As the first part of a series to explore the famous roads of cycling, here is the Alpe d’Huez in France. The idea with this weekly series is to discover the road and its place in the world, whether its part in cycling’s folklore or to explore what it is like on a normal day without a race.
Alpe d’Huez is first as it’s one of road cycling’s most famous routes, an Alpine theatre that has become famous and even had books written about it. Next summer the Tour will climb the road twice in one day.
But for all its fame, this is a new climb that only gained in notoriety during the 1980s where began to feature almost annually on the Tour’s route.
The D211 road climbs out of Bourg d’Oisans to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez at 1,860 metres above sea level. It is 13.2km long with an average gradient of 8.1% making it a tough climb but the road is wide, well-surfaced and a work of engineering that tames the mountain.
Much of the engineered sensation comes from the famous 21 hairpin bends. A typical bend in the mountains sees the inside of the road rise up so steeply that most cyclists avoid cutting the apex when climbing so as not to stall. But the road to the Alpe has many flat and wide bends to allow even the largest of vehicles to corner with ease.
Everyone says the climb has 21 hairpins which is correct if you stop upon entering the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez only few stop at the sign. This means there are more bends to climb.
It’s not necessarily the most beautiful climb. The road climbs up some steep slopes where it flanked by steep concrete walls on one side which radiate heat back to the riders on a hot day, the green pastures only emerge at the end. But there are good views of the Romanche valley.
You can count the hairpins and measure the gradient but roads often have an unquantifiable feeling. This is a busy road that has been designed by civil engineers and without a race the climb feels functional. There’s none of the ersatz spiritualism of Mont Ventoux nor is it the toughest of climbs – there are harder roads nearby.
The climb starts steep, going from flat road to a 10% grade in an instant, big ring to inner ring in a click. The best part is the middle section, with elevation a rider can gaze at the valley below but also spot the road snaking ominously above. Unlike other Alpine roads this does not meander up a valley, following the natural course of a river. Instead this is a supersize parking garage with 21 levels connected by a series of ramps.
It’s rural but there’s a mild suburban vibe with the street furniture, the concrete wall and crash barriers that line much of the road. As the top approaches the ski resort and its ugly constructions detract from the mountains around.
Scanning the photo archives, there are few scenic photos, instead the focus is on the action and also the dense crowds which part to let the leaders pass although perhaps this is because most photographers don’t have the time to compose a shot since they need to get to the finish to capture the winning moment.
The village of Huez sits about halfway up the climb and has long been inhabited, perching on the slopes. But higher up the open pastures were used for grazing cattle. At one time a silver mine was operated for the benefit of the local royalty and protected by the Chateau de Brandes. The fort has crumbled now the mine has gone. Instead the place earns its coin from tourism and in the 1920s winter sports became a leisure activity and the ski resort began to take shape. If others invented the ski lift by accident, for example to transport goods up the mountain by sliding sacks uphill over the snow, Alpe d’Huez claims it was the first to install a formal ski lift.
Tour de France History
The nearby Galibier pass was first included in 1911 but the Tour did not climb the Alpe until 1952 when it was used for the race’s first ever summit finish. Fausto Coppi won. It was not until 1976 that the race returned meaning the road is a relic of the modern era as it established itself as a regular summit finish in the 1980s and 1990s. This suggests the sport’s pantheon of legendary venues can be opened up to include new places with relative ease.
The Dutch left their mark with wins two stage victories each for Joop Zootemelk, Hennie Kuiper and Peter Winnen in the 1970s and 80s, along with Steven Rooks and Gert-Jan Theunisse. To this day the place is a big draw with the Dutch in summer and winter alike.
The resort has made up for lost time and embraced cycling. Each hairpin bend is named after a Tour stage winner but given the race has visited so often now some corners now have two names… although the local council is set to delete Lance Armstrong. But if the hairpins are numbered this owes little to the Tour: the bends were numbered to help snow plough drivers in heavy snowfall.
