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HC climbs: Alpe d'Huez

19 Jul 2018

Words Ellis Bacon Photography George Marshall

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-in-the-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, anti-doping 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 debut – when the stage was won by Italian cycling icon Fausto Coppi. There was then a 14-year 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 hand-in-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 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-half-minute 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, 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.