After around 38 minutes on the road to the summit of l’Alpe d’Huez, I’m at corner seven (virage 7 in local parlance) where thousands of savagely crazed Dutch cycling fans will in a few days gather to cheer on their local heroes for this year’s Tour de France.
Up ahead, seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong has just stepped off his bike at the top of the climb and is looking for a cold beer. At least he would be if he’d started at the bottom alongside me, and if he rode the 37 minutes and 36 seconds he rode in the 2004 time trial.
With over 5 km and around 400 metres of climbing still to go, I wouldn’t have given him much competition. But that’s not too much of a surprise as Lance pretty much has bragging rights for this mountain. He’s the second fastest person to ever ride up it, bested only by Italian climbing sensation Marco Pantani.
Since it was first included on the Tour route in 1952, Alpe d’Huez has become the mountain where legends are made and mythical stories told, mainly because epic Tour battles are typically fought in the mountains, and with the road literally running out at the small ski town of Alpe d’Huez at the top it’s always a mountain-top finish.
Italian legend Fausto Coppi was the first winner in 1952. It took forty years for an American to break the near total Dutch and Italian stranglehold on victory when Andy Hampsten of the Motorola team slipped away from his pursuers half way up the road for a clear solo win in 1992.
Lance Armstrong was the second American winner. In 2001 he feigned weakness against his main rival, Jan Ullrich, then gave him ‘The Look’ on the lower slopes before dancing away on his pedals and effectively sealing his third Tour win.
These stories are why thousands of amateur riders flock here every summer to test their legs against les 21 virages, to honour their Italian, Danish, French, Spanish, German, Belgian and American heroes.
Despite being 1,860 metres high with a total climbing distance of 13.8 km at a 7.9% average, Alpe d’Huez is not the Tour de France’s toughest climb. It’s pretty darn close, though, and is always rated as hors categorie in Tour parlance – above classification, alongside only a handful of other mountains. And it deserves its legendary reputation.
From the picturesque valley town of Bourg d’Oisans, with some of the only flat riding for miles around, the climb starts only a few hundred metres from the depart banner. Boom!
Straight away the road pitches up at 10%, one of the steepest sections of the climb before you even have a chance to build a rhythm.
Past the first corner, dedicated to both Fausto Coppi and Lance Armstrong (they’ve run out of corners to dedicate to winners over time), it doesn’t get much easier and stays at 10% for over a 1.5 km before flattening slightly to 8.5% at the café village of La Garde after 4 kms total climbing.
The relentless switchbacks on the middle of the climb actually give some relief. As the road briefly levels out and you can downshift for extra speed or pause slightly to catch your breath. On this part of the climb, too, the trees on the roadside offer some shade from the cruel summer heat.
At the village of Huez, the end of the climb seems close. But with around 3.5 km to go, this a cruel illusion. Worse, the road steepens again, too, up to 11%. Even worse, the distance between the last six corners is longer – which seems to keep each one just out of reach as your legs struggle to keep the pedals ticking over.
Picturesque, but there’s still plenty of climbing to go
So by the time you reach the photographer at virage 2 (dedicated to Marco Pantani), who will take your photo and hand you a card for his picture business in the main street of Alpe d’Huez, you may be barely upright and it no fit state for a triumphant pose.
Fortunately, after one final corner, the arrivé banner looms just inside the town, although way short of where the Tour stage actually finishes. Here, souvenir jerseys and $3 cans of Coke await your triumph.
And if your time is around 60 minutes, bragging rights are yours and a two-handed salute over the line is also allowed. Anguished facial expressions, like 2006’s winner Frank Schleck, are de rigueur.