pears in the pros’ sights they may well be pray­ing for divine in­ter­ven­tion

If you re­ally had to choose – and we’re ask­ing you to right now – which climb used by the Tour de France would you pick as the most iconic be­tween Mont Ven­toux and Alpe d’huez? The Ven­toux, of course, sticks out – and up – like a sore thumb, tow­er­ing over the Provençal land­scape with its white moon­scape sum­mit and red-and-white-striped candy-cane ob­ser­va­tion tower on top.

But ‘The Gi­ant of Provence’ also has its dark side: 2017 marked the 50th an­niver­sary of Bri­tish pro Tom Simpson’s death. It’s a hor­ror few other moun­tains have to shoul­der. Alpe d’huez, in the heart of the French Alps, mean­while, is all hair­pin bends and party time.

Ar­guably the most ter­ri­ble thing to have hap­pened there is what hap­pened to Giuseppe Guerini at the Tour in 1999, when he was knocked off his bike by an ov­er­en­thu­si­as­tic, cam­era-tot­ing Ger­man fan.

Guerini – an Ital­ian climber on the Ger­man Telekom team – looked all set to win the 10th stage to Alpe d’huez. Alone, and hav­ing just gone un­der the kilo­me­tre-to-go ban­ner,

Guerini was sud­denly, and in­ex­pli­ca­bly, dumped off his bike. The am­a­teur pho­tog­ra­pher had stepped out of the road­side crowd and into the road to line up a pic­ture – noth­ing un­usual there – but had then re­mained in the road, seem­ingly un­aware of the ‘ob­jects in the viewfinder are closer than they ap­pear’ as­pect of hold­ing a cam­era up to your face.

While fa­mil­iar with the close­ness of spec­ta­tors – you can’t not be if you’ve led the Tour de France up Alpe d’huez’s hair­pins – Guerini hardly ex­pected some­one to be stand­ing smack-bang in the mid­dle of the road, and hit the bud­ding David Bai­ley with enough force to knock them both over.

The fan did at least have the where­withal to help the Ital­ian rider back up and push him on his way, al­beit sheep­ishly, but it was heart-inthe-mouth stuff. Hap­pily, Guerini was able to win the stage re­gard­less, still with a 20-sec­ond ad­van­tage over sec­ond-placed Pavel Tonkov. The spec­ta­tor in ques­tion was even able to find Guerini after­wards to apol­o­gise to him, and the two could have a jolly old laugh about it.

Tak­ing the…

If Guerini’s story about the Alpe sounds as if it borders on Some Moth­ers Do ’Ave ’Em- like com­edy, try Michel Pol­len­tier’s tale for size.

The Bel­gian won Stage 16 on the Alpe in 1978, which was enough to take the leader’s yel­low jersey. But while Pol­len­tier was sup­pos­edly giv­ing a urine sam­ple af­ter the stage, an­ti­dop­ing doc­tors dis­cov­ered that he was in fact us­ing a tube lead­ing from a hid­den bulb full of some­one else’s (clean) urine in an ef­fort to evade be­ing caught. Pol­len­tier was chucked off the race, and the stage was in­stead awarded to sec­ond-placed Hen­nie Kuiper from the Nether­lands, who had also won the stage to the Alpe the pre­vi­ous year.

The Dutch con­nec­tion to the climb runs deep, and you re­ally haven’t done Alpe d’huez un­til you’ve ex­pe­ri­enced ‘Dutch Cor­ner’ dur­ing the Tour – a euro-pop party that re­ally does have to be seen to be be­lieved.

Scores of Dutch fans/party-go­ers (you lose count af­ter the fourth can of Oran­je­boom) brave what­ever the weather to dress in orange – in var­i­ous states of un­dress – and drink and dance like lu­natics in the days lead­ing up to an Alpe d’huez Tour stage.

Such god­less de­bauch­ery con­trasts sharply with the story be­hind the Dutch con­nec­tion to the climb. Hair­pin bend num­ber seven is home to the Notre Dame des Neiges church, which be­tween 1964 and 1992 boasted a Dutch priest in Fa­ther Jaap Reuten.

Sum­mit of na­tions

The Alpe first ap­peared on the Tour route in 1952 – a year later than the Ven­toux’s

Scores of Dutch brave what­ever the weather to dress in orange in var­i­ous states of un­dress and drink and dance like lu­natics

de­but – when the stage was won by Ital­ian cy­cling icon Fausto Coppi. There was then a 14year gap be­fore it ap­peared again, in 1976, when Dutch­man Joop Zoetemelk won the day. That was to be the first of eight stage wins by Dutch rid­ers in 29 ap­pear­ances, or 30 if you count it hav­ing been climbed twice on Stage 18 of the 2013 Tour to mark the race’s 100th edi­tion.

Italy is one Alpe stage-win away from equalling the Dutch mas­ters. The first of those seven Ital­ian stage vic­to­ries came cour­tesy of Coppi, but the other six all came in the 1990s. Ital­ian rid­ers en­sured that no other na­tion­al­ity won on the Alpe in the 90s apart from the USA. That first – and still only – Amer­i­can Alpe stage win came in 1992 cour­tesy of Mo­torola’s Andy Hamp­sten (Lance Arm­strong’s later two wins have been scratched from the his­tory books).

