Two words. L’Alpe d’Huez (I think that’s two). Two more important words for this year’s Etape – Compact Cranks. If you are riding the Etape du Tour this year be warned: Alpe D’Huez is going to be very hard indeed.
Alpe d’Huez itself is a pretty large and sprawling ski resort, but it is the mountain road that leads to it that is mainly known to followers of bike racing – it’s one of the classic battlegrounds of the Tour de France. Many legends have been written on it’s slopes and many of the names are still there, daubed in faded paint on the tarmac. Lance Armstrong made this twisty climb his own in recent Tours, but its history is much longer than that. The thirty and forty somethings out there will remember Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault finishing ‘stale mate’ up here and in the late nineties Marco Pantani’s blistering ascents of this alpine helter skelter were a sight to behold. Dutch riders have always had a good time with this climb – which is especially strange as the topography of their home country is hardly ideal preparation – Tour winner and forgotten man of 1970s cycling Joop Zoetemelk paved the way for the hundreds of Dutch camper vans that now follow the Tour each year, hoping for a repeat win on the ‘text book’ alpine stage.
Take a deep breath… 21 to go
The main feature of the mountain road is the 21 hairpin bends on the 14km climb. The average gradient isn’t the steepest (at 7.7%), but it is the relentless switchbacks that have provided some of the finest stages that Tour fans have witnessed. The bends are thoughtfully numbered with a white plaque, which is awful for the first 15 and great for the final few turns to the summit, it’s the sort of mind game you’d be better off avoiding, so don’t go up counting them, just get your head down and keep plodding on… The bends are also, more thoughtfully, dedicated to past Tour de France winners at the Alpe, I noticed; Pantani, Zoetemelk, Kuiper, Armstrong… then I lost interest as the pain started to set in, the gear beginning to grow too large for comfort. Interestingly signpost number one keeps getting stolen, a souvenir too much to resist and is, perhaps, adorning the wall of a Hymer camper van somewhere in the low country.
We set off from Bourg D’Oisans at nine o’clock on a gorgeous sunny June morning and started the climb straight away. With tired, but fresh-ish, legs it’s pretty obvious that the bottom section and first half dozen switchbacks are going to hurt already weary legs. It’s steep here (around 10%) and the switchbacks are further apart, so the ‘ramp effect’ kicks in early. Even on a quiet day there are several parties of cyclists riding the Alpe, with tour companies and photographers having realised that this is a pilgrimage that most devotees of the Grande Boucle want to share in. It’s also clear by the delight of a huge group of German riders on reaching the top, that it’s a challenge all cycling fans relish.
The hairpins are thoughtfully ‘flattish’
Most of the hairpins are flattish and allow a small respite from the gradient, it’s also a fairly wide road with a smooth surface so you’ll be free to set about your toil to the top unhindered. I suspect that there will be a fair few people reduced to snail’s pace up here, so some attention will be needed to weave through the inevitable Etape traffic.
By the time we reached the first village at La Garde we were climbing at a slowish tempo, but catching riders ahead by just riding steady. As we had no idea how the gradient would kick up in front of us it’s hard to judge how fast to ride, all I can say is take it at your pace and don’t try to match an uncomoftable tempo. Past the Church and at around kilometre 7 it starts to ramp up again and although the large hairpins are relatively flat, the road to the village of Huez is at the steepest part (11-12%) and right when you least want it – half way up. However, with the purgatory over of the first 12 hairpins(!) the final half is less punishing and you can start to accelerate, that is if you have saved anything.
Contrary to what I’d expected this is a very beautiful climb, OK the town at the top isn’t idyllically French, but the views across the valley on the way up are stunning and the church two thirds of the way up is a favourite vista for riders. Unlike many of the other alpine knee crunchers in the area there are rare views of the road ahead, part of the reality of this hill is that it hides what’s in store as the road rarely stretches for much longer than a few hundred metres ahead of you. I like this as it means you don’t get mind games like you can on Mont Ventoux or the Col du Tourmalet where the road upwards is always obstructing your view ahead.
The views are stunning, if you have time to look up
My ‘Alpine technique’ is to spin the steep bits and attack the corners a bit, so you can gain a little momentum for each return leg of the switchbacks. Changing up and standing up for a few revs and then changing down and sitting on top of the gear also helps the smooth out the cadence. Don’t be tempted to climb ‘a la Virenque’ though, as you’ll need to use a higher gear and waste a lot unnecessary energy – you’ll also soon find out how hard pushing his 23 tooth sprocket really is. Sit down and spin – make progress and aim to conserve as much energy for the final 5kms. I would definitely practice your technique, find a hill and try different styles as everyone is different, but you can’t expect to get over this mountain without realising that it needs preparation.
