It came as a surprise to hear Andy Hampsten, winner at Alpe d’Huez in the 1992 Tour de France and now running his own bike touring company, dismiss the climb where he enjoyed his greatest stage win so witheringly. “I would have to say it’s the least scenic mountain I see over months at a time,” the American told me when I was writing a book about Alpe d’Huez.
“I love coming down the Col de Sarenne on the far side of it,” Hampsten continued, “but all I can say about the route up is that it’s a good road to get to a ski area. I think it’s a pretty dull climb.”
Although Hampsten did go on to admit that the Tour’s arrival and the hundreds of thousands of fans it brings with it give Alpe d’Huez a dimension that no other Grand Tour ascent can match, it appears that ASO’s route-finding team share his opinion to some degree.
Rumours have been circulating for months that the Critérium du Dauphiné would be making only its second visit to the Alpe in June. But there was no inkling that the riders would be heading up there via the previously unused Sarenne rather than the legendary 21 hairpins that rise up from Bourg d’Oisans to one of France’s four major ski stations.
The Sarenne did, of course, feature in the 2013 Tour, the peloton’s passage down it allowing a double-ascent of Alpe d’Huez that concluded with victory for Frenchman Christophe Riblon.
That innovation had been the topic of much heated discussion, pitting the Tour organisation against environmentalists concerned at the damage done to the habitat of marmots on the Sarenne and also against riders who were worried about their wellbeing on a very narrow and rough road that is often peppered with rocks from the cliffs above it. In the end, though, both wildlife and racers were unscathed.
ASO’s decision to select the Sarenne as the battleground for the Dauphiné’s penultimate day fits with their strategy of taking their smaller stage races to places that the Tour is simply too immense to accommodate. Just last weekend, for instance, the penultimate stage of Paris-Nice climbed to its highest ever finish on the Col de la Couillole, a road as tight and rough as the Sarenne, and just as majestically beautiful.
Starting in Aosta, the Dauphiné stage heads through the Chartreuse massif to Grenoble, from where it rises steadily up the Romanche valley to Bourg d’Oisans and towards Briançon. After crossing the dam at the bottom of the Lac du Chambon, the route switches hard left and upwards into the village of Mizoën rather than continuing on the very familiar road towards the Lauteret pass.
Watch: Critérium du Dauphiné 2017 route
From this point on, most of the peloton will be venturing into the unknown. Some may know the descent of the Sarenne from the 2013 Tour, but few will have tackled it in the opposite direction. The average gradient of 6.9 per cent for its 15.3km is misleading as there are two kilometres where the road flattens and even drops a little as it passes through thick woods and occasional mountain pasture to reach Clavans-le-Haut.
Above this tiny hamlet, the gradient is relentless and often steep, particularly once beyond the little house that sits in the lea of a spectacular standing rock that looks as if it’s going to flatten the neighbouring abode at any moment. The final three kilometres are the steepest and roughest, although the views back down towards the lake are spectacular for those who’ve got the time to take them in.
From the exposed and often extremely windy summit, at almost 2,000 metres, the road bumps and drops down to 1,600 metres and to the foot of another steep section that marks the final ascent into Alpe d’Huez.
Passing the ruins of the original Middle Ages silver mining settlement of Brandes and the resort’s little airport with its scary-looking runway, this will deliver the riders into the familiarity of the Avenue du Rif-Nel in Alpe d’Huez, where Alberto Contador and Janez Brajkovic duelled the last and only previous time the Dauphiné visited the resort in 2010.
Given the state of the road and fears about the marmots, it’s unlikely that the Tour de France will ever tackle the ascent to Alpe d’Huez from this direction. All the more reason not to miss it when the Dauphiné does on June 10.