French rid­ers have won the last three of the Tour’s vis­its to the climb, which still only brings home-na­tion wins to a to­tal of four, 1986 hav­ing been the only other time a French­man has won there, thanks to Bernard Hin­ault.

That year, Hin­ault crossed the line handin-hand with his La Vie Claire team­mate Greg Le­mond. The Amer­i­can had helped Hin­ault win the Tour in 1985 (still, al­most un­be­liev­ably, the last French Tour win) and in re­turn Hin­ault had promised his younger team­mate as­sis­tance to win in 1986. And that’s just what hap­pened, although Hin­ault didn’t ex­actly al­ways ap­pear

Le­mond took the 1986 Tour ti­tle and let Hin­ault roll home a lit­tle ahead of him on the Alpe

to be keep­ing his word. The thought of a sixth Tour ti­tle must have been tempt­ing.

But Le­mond took the 1986 Tour ti­tle – his first of three – and let Hin­ault roll home a lit­tle ahead of him on the Alpe that day to take the stage vic­tory as a mark of thanks and re­spect.

Span­ish flyer

Spain has won three times on Alpe d’huez, and Car­los Sas­tre is the last rider to both win on the Alpe and go on to win the whole Tour in the same year, in 2008. The only other rider to have done that is Fausto Coppi, in 1952, when the climb first fea­tured in the race.

Sas­tre’s CSC team­mate Frank Sch­leck, of Lux­em­bourg, held the yel­low jersey go­ing into Stage 17 of the 2008 Tour, but team man­ager Bjarne Riis took ad­van­tage of the lux­ury of hav­ing mul­ti­ple rid­ers in his CSC squad still in a po­si­tion to win the race over­all, and so sent Sas­tre on the at­tack to put their ri­vals un­der pres­sure.

Sas­tre kept pil­ing the on the pain, while the likes of Bern­hard Kohl, De­nis Men­chov and Cadel Evans strug­gled to con­tain him.

Sas­tre, it has to be said, was al­ways more likely to put in a bet­ter time-trial per­for­mance than Sch­leck in the 53km in­di­vid­ual test three days later, although most ex­pected Aus­tralia’s Evans – far su­pe­rior to both of them against the clock – to over­turn Sas­tre’s one-and-a-halfminute ad­van­tage.

Sas­tre clung on to yel­low, how­ever, los­ing only 30 sec­onds to Evans across the 53km TT route, which was enough to ride into Paris the next day as win­ner of the Tour by 58 sec­onds.

En­ter the arena

Its 21 hair­pin bends, which zig-zag fre­net­i­cally from the town of Bourg d’oisans at its base up to the sum­mit, truly de­fine the Alpe. The fact that plaques bear­ing the name of the past stage win­ners adorn each bend of the climb only adds to its place in his­tory.

It feels a bit like step­ping onto the turf at Wem­b­ley when just a few hun­dred me­tres out of Bourg d’oisans you can find your­self right in the mid­dle of the arena in which some of the world’s most fa­mous cy­cling bat­tles have taken place.

The climb feels ex­actly like you imag­ine it to be af­ter hav­ing seen it on tele­vi­sion. Few other climbs give you that same feel­ing of fa­mil­iar­ity, and it’s those fa­mous hair­pin bends that do it. Even with­out the ben­e­fit of road­side spec­ta­tors,

Car­los Sas­tre is the last rider to win on the Alpe and win the Tour in the same year, in 2008. The only other to have done that is Coppi, in 1952

when­ever you claw your way around each cor­ner and look up the road to­wards the next one, it makes you feel like you’re in the race.

And if you re­ally want to push for a con­nec­tion to the dark side of cy­cling, you’ll dis­cover the Alpe’s link to Marco Pan­tani. The Ital­ian climber – win­ner of both the Giro d’italia and the Tour de France in 1998 – died from a co­caine over­dose in 2004, but still holds the record for the fastest as­cent of the 13.8km climb: 37min 35sec, recorded at the 1997 Tour.

Am­a­teur climbers pit them­selves against the Alpe’s 8% av­er­age slopes year-round, and even tak­ing twice as long as Pan­tani did to reach the sum­mit would count as a job well done. In fact, com­plet­ing the climb at any speed is an achieve­ment well worth ad­ding to your own cy­cling pal­marès should you get the chance. El­lis Ba­con is a free­lance writer and co-au­thor of The Cy­cling An­thol­ogy (Yel­low Jersey Press)

If you re­ally want to push for a con­nec­tion to the dark side of cy­cling, you’ll dis­cover the Alpe’s link to Marco Pan­tani

Right: A mon­u­ment to Por­tuguese cy­clist Joaquim Agostinho, who won on the moun­tain in 1979 but died from a head in­jury af­ter col­lid­ing with a dog on the 1984 Tour of the Al­garve

Above: Alpe d’huez first ap­peared at the Tour de France in 1952, and has fea­tured an­other 29 times since

Far right: Signs count down each of the Alpe’s fa­mous hair­pin bends, and list pre­vi­ous stage win­ners

Above: The fa­mous num­bered bends of Alpe d’huez ac­tu­ally num­ber 22, not 21. Sign num­ber ‘0’ was added in 2011 in mem­ory of Dutch rider Bas Mul­der, who died of lym­phoma aged 24

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