Owing to its regularity in the Tour as a summit finish in recent years it has indeed proved decisive for the race although this is not always so:
- Carlos Sastre’s attack in 2008 saw him ride away with the stage win and yellow jersey. Many expected Cadel Evans to overhaul the Spaniard in the final time trial but Sastre’s advantage was too big
- He’s not so popular these days but Lance Armstrong’s “look” in 2001 might be a defining image of his career, he fixed long time rival Jan Ullrich with a gaze before riding away. Both riders later downplayed the incident but it lives on as a TV moment
- The race took a flat approach in 1997 and Marco Pantani’s Mercatone Uno team drove the pace all the way to the foot of the climb and then left their leader to finish the job on the slopes. Pantani flew up in record time of 37m35s, although this time is disputed. His memory lives on with a modest Prix Pantani usually awarded to stage winners now
- In 1986 Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond were on the same team but fought each other during the race in a tale recounted by Richard Moore’s “Slaying The Badger” book. Hinault and LeMond arrived at the finish line together
- In 1984 Luis “Lucho” Herrera won the stage on his way to taking the King of the Mountains prize, the first Colombian to win a stage in the race and marking the emergence of riders from beyond Europe
On A Normal Day
So what’s it like when the crowds are gone? Well it’s busy, at least for an Alpine road. The road is open all year as the ski resort requires easy access.
- Right now the ski season is on and the road is open and you can ride up but the descent will be cold. But summer is closer than you think with graffiti left by cycling fans. If the road gets resurfaced the walls can retain tributes to Pantani or Virenque. The road is busy with tourist traffic as there is no ski piste down to the valley. So everyone has to go up the mountain before they can slide down. Large coaches exploit the wide hairpin bends with ease whilst many vehicles ferry food and other supplies to resort
- There is a summer season and the road creaks with cyclists winching their way uphill. This includes keen amateurs in town for the annual Marmotte ride, the world’s first gran fondo event which started in 1982. But the climb’s reputation goes far and you will spot Dutch couples pushing their town bikes. There is bike rental in several bike shops in Bourg d’Oisans where casual visitors can try it for themselves. Less adventurous tourists just drive up, their vehicles reeking of burning clutch plates and brake pads
- The third season is the quiet time of year, in between the Tour and the snow, between the heat and the winter. Here the road is much quieter as the ski resort gets repaired during the off-season. The road can be fixed but still cyclists will tackle the slopes including many ski instructors who work on their fitness when there’s no snow
The road is proving so popular with cyclists that one reason for this year’s Tour de France double ascension is to showcase the Col de Sarenne. After climbing up to Alpe d’Huez the race will tackle the Col de Sarenne which sits behind the ski resort at 1,999m before descending to the valley and riding back to Bourg d’Oisans for the final climb. If only a fraction of the visiting cyclists take this alternative descent in the summer it will ease the traffic
Travel and Access
Grenoble is the nearest city with rail connections from Paris and both Lyon and Geneva airports are not far. The only public transport is a bus to Bourg d’Oisans.
You can stay in Alpe d’Huez but like many purpose-built ski resorts, it looks better when buried under the snow and its charm melts with the snow. Down below Bourg d’Oisans makes a better base with a range of family-run hotels.
As well as ascending the main road via Huez and the back route via the Col de Sarenne there is a third route up via the village of Villard-Reculas. There are also many other cols in the area that have been used by the Tour de France, from giants like the Galibier via the Lautaret and the Glandon and Croix de Fer sisters, all of which tend to be open from May until October.
The most famous climb of the Tour de France? Perhaps but the Alps have plenty more to offer. The wide road and regular gradient make it a hard climb but it’s a steady ramp test, there are no nasty surprises. It’s more access road than mountain pass, and if it’s no Alpine highway, there can be enough traffic to ensure the mountain air has a diesel tang.
This is a road brought to life by racing and in fact it is a relatively recent edition to the sport. It is worth trying on a visit to the Alps but nearby roads offer a more typical Alpine experience of high altitude, green pastures and open space.
I’m sometimes asked by email about where to ride in France and Italy. With this series hopefully there are some answers. Next week the climb from Bellagio to the Madonna dello Ghisallo Chapel
Part I – Alpe d’Huez
Part II – The Ghisallo
Part III – Mont Ventoux
Part IV – Col de la Madone
Part V – Col du Soulor
Part VI – Passo Dello Stelvio
Part VII – Mont Aigoual
Part VIII – Col de la République
Part IX – Croce d’Aune
Part X – Strade Bianche
Part XI – Col d’Eze
Part XII – The Poggio
Part XIII – Arenberg Cobbles
Part XIV – Col du Tourmalet
Part XV – Côte de La Redoute