Tour de France 2015, Alpe d'Huez: It has 21 hairpins zigzagging like a child's drawing

Cycling journalist and the author of a new book about Alpe d’Huez, Peter Cossins recalls his first experience of the fabled ascent and explains why it has become cycling’s Wembley Way – and Glastonbury

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The Independent Online

On Alpe d’Huez, more than anywhere else in cycle sport, the spectators are part of the action, a fact I became more fully aware of when I first covered a stage that took on the ascent during the 2003 Tour de France.

Approaching it from Bourg d’Oisans, the road was easy to pick out, with its thousands of camper vans, their windows glinting like supercharged cats’ eyes, highlighting the climb’s switches back and forth. Moving closer, the route seethed with tens of thousands of fans, creating an ever-moving trail up an enormous anthill. Once on to the initial ramps, the steepest on the climb, the sheer number of bodies, banners, flags and colours resembled Wembley Way on Cup final day – and progress was just as pedestrian.

Temperatures had risen to 40°C in the heatwave that had gripped France but, as my good friend and then Procycling editor Jeremy Whittle drove us towards Dutch Corner, the most infamous of the climb’s 21 hairpins, he insisted on all the windows being closed and doors locked.

“You’ll never have seen anything like this,” he told me. “It’s amazing for the riders when they come through here, but the press don’t get quite the same welcome.”

After a brief halt among the frenzied throng, a few waved fists and curses as our tyres lifted newly painted names and slogans off the road, and a few choruses of, “Boogie is de best, is de best, Michael Boogerd better dan de rest,” in praise of that era’s leading Dutch rider, we were through, having repelled all attempts to soak us with super-sized squirters filled with water and, as some journalists later revealed, rather more unsavoury liquids.

Just above the mayhem, there was madness.

 

Approaching bend six, the next one on from Dutch Corner, we were confronted by two dozen Elvis impersonators performing “Hound Dog” on the back of a flatbed trailer. Techno music competed with the 1950s classic and fans danced in the road, unconcerned by the frantic hooting of press cars whose occupants were desperate to reach sanctuary and what was left of the buffet in the press room at the summit.

Every metre of road was coated in emulsion, undercoat and gloss, these daubs encouraging even the most obscure members of the peloton. It was jaw-droppingly barmy and totally captivating. Thinking back to that day, I remember more about the fans than the action the riders served up a couple of hours later.

Over the subsequent dozen years, I’ve returned to Alpe d’Huez many times, often staying in the kind of ludicrously overpriced and decidedly downmarket dorm-type room typical of so many ski resorts, and the atmosphere and race action on the mountain has never disappointed.

More recently, I’ve gone there with the aim of getting a different perspective on the climb, one stripped of all the hullaballoo that the Tour brings.

Going up it by car, on foot and, inevitably, by bike, I’ve gained a better insight into a climb that is too often dismissed as an unremarkable road leading to a distinctly unattractive resort.

It lies in the heart of the French Alps, in the Oisans region of the department of Isère. Approaching it via the Romanche valley, having left behind first Grenoble and then Vizille, the main D1091 road emerges from a deep gorge carved by the river and turns south into a wide and flat-bottomed valley along which the wind often barrels, draining the resources of any solo escaper from the peloton, even before they have reached the mythic test that lies ahead.

The road arrows into Bourg d’Oisans, a small town of tightly packed, steeply roofed houses that’s home to just 3,000 inhabitants, but is the largest on the road between Vizille, 35km to the west, and Briançon, 70km to the east.

Looming over the town, the immense Signal de Prégentil rockface, its striations meandering in mesmeric fashion, indicates the uphill finale is imminent. After weaving through Bourg d’Oisans, crossing the Romanche and then leaving the D1091 for the D211, the road makes a  beeline for the rockface opposite the Prégentil. On Tour days, the fans and vans reveal the way ahead, but on any other day the sign indicating “Alpe d’Huez 14” provides the only confirmation that there is any way out of what looks to be the most final of cul-de-sacs.

But just when it seems the only way out is to emulate Edmund Hillary rather than Bernard Hinault, the road angles left and up – very sharply up, towards the first of those fabled hairpins.

For the most part gouged out of the mountainside, the climb up to Alpe d’Huez doesn’t compare to any number of more breathtaking ascents in the vicinity. It defies nature rather than bending to it or fitting in with it. The views are magnificent in places, but take away the Tour and all its history and you end up with what Andy Hampsten describes as “a very good road to get to a ski resort”.

Add the Tour and all that comes with it to the Alpe, though, and the result is an arena unparalleled across the cycling world. For spectators standing on almost any part of it, there are long-ranging views down the mountain and towards the resort nestled beneath the Grandes Rousses massif.

The density of the crowds on the day the Tour visits increases the mountain’s sense of specialness, especially at bend seven, where racers know they are going to get an ear-splitting and uniquely colourful reception from the oranged-up Dutch fans, who have become just as much a part of the occasion as the riders.

Alpe d’Huez’s reputation as the Wembley or Maracana of cycling is just as apparent to the millions watching the stage on TV. For many of these armchair spectators, the Tour is as much about the beauty of France as it is about cycling and, within this context of France as a landscape, few of its locations are quite as spectacular as the Alpe.

This is especially true when the climb is seen in the pictures broadcast from the helicopters buzzing like bees over an enormous, action-packed hive. These images provide such a different perspective that anyone seeing them would think Hampsten’s description of the climb as “ugly” was unhinged.

The 21 hairpins, highlighted by a black-and-white line of fans and camper vans, weave unsteadily up to the resort, bouncing the riders from one corner to the  next. Seen from this vantage point, the 14km route to the resort is like a road from a child’s drawing, zigzagging steeply up apparently sheer rockfaces.

It is a wondrous sight, “like a compressed version of the whole 21-day race,” says Tour historian Serge Laget, or “like all the Alps encapsulated in one mountain,” according to L’Équipe’s Gérald Ejnès. It is a frenzy of action where the spectators create the atmosphere and are very much part of the race.

Tim Moore, whose book French Revolutions recounted his ride around the route of the 2004 Tour, which included the Tour’s only time trial thus far to take place on the climb, wrote that the Alpe has become “the Glastonbury festival for cycling fans”, and the analogy is apposite.

Like that festival’s bill, it doesn’t matter all that much to fans who the headliners are. They will still turn out no matter what and they will enjoy the experience.