Iconic Places: Alpe d’Huez

The ultimate summit finish of the Tour de France was featured in our Iconic Places series in July 2008.

Words by Chris Sidwells

Friday July 22, 2011. Originally appeared in July 2008

“The Alpe! It’s like all the Alps encapsulated in one mountain” Gérard Ejnès, L’Equipe journalist and author.

There is something about Alpe d’Huez and time. From the tick-tock rhythm of its 21 bends counting down to the summit, to the anxious looks that amateur cyclists give their watches as they struggle upwards.

A time on the Alpe is a currency among cyclists. A good one pays for bragging rights, a poor one is best kept quiet. Marco Pantani rode the 13.8 kilometres from the base of the climb to the top in 36-40 in 1995. The benchmark time for keen amateurs is one hour. Some take twice that.

Other mountains are climbed for the experience, the view, or simply because they are there, but the Alpe is different. It’s a ramp test in rock. The Alpe is climbed because it’s a challenge. And because it’s a good place to find out just how demoralisingly far from the professionals the rest of us are.

The Alpe is as close to a stadium as road racing gets. From the bottom of the climb to the centre of Alpe d’Huez, it’s only three kilometres as the crow flies, but the road up has been concertina-ed into over 13 kilometres of straights and hairpins. This makes for a cycling theatre, where upwards of 300,000 fans gather to form a riotous corridor of colour and noise.

Alpe d’Huez is the name of the ski resort that sits at the lip of a bowl of rock carved out of the Grandes-Rousses mountains by an ancient glacier. The climb is the road that links Bourg d’Oisans, at its foot, with the resort. It flicks right and left, all the way up to Alpe d’Huez, but basically the road twists within a straight plane from Bourg d’Oisans to Alpe d‘Huez. When you are at Alpe d’Huez you look straight down at Bourg d’Oisans, and from Bourg d’Oisans you look straight up at Alpe d’Huez.

The vision
This piece of geography inspired a local artist called Jean Barbaglia. He was the first to envisage a bike race on Alpe d’Huez. He approached Georges Rajon, who owned the biggest hotel in the resort, the Christina, and suggested that Alpe d’Huez would be the ideal place for a Tour de France stage finish.

Rajon was hooked, and he was persuasive. The Tour never had a mountain top finish until Rajon‘s approach, but they agreed to have one at Alpe d’Huez in 1952. On a sporting level it was a success. The setting provoked a virtuoso performance from two of the most contrasting figures you could imagine. The elegance and sheer class of Fausto Coppi won the day, beating the guts and stubborn style of Jean Robic. The rest were nowhere.

But the Tour wasn’t convinced. A mountain top finish requires a lot of extra work, and Alpe d’Huez didn’t have the facilities it had today. Plus the black and white shots of that day show that the crowds didn’t exactly flock to the slopes of what is now the most famous mountain climb in cycling. The Tour wouldn’t hurry back.

That they went back at all was again down to Rajon. He nagged at the Tour organisers to return, and they did in 1976, by which time Alpe d’Huez was a thriving place, unrecognisable to anyone who’d been there in the fifties. The legend of the Alpe started that year, but its legendary status grew partly because of a coincidence between the stage winner and the parish priest. Both were Dutchmen.

Father Jaap
Father Jaap Reuten first visited Alpe d’Huez as an enthusiastic skier in 1964 and was horrified to find that there was no church in the growing village, so he set about building one. He commissioned a French architect, Jean Marol, who came up with a striking fusion of wood and concrete, the old with the new that was central to Father Jaap’s vision of a place where villagers and visitors would worship together. Reuten raised all the money he needed, even becoming the representative for a Dutch beer company in the area, and Notre Dame des Neiges was opened in 1969.

In his excitement Father Jaap rang the church bells to celebrate Joop Zoetemelk’s victory on July 4 1976, and the press loved it. They loved it even more when Hennie Kuiper won the following year and Father Jaap’s bells rang out again. The tradition was set, then reinforced when Dutch riders won another six times out of the next 11 Tour visits to the Alpe, all to the sound of the chapel bells.

Former Dutch professional Harrie Jansen says of that time, “For the sponsors, for the fans and for the riders victory at Alpe d’Huez was more important than the world championships.” The Dutch fans flocked to the climb, where previously they favoured the Bordeaux wine regions for a visit to cheer their cycling heroes.

The unlikely bubble of men from the flat fields of Holland winning the most important mountain stage of the Tour de France finally burst after 1989, the year Gert-Jan Theunisse became the last Dutchman to win there, but Dutch bike fans still flock to Alpe d’Huez. They congregate around Huez village, about two thirds of the way up, parking their camper vans days before the stage and embarking on a three-day bender of booze and blaring techno music.

Start climbing
The climb of Alpe d’Huez begins on the north-east edge of Bourg d’Oisans. The road spears off to the left at a sharp right bend in the N91 road to Briançon, just after it passes over the boisterous Romanche river. A few hundred metres of flat, then as the last homes of Bourg d’Oisans peter out the climbing starts.

