Tour de France 2015: Legendary s tatus is the highly sought prize for vic tory on Alpe d'Huez

There is the urban myth that if you are wearing yellow on the Alpe d’Huez, the penultimate stage, you will be guaranteed victory in Pari

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The Independent Online

At 13.8 kilometres, Alpe d’Huez is far from being the longest Alpine climb – that honour goes to the 26km monster Bonette-Restefond – and with gradients of 8.1 per cent, it is by no means the steepest. Yet either way, the 28th ascent of the Alpe d’Huez is guaranteed to be one of the most spectacular climbs of this Tour de France, its victor all but automatically a cycling legend.

Why Alpe d’Huez should have gained that mythical status is, truth to tell, harder to fathom.

There is the urban myth that if you are wearing yellow on the Alpe d’Huez, the penultimate stage, you will be guaranteed victory in Paris – but even if that is true this year, it is not always the case.

The reasons why are more straightforward. If there is one ascent that is as well known among the general public as it is among diehard cycling fans, it is the Alpe d’Huez. No other climb is as prestigious, or as coveted: win there and even if you never take another prestigious victory you will be guaranteed a place in the sport’s history books.

 

Why Alpe d’Huez matters, then, is perhaps more because of its huge popularity among the fans. No other mountain climb on the Tour – or indeed in cycling – is as guaranteed to be packed with spectators, from start to finish. More than a million watched Lance Armstrong win an uphill time trial in 2004 (he was later stripped of the victory for doping). No other climb has plaques on each corner with the names of former winners. If the Champs-Élysées is where every sprinter wants to raise his arms at least once in his life, the same goes for climbers and Grand Tour specialists at Alpe d’Huez.

Another reason is that this is a climb where – perhaps because of its prestige and the subsequent added tension and pressure that go with that, the extra degree of competitiveness it brings out in all the bunch, and the difficulty of racing through such massive crowds – things always happen.

Alpe d’Huez has so often been the scene where the Tour was won and lost – like in 2008, when Carlos Sastre broke away to take the stage win and the yellow jersey. (Since then Sastre has refused to go all the way up the same climb by bike, saying it would spoil his memories of seven years ago.)

In 2001, too, a certain Armstrong blew the race apart on the same climb – and in 2003, the American clung on to yellow after cracking on Alpe d’Huez. In 1986, it was the scene of a memorable burying of the hatchet between team-mates and arch-rivals Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault, and in 1984 the victory of Lucho Herrera on the Alpe represented the breakthrough of Colombian cycling in the Tour. Further back, such names as Fausto Coppi, the Italian cycling legend and the first winner there in 1952, and Joop Zoetemelk, the Netherlands’ greatest Tour rider and twice a winner on the “Dutch mountain”, are all part of the history of the Alpe d’Huez.

The climb itself may not be the most difficult in the Alps – that honour, by common consent, goes to the Col du Galibier, which was to have preceded the ascent of Alpe d’Huez today, but because of landslides has had to substituted by the longer but slightly easier Col de la Croix de Fer.

But even so, if somebody had wanted to design a mountain ascent to see the race split apart from the word go, they could not have done better than Alpe d’Huez, with its steepest slopes right at the bottom of the climb – where the peloton invariably shatters into a dozen pieces – and then another very hard section five kilometres from the top, which is perfect for a late, devastating solo move.

Combine the history, the prestige and the difficulty, and no matter how conservatively riders might want to race, in the past Alpe d’Huez has too often proved too tempting a prize for them do so. Today, with Paris and a well-earned rest just 24 hours away, that might well prove to be the case again.