“It is a rich slope” was the word that spread from the Romans. The purest minerals copper, zinc and coal were all mined here in a risk-reward enterprise that sometimes caused lethal avalanches to tumble down the steep slopes.
Over-ground, l’Alpe quickly became a hotspot for winter sports. In 1936 it gave birth to the first version of the modern ski lift. So cycling, and Le Tour, was late to the scene, not arriving until nearly 20 years later, which is hard to imagine given that this is possibly the most famous climb in the history of La Grande Boucle.
Industry and tourism lead to engineering. Man’s way of scaling this particular mountain? 21 hairpin bends going back and forth over 13.2 km at an average gradient of 8.1%.
Come summer each bend, every kilometer and all the ramps that fill the space between switchbacks are animated by the colorful cycling jerseys and excited voices from far-flung places such as Australia and Russia. Road engineering turned into a monument by bicycle racing.
As with the Giro and the Stelvio, the relationship between Alpe d’Huez and the Tour de France started in 1952 with a stage win by the legendary Fausto Coppi. Since then, especially from the late 70’s onwards, this little Alpine village marked its spot on the cycling map.
Every bend has its own unique story. They are named after the winners of stages (some of them after two) and where they made their iconic attacks. Just don’t mention Lance. The 7th bend is also known as Dutch Corner, the riders from the flatlands seemingly claiming a bit of the Alps to compensate for their nation's lack of elevation.
The fastest ascent record holder is Marco Pantani, who in 1997 climbed to the station in 37 minutes 35 seconds and won the stage. The podium on that day included Pantani, Jan Ullrich and Richard Virenque and their times feature in the top 10 of all time. That particular edition of the Tour was considered one of the most ‘performance-enhanced’…
Those seeking to register a time should start with respect, and they should start early to avoid the heat and the crowds. The first few kilometres are particularly stiff and it takes time to find a rhythm.
Allow yourself to drift away in a nostalgic train of thoughts, imagining all the incredible battles that took place on this same road. Counting down the bends, from 21 to 0 - Armstrong here, Schleck or Sastre there.
The village of Alpe d’Huez is certainly not the most beautiful compared to other ski resorts in France. However, it is less touristic and has an amazing cycling atmosphere. Everyone is excited and friendly. There’s no feeling of rivalry, people exchange their experiences over coffee, discussing further plans for their day.
Such a lovely mix of nationalities, all connected by simply riding bikes.
The mountain may see up to 1000 riders a day in the season. It’s an obvious but inescapable analogy that these velocipedes are here to mine the rich history of this mountain-side velodrome. Judge it or just enjoy it.
And when the second espresso is done, get ready for the twisting descent. This time counting from 0 to 21. Conti here, Hinault there.