The road ramps up to above 10 per cent and stays there for two kilometres as the bends start counting down. Numbered signs, 21 on the first down to one on the last, define each bend. Every sign carries its elevation, but most importantly the name of a previous Alpe d’Huez winner.

They make interesting reading, from Fausto Coppi and Lance Armstrong on bend 21 to Giuseppe Guerini on bend one, they are all there. There are more winners than bends now, so when the top was reached they went back down again and started putting two names on each sign.

One of the things that makes the Alpe so hard is that the first part is the steepest. The gradient relents slightly at La Garde as the first pitch up what is virtually a rock face ends. From La Garde the road clambers up a crazy-angled open meadow, then climbs between the sparse trees of the Bois Charretier.

It continues upwards, sometimes the road is sheltered, sometimes it’s exposed to the sun. High summer heat on the Alpe can be fierce. The climb uses one side of a steep v-shaped valley cut by a rushing stream flowing from the Sarennes glacier. The high valley sides cut off the Alpe from the cooling mountain breezes.

Hennie Kuiper, a Dutch rider who won on the Alpe in 1977 and 1978, and a frequent visitor still, says, “It is an incredibly hot place. The Alpe faces south and the sun shines on it almost all day. It is on your back in the afternoon when it’s at its hottest, and when the Tour riders race up there. I can remember looking ahead and willing for patches of shadow to come.”

Bend by bend the kilometres click by, the gradient stays between seven and 10 per cent until a shallower stretch of six per cent at the Huez chalets. That respite is paid for suddenly when the road tilts up to 11.5 per cent for a short stretch to punish tired legs and rasp at parched throats. Riding it is like being turned on a spit while being stabbed with a fork. Another Dutch double winner, Peter Winnen said after his first victory, “I felt like the climb took five years off my life.”

Eventually the straights become longer, the mountain opens out and the buildings of Alpe d‘Huez come into view. The gradient eases in the resort, but the zigzags continue until the Tour stage finish on the Avenue de Rif Nel, right outside the Hotel Chaix.

That is the end of the climb for the Tour, but not the end of the climbing. It’s possible to continue through Alpe d’Huez for another eight lonely kilometres up to the Col de Sarennes and then descend vertiginously back into the Romanche valley by the back road. It’s a wonderful ride, and a wonderful antidote to the busy clamour of the Alpe.

Not many cyclists do it, however. They do the Alpe and that‘s it. Up and down they go all day, each in their own private world, doing their own individual test, counting down those 21 bends and counting up their time. Most won’t be for public consumption, but that doesn’t matter. It’s a cyclist’s thing, a rite of passage.

The Alpe, those bends, the clock, the bike. They were made for each other.

Top ten men of the Alpe
Lance Armstrong

The 2004 time trial up the Alpe was pure theatre. Spread several hundred thousand spectators up the Alpe, whip them to a frenzy, then send the riders up one at a time. Last man to ride was Lance Armstrong, and not a soul on that mountain was ambivalent to the American. They cheered, they screamed and they booed, forming a noisy corridor that only opened up to let him past. Armstrong won in the chaos, but the crowd was verging on uncontrollable. It was an experiment that is unlikely to be repeated. Armstrong also won on the Alpe in 2001, solo, in one of the most crushing displays of cycling ever seen.

Joop Zoetemelk
The first double winner, Zoetemelk won on the Alpe in 1976 and 1979. The 1979 win was the strangest. It was the second of two stages that finished on the Alpe that year, and it started there too. The riders descended the Alpe, shot down the Romanche valley and climbed La Morte, then came back up the valley to climb Alpe d’Huez, a loop of 118 kilometres. Just to add to the weird feel, Zoetemelk was wearing the green jersey because he was second on points to a dominant Bernard Hinault, who also had the yellow. The year he won the Tour, 1980, there was no ascent of the Alpe.

Gert-Jan Theunisse
The only man to win on Alpe d’Huez while wearing the polka-dot jersey of the King of the Mountains was Gert-Jan Theunisse, and he did it in 1989. Michele Pollentier did it too, but it was on the day he was thrown out. Theunisse’s was one of the most beautiful days anyone has ever had in the climber’s jersey. Setting those red and white colours against a background of the Galibier, the Croix de Fer and Alpe d’Huez sealed their mythical status forever. It was certainly Theunisse’s finest hour. He’d broken away early in the stage, on the Col du Galibier, before crossing the Col de la Croix de Fer alone. On the Alpe, the other favourites chased, but could not close the gap.

Luis Herrera
It was 1984 and the Colombians had arrived. Amazing climbers from the high Andes, it seemed only a matter of time before one of them won the Tour de France. It didn’t happen. They climbed like angels, but were ham-fisted everywhere else. Robert Millar used to say that if there was a pile-up in a 1980s Tour, there would be a Colombian underneath it. Herrera was the archetypal bird-like climber. He looked ill-at-ease, like a boy who had borrowed his father’s bike, but he left Bernard Hinault and Laurent Fignon struggling in his wake. He put almost a minute into Fignon, who was dominating the Tour, and three minutes into everybody else.

