Tour de France 2015, Alpe d'Huez: 'The road comes alive with a forest of people – perilous but beautiful'

American former cyclist Andy Hampsten recalls the heady atmosphere of the biggest day of his racing career, when he won on Alpe d’Huez during the 1992 Tour de France

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The Independent Online

The fans were almost insane and it was a mad situation, a little bit funny. I’ve been in a couple of situations on the bike when I felt I was losing my equilibrium. This was one of them. My balance is actually pretty good, but it really does depend on having a horizon.

Usually, racers look at the road and the nature of the climb, studying which grade and line to take. But that was out. I somehow couldn’t get my bearings. I can only compare it to being out in downpours when there were sheets of water coming down the road, the downpour becoming so intense that I started to feel a little light-headed because visual clues and balance were lost. So I ended up relying on secondary balancing cues to make sure my bike kept heading the way it was supposed to. It felt the same trying to get through this vertical forest of people.

It’s very exciting, it’s why we racers love Alpe d’Huez. But the fans closest to us are the drunkest. I don’t want to get too graphic, but there is an absolute stench of alcohol, of people who’ve drunk too much alcohol. They’ve got so much of it in their bodies that you can smell the odour of them sweating it out, the stench of digested alcohol. It’s like the yeast in bread. You think, “Oh my gosh, there’s just so much alcohol coming out of these people’s pores.”

They’re out of their minds, so drunk that it turns into a bit of a guessing game. Instead of deciding which line I want to take on the road, it’s like trying to go through a group of lizards that surge three-quarters of the way across the road, then retreat instead of just going across to the other side. There is definitely an element of danger.

 

I did end up lashing out a couple of times. When I pushed myself that hard mentally on a climb, it would create a fair bit of a rage, which is not a negative thing at all, as it helped me to keep pushing myself. It got to the point where so much mental energy was being expended on pushing myself physically to go uncomfortably hard that I ended up really on edge and not wanting to deal with all this mayhem at all, but at the same time it was also incredibly exciting. The upside to it is that, as long as someone didn’t knock me over, the huge amount of energy coming out of the crowd matched the rage that I had pushing myself to go faster. It was a potent combination.

The other factor is that the fans are so close to you that you feel that you’re going much faster than you are. You get the impression you’re riding into a small hole among the fans. It becomes so easy to doubt how fast you are going because there’s no longer a static road surface against which to judge relative speed. I had the impression I was going incredibly fast, but it was just down to people jumping out of the way at the very last moment. It’s very, very confusing as a racer to deal with. But it’s a lot of fun – one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life.

I did say that winning on the Alpe was better than winning the World Championship and I’d stick with that now – if you’re a climber. I’d amend that, though, and say that winning Paris-Roubaix feels the same way. As a racer, just about every one of my colleagues would say they’d rather win Paris-Roubaix than the Worlds. But, for a climber, for someone who had been focusing on general classification, Alpe d’Huez is the ultimate goal.

It’s always great to go back there. It’s become a pilgrimage point for most cyclists, which makes it fun. When I’m on bike tours with my company I love riding my bike slowly and enjoying the view, but I would have to say it’s the least scenic mountain that I see over months at a time. I love coming down the Col de Sarenne on the far side of it, but all I can say about the route up is that it’s a good road to get to a ski area. I think it’s a pretty dull climb. Sure, there’s all the history of it, but in my mind it’s more of a cycling stadium than a beautiful road through the gorgeous French Alps. In all honesty, the climb is ugly and the town’s not spectacular, although it’s such a fun place to go to because there are so many cyclists.

It’s really at its best when all of the spectators are on it to see the Tour go by. It really is out on its own then.