Alpe d’Huez – Cycling’s Greatest Climb by Peter Cossins
Is Alpe d’Huez cycling’s most famous climb? There are many better roads to ride but the Alpe draws in the crowds like no other.
What makes Alpe d’Huez so popular? You might say the numbered hairpin bends, you could enjoy the views or maybe it’s all those famous stages of the Tour de France. But surely it’s the crowd that defines this climb, no other ascension sees such a communion between the riders and the fans? This book takes a closer look at the famous climb and how it gained it’s status and tells the story of those who suffered and shined on the way up.
The book’s introduction covers a lot of ground as Peter Cossins touches on the crowds that define this climb; he correctly identifies there are 22 hairpin bends rather than the 21 everyone usually quotes; and he explains the summit finish as a televisual concept designed to delay the suspense until late and to a scheduled time. It’s also made clear the Tour de France visits Alpe d’Huez so often simply because the ski resort is willing to pay up. Ten pages in and several big ideas have been identified and explained. What’s next?
Plenty with all sorts of details. There is the history of the climb, both the road itself and its appearances in the Tour de France. It’s a recent phenomenon with one visit in 1952 and then not again until 1976 where upon it’s been a regular feature on the route. This is a modern climb. It does not have the heritage of the Col du Tourmalet or Mont Ventoux but somehow draws more people in. Alpe d’Huez’s tourist office is only too welcome to pay for the race. Once upon a time the hoteliers were cautious to put up the money, today the fee is €300,000 but the office de tourisme gladly pays estimating the race brings in €10 million of benefits. There are lots of details, perhaps you’ve heard some stories before like the priest on the Alpe who was also the local agent for the Heineken brewery? The book rounds up all these stories.
Why those big crowds? Buy the book but the short cut is that the race became a magnet for Dutch fans thanks to a generation of Netherlanders racing for yellow and stage wins, helped by the maniacal radio commentary of Theo Koomen, at times impossible to stop and who resorted to inventing things to make the radio more interesting. Plus the Tour just kept visiting because it was found a resort willing to pay. Success breeds success. But this brings problems with drunken fans and worse.
Many chapters cover the various riders who made their name there. Joop Zoetemelk is given a sympathetic chapter which sets out to bust the “wheelsucker” myth of the rider whose pale skin was once cruelly explained by the fact that he spent so long in Eddy Merckx’s shadow. There’s the inevitable doping chapter but perhaps the dedicated chapter helps to contain this topic.
Each chapter is interspersed by the story of the 1976 Tour de France’s ascent of the mountain with an almost pedal stroke by pedal stroke account. It works, you get great detail but because the story is spread across the book you’re not left fatigued by it.
“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”
– Andy Hampsten
1992 stage winner Andy Hampsten gives a good interview which covers plenty of ground, at one point he explains the crowds are so big he almost lost his sense of balance because he couldn’t tell up from down. He leads bike tours today and admits the climb is, in isolation, just a ski station access road and that the Alps have plenty more to offer. This forces Cossins to confront the reality that for 364 days of the year this is an engineered road without too much beauty; even the pleasant views on the way up are of the other side of the valley.
“I went back there again in 2012 for a charity event but I only rode up as far as bend seventeen, which is the one with my name on it… …I didn’t ride any further because I didn’t want to fuck up the memories I have from 2008. It was such a beautiful day.”
– Carlos Sastre
Alpe d’Huez is a stadium and you can ride up when you probably couldn’t throw or kick a ball in the Yankee Stadium or Nou Camp but just because you can doesn’t make it the same because the crowds aren’t there.
There are chapters on early winter sports and the development of Alpe d’Huez as a ski resort. There’s a brief mention of geology and later on there’s even a section about the mining activity that lasted for centuries. It’s not cycling but gives the reader wider sense of place and puts the sporting challenge into relief against the physical challenge of a coal mine at 2,000m. Still if the book goes this far to explaining the medieval silver mining techniques it’s a shame the cycling is so restricted to the Tour de France’s visits. The women’s Tour de France has visited, ditto the Critérium du Dauphiné and Alpe d’Huez is also central to the cyclosportif/gran fondo scene as “The Marmotte” was one of the first of its kind in the 1980s but this potentially big story it only gets a brief treatment.
I feared the book would succumb to the hype around this climb and build it up even more but Peter Cossins is measured in his praise. It was an enjoyable and informative read, loaded with Tour anecdotes and extra-sporting stories. Alpe d’Huez is the “Hollywood” climb with a celebrity status but the more you read this the more you’ll want to visit and try the slopes for yourself. Just go ride the others in the region too.
A copy of this book was sent for review. It was lost in an airport when it was half-read so I bought a copy in order to carry on enjoying it.
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