Marco Pantani
Bouncing back from terrible injury Pantani launched himself at the Alpe in 1997. He’d won there in 1995, when he was the new climbing sensation, but then his wings were clipped by a collision with a car. Now he had something to prove. At first Jan Ullrich answered Pantani’s accelerations, but then the Italian got more serious and more confident, and started turning the screw. Soon he was alone at the front, and took his second win at the top.

Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond
Team mates Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond spent the 1986 Tour in an uneasy truce. They had swapped the yellow jersey around in the Pyrenees, but by the Alps, LeMond had edged ahead, and Hinault had promised to ride for him. Indeed, the pair smashed the Tour de France to pieces on the way to Alpe d’Huez, and they finished together at the top, five minutes ahead of the next rider. But LeMond didn’t trust Hinault, and both claimed they had waited for the other on the Alpe. The mistrust would endure right to the end of the race, with LeMond only secure in the yellow jersey after the final time trial.

Beat Breu
So pale it took him a week of the Tour to turn white, so thin he was almost see-through, Beat Breu, a Swiss climber, won on Alpe d’Huez in 1982. He attacked on the first straight and was never headed. Robert Alban closed to a few seconds, but Breu just looked behind him, jumped out of the saddle and sprinted off again. “I waited until I could see his gritted teeth, until he thought he’d got me, then I went hard to demoralise him,” says Breu.

Giuseppe Guerini

Guerini’s finest hour, on Alpe d’Huez in 1999, was nearly ruined by an enthusiastic spectator taking a snapshot. The fan forgot the golden rule about looking through camera viewfinders, and didn’t realise how close Guerini was until the Italian was sprawled on top of him. Luckily, Guerini wasn’t hurt, and still managed to win the stage. He had taken advantage of the other favourites’ inability or reluctance to attack race leader Lance Armstrong, and attacked from the lead group, holding off second-placed Pavel Tonkov by 21 seconds, in spite of his mishap with the fan.

Fausto Coppi
In Coppi’s day cycling teams were run like feudal societies. The team leader was the baron, and everybody else was there to help him. The day before the Alpe d’Huez stage the lead of the 1952 Tour had fallen onto the shoulders of Coppi’s team mate, Andrea Carrea, but instead of being elated Carrea was petrified that he’d incur the wrath of his boss. He didn’t, Coppi was pleased, and relaxed. Next day he wasn’t going to attack but he felt good, so when Jean Robic went clear of the lead group at the foot of the Alpe, Coppi allowed him some leeway then set off in pursuit. He caught Robic eight kilometres from the summit, rode with him for a while, then accelerated away. Coppi climbed the Alpe in 45 minutes 22 seconds and took over the yellow jersey.

Joachim Agostinho
The Portuguese Angolan war veteran was 36 when he won on Alpe d’Huez in 1979. He was as tough as overcooked steak, one of those riders who would have done better had the Tour been four weeks long instead of three. He was always good in the final week, and on his big day he dropped Robert Alban with three kilometres to go. Agostinho was still racing in 1984 when he was killed in a crash during the Tour of Algarve. There’s a memorial stone to him on the Alpe located close to where he attacked in 1979.

Pro’s eye view
A Dutch double winner on the Alpe, Peter Winnen, tells us how he did it.

Were you surprised to win in 1981 at your first attempt at the Tour?
Yes. It’s funny, because I had more difficulty winning when I was more experienced. I guess I hadn’t learned enough to lose when I was a new pro. When I was young I just raced. When I got older I thought more. Always a bad thing for a cyclist to do.

What sticks in your mind the most about the first time?
The pain. It was so hard, so hot. And I remember the smell of a barbecue. Everything else was just noise and a blur of people, the motorbike engines, the clattering helicopter. Too much for your senses to focus on, except for the smell of this barbecue. And then I remember looking up and seeing Alpe d’Huez, just some grey buildings against a blue sky, like a mirage.

When did you start to feel confident that you would win?
I had time checks from my team manager Walter Godefroot, but you can’t really concentrate on what people are saying to you. Managers like to give you advice, but you can’t focus on it, it’s really just something for them to say so that they feel they are helping. After the last bend, when the road becomes wide, I began to believe it was possible then.

What about the second time, in 1983?
That was different. There was plenty to focus on because I had company all the way to the top, and in the end I was in a fight right to the line with Jean-René Bernaudeau. We rode hard and dropped the others from our break. After that it was more tactical.

It looked a pretty desperate sprint between you two at the end
It was. I didn’t feel good, we were both tired. Sprinting for the stage on Alpe d’Huez is a tough job. It must have looked strange, us, two non-sprinters slowing down and looking at each other. I must have had just a little bit more left inside me than Jean-René.

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