Alpine assault: Alpe d’Huez vs Col du Galibier

The bold, brash 21 crowded hairpins of Alpe d'Huez pitched against the majesty of the grandest pass in the Alps, the truly epic Col du Galibier

Alpe d’Huez

There’s nothing spectacularly beautiful about Alpe d’Huez, but then the same can be said about many great sports stadiums.

Of course Alpe d’Huez has its moments; it just lacks the pristine scenery that many of its peers can boast as it winds upwards from Le Bourg-d’Oisans to the ski station.

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That aside, it is without doubt the most famous climb in the Alps, even though the Tour de France didn’t visit it until 1952, when Fuasto Coppi won in front of the race’s first live television audience.

Alpe d’Huez (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

When you arrive at the base the road bends left and ramps up almost instantly into the most horrible of gradients, plunging all who hit it deep into the red. Many an attempton its summit has been scuppered after over-exuberance in the early slopes, which as they begin to round the famous 21 hairpins never drop below an eight per cent gradient. Further up there are brief moments of respite, including Dutch Corner. Having won eight of the first 14 ascents, Dutch fans have claimed the mountain as their own to this day.

Regular attraction

After its debut in 1952 it took a 24-year sabbatical but from 1976 onwards it has been a regular attraction. From the record-breaking time set by Marco Pantani, to Welsh hero Geraint Thomas via Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault crossing the line hand in hand, Alpe d’Huez has seen it all, and regardless of its aesthetics it will forever be key to the Tour.

Col du Galibier

Col du Galibier (Photo by Tim De Waele/Getty Images)

The Tour’s first director Henri Desgrange included the mighty Galibier in the race in 1911 and its high altitude and epic scenery were an instant hit.

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Ridden from the north some measure its ascent from the town of Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne therefore amalgamating the Col du Télégraphe but really the true ascent starts in Valloire.

From there you can break the climb roughly into two parts, the long and comparatively gentle slog up to Plan Lachat and the much harsher conclusion.

From its first Tour use when only three riders completed it without walking, the Tour has passed over or finished on top of this mighty mountain 58 times but until 1976 it used a tunnel to avoid the inhospitable summit. Since then the race has crossed the top and finished there in 2011, when Andy Schleck triumphed.

Heroic exploits

Those who have reached its peak first include Nairo Quintana, Federico Bahamontes, Eddy Merckx and Charly Gaul but perhaps one of the greatest feats it witnessed was by the late Marco Pantani. In atrocious weather on stage 15 of the 1998 Tour Pantani attacked on the climb not far from Valloire and rode solo, through the icy rain to turn a three-minute deficit on the then leader Jan Ullrich into an 11-minute lead.

His heroics gave the talented Italian the yellow jersey, and ultimately victory in what was the most controversial edition in the history of the race.

Verdict

Traditionalists will scoff but the only good thing about a Tour without Alpe d’Huez is it makes it twice as good the next year so the win must go to brash and crass over epic beauty and gruelling distance.

This feature originally appeared in the print edition of Cycling Weekly, on sale in newsagents and supermarkets, priced £3.25.