Into the last 3 kms and the road finally levels out, in fact there is a downhill section before a last little lump to the finish line (consider this lump before you start thinking about whacking it into the big ring for a sprint finish) Marco Pantani sprinted the final 3 kilometres on his record breaking ride in 1997, big ring style – Forza Marco! The pro riders will all use a 25 tooth bottom gear (as a rule for anything over 10%) but bear in mind that they will all average over 14km/h, yes, even the sprinters. They will also have no weight on themselves (in their pockets) or on the bike, perhaps one bottle, but any weight they can save will make a big difference. You will have to carry water and get plenty of gels and energy before you start the climb as once it’s started you won’t get much chance for respite.
The view from around 2km to go
The word of warning needs to be repeated as even at 10 o’clock in the morning when were here, and with most of the col still in shadow, it is still very warm. Taking on fluids is always going to be important in a ride like this and if the 10th of July is hot, then expect to have to drink plenty. On the climb I managed to empty 3 bottles and fill up again on the way down. The waterfalls of melting snow may have dried up by July, but they are refreshingly tempting you all the way up to the summit and the noise of cold cascading water rolling under the road will hardly help the thirst.
Gearing? Well 39×25 is possible, but probably stupid for Etapists. I would definitely recommend a minimum bottom gear of 39×27. Compact cranks will be my preferred route, as a few bail-out gears are going to be very welcome for the final push up to the summit… I will definitely be ordering a set.
The fastest recorded time set for the Col is an astonishing 37 minutes and 35 seconds set by Marco Pantani in 1997. Double that, and some, for a respectable time – especially after riding the 90 odd miles before hand.
The top, just to remind you to stop
I personally think that there will be a lot of people caught out by the severity of the climb, not in isolation but after a long hot day in the saddle and it could be taking many people up to two hours (possibly more and in the heat of the day) so it will not be particularly pleasant – you have been warned. Don’t be put off though, as long as you treat this climb with respect and approach it with a strong will, you’ll love it – remember the riders who have ridden these same roads and keep it rolling. Start steady and build up as the climb progresses and it is easier the further up you get, and that’s a promise.
Later on that day we rode up the Col du Glandon (at 29kms long I really wished we hadn’t) and bumped into to two Dutch guys who had just (on 06.06.06) ridden Alpe d’Huez 6 times in one day?! All of this madness was, apparently and very admirably, to raise money for the Dutch cancer charity. Together with 60 equally deranged compatriots they raised over 300,000 Euros and it took them literally all day to complete. 84 kilometres of climbing and almost 8000 metres in ascent – that’s gotta hurt – Chapeau!
Not far to go…
L’Alpe d’Huez – Facts and figures
TdF stage Winners at L’Alpe
1976 : Joop Zoetemelk
1977 : Hennie Kuiper
1978 : Hennie Kuiper
1979 : Joaquim Agostinho
1979 : Joop Zoetemelk
1981 : Peter Winnen
1982 : Beat Breu
1983 : Peter Winnen
1984 : Luis Herrera
1986 : Bernard Hinault
1987 : Frederico Echave
1988 : Stefan Rooks
1989 : Gert-Jan Theunisse
1990 : Gianni Bugno
1991 : Gianni Bugno
1992 : Andy Hampsten
1994 : Roberto Conti
1995 : Marco Pantani
1997 : Marco Pantani
1999 : Guiseppi Guerini
2001 : Lance Armstrong
2003 : Iban Mayo
2004 : Lance Armstrong
The Tour’s history is evident
37’35” – Marco Pantani, 1997 (fastest)
38’01” – Lance Armstrong, 2001
39’45” – Miguel Indurain, 1991
41’50” – Laurent Fignon, 1989
48’00” – Bernard Hinault/Greg Lemond, 1986
53’00” (approx.) – Guy and Rusty, June 2006
L’Alpe D’Huez – number crunching:
Starting Altitude:719 metres
Finish Altitude: 1860 metres
Distance: 14 kms
Vertical Climb: 1121 metres
Gradient: 7.7% average (12% max 5% min)