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In praise of the 22nd bend

Trevor Ward
17 Jun 2016

It’s one of the great mysteries of cycling: why does the 22nd bend of Alpe d’Huez never get a mention?

It’s a hairpin just like the other 21 bends that comprise the climb up Alpe d’Huez, and like the others it has a numbered sign to commemorate the name of a rider and the years he ascended the mountain.

But in this case the number is a ‘0’ and the rider’s name – Bas Mulder – is one few people will have heard of. Yet on the first Thursday of June each year since 2011, around 5,000 cyclists have honoured his name by riding up and down the Alpe as many times as they can in a day to raise funds for a Dutch cancer charity. 

Alpe d’Huez first came to prominence as a ski resort back in the 1930s and the road up to it was purpose-built to service its hotels, restaurants and other businesses. It’s a solid piece of engineering too, with regular, constant gradients and wide hairpins that are actually the flattest sections of the climb to make it easier for trucks and coaches to get up and down the mountain. 

To mark the announcement that the Alpe would host the bobsleigh event of the 1968 Grenoble Winter Olympics, the local council erected numbered signs at each hairpin, starting with number 1 at the first bend on the outskirts of the resort and ending with number 21 at the bottom.

It was only in 1976 that the mountain started to forge its reputation as the epic battleground for Tour de France supremacy it is today – and it happened almost by accident. Tour director Félix Lévitan needed a replacement finish after a planned stage to Grenoble fell through and local journalist Roger-Louis Lachat suggested a return visit to Alpe d’Huez, which had hosted the Tour’s first summit finish back in 1952 but had subsequently been ignored. 

It was the start of an enduring relationship that has seen a stage finish there 27 times since (including twice in 1979) and the phrase ‘the 21 bends of the Alpe’ embedded in cycling folklore. In 1995, the names of every Alpe stage winner and their years of triumph were added to the numbered signs on the bends. 

It’s just a shame that after passing the last of these 21 bends, riders still have at least two more hairpins – plus a final 90-degree left hander – to negotiate before crossing the finish line at the foot of the ski-lifts on Avenue du Rif Nel. 

The first time I rode up the Alpe, I’d been counting the bends down through gritted teeth, half expecting flashing lights and dancing cheerleaders as I finally churned the pedals past the sign numbered ‘1’.

Instead, the road continued upwards past bars and hotels before eventually swinging sharply to the left. Through sweat-streaked sunglasses I made out the blur of a sign numbered ‘0’ and the name of a rider I’d
never seen before. 

The road continued rising and, after yet another hairpin, I was convinced I was lost. I stopped to ask for directions and was told I still had half a kilometre to go. After a final left turn, I pedalled until the road came to an abrupt end at a line of mountain bikers waiting to use the chair lifts. I coasted back downhill and finally found a tiny sign high on a lamppost announcing this was the ‘Arrivée officielle du Tour de France’.

For the most iconic climb in cycling, it was a crushing anti-climax.

That won’t matter for the thousands of cyclists who take part in ‘Alpe D’HuZes’ on the first Thursday of every June. Their goal is to summit the mountain at least six – ‘zes’ in Dutch – times to raise cash for the Dutch Cancer Society (KWF). 

The event – now in its 11th year – is in many ways a natural extension of Holland’s love affair with the ‘Dutch Mountain’. Between 1976 and 1989, five Dutch riders won eight of the 13 Tour stages to finish at Alpe d’Huez, and a Dutch priest celebrated each triumph by ringing the bells of the parish church on top of the Alpe.

But there’s just as strong a bond between cycling’s most famous climb and a country twith no mountains at all in the sign that marks Alpe d’Huez’s 22nd bend. It bears the name of Dutch amateur cyclist Bas Mulder, who died of lymphoma aged just 24 in September 2010, having completed the Alpe d’HuZes the previous four years.

‘During the four years of his illness, Bas Mulder managed to inspire people of all ages that you can always make something of your life, no matter how difficult or how short it is,’ says Johan van der Waal, president of the
Alpe d’HuZes Foundation. ‘So we created the Bas Mulder Award in his honour, designed to inspire young scientists in the field of cancer.’

The sign was introduced in 2011 after the Mayor of Huez was so moved by Mulder’s story that he suggested introducing a ‘bend 0’ after the existing 21, so Mulder’s name could be added to the mountain’s roll call of honour. 

Cycling is a sport that loves its traditions, so it’s not surprising that the myth of the 21 bends persists. Still, wouldn’t Van der Waal like to see Mulder and the charity’s work recognised with official acknowledgement of the 22nd bend?

‘That would be nice, of course, but I think that is a bridge too far for the Tour and Alpe d’Huez,’ he says. ‘There are too many things connected to “the 21 bends”, and merchandise is winning in this case.’

So allow Cyclist to at least partly redress the balance by raising a glass to the memory of Bas Mulder and the 22nd bend of Alpe d’Huez.

For more info on the Alpe d’HuZes Foundation visit opgevenisgeenoptie.nl

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