For stage 18 the Tour de France will tackle Alpe d’Huez twice. The GC contenders will surely be
|Double-ouch stage profile|
nervous about this stage. The sprinters and rest of the autobus regulars will be absolutely bloody dreading it. Alpe D once in a Tour stage must hurt enough. Twice will purgatory, for them. For us voyeuristic public it will be an unmissable spectacle.
I’ve ridden Alpe d’Huez four times (ooh, get me) but never more than once in a day, and never as part of a 172.5km Tour stage. My fourth jaunt to the top was when I rode if as part of The Breakaway (buy a copy here for just £3.99 and read a short extract from my Alpe_D day below). It was easily one of the most enjoyable climbs of the whole trip. Whilst other ascents had actively tried to end my life, Alpe d’Huez seemed to wrap her road around me in a warming embrace, the colourful (if, admittedly, painful) 21 hairpins filling me with excitement and enthusiasm. I’d go back and ride it again in a heartbeat. Even four times up the Alpe isn’t enough.
“Alpe d’Huez is around an hour (nearing the three-quarter-hour mark for the best) of all-out effort. In order to maintain morale for the duration you have to concentrate on something other than the pain. Vast swathes of the road were (probably always will be) daubed with a mess of cycling-fans’ graffiti. It turns a stretch of grey tarmac into something that more resembles a fun-park helter skelter. Not only are there riders’ names and nicknames to discern, there are a host of languages to test and confuse an already addled mind. (Scattered incongruously amongst the sporting scribbles were an array of rather graphic depictions of genitalia, some standing proudly alone, others coupled together, usually captioned by Spanish text that I was happily unable to translate.) On my first ascent I had also attempted to sideline the pain by thinking as much as I could about each of the riders name-checked on the hairpins’ signs. That technique had proved inspiring and also a little depressing, especially when huffing and puffing past the name of a pure climber like Luis Herrera (on bend 12; winner in 1984).
There are a few other distractions but none really loud enough to be heard through the pain. La Garde comes after hairpin number 16, where you might struggle to avoid the small water fountain and restaurant, its customers staring idly as you haul yourself passed their tables. You might feel like screaming when the diners neglect to applaud, but don’t forget that the locals are probably sick of seeing cyclists, thousands of them, every year, groups of all sizes, individual adventurers, one and all “taming” the Alpe. The road does ease off a touch there (if you can call a 7% gradient easy), as it does a few kilometres (or 10 hairpins) later near the hamlet of Huez. If you are suffering on the climb, those are the points where you might want to resist the temptation of riding faster, when you should relax as much as possible, recover a little before the next gruelling section to come. The last part of the climb is steep (8 to 9% all the way to the summit) and only admonished by the knowledge that the pain will soon end. The road then splits in two and you should take the left fork (the road the Tour uses — remember, doing it like the pros) and come up in the front of the town. On race day this option can often be closed, forcing you to go round the back road, which is tougher and without the knowledge that you are riding on the Tour finale. That finish line is usually placed a short ride into the village, the point at which to check your jersey is zipped up, your shades are down, arms aloft as you coast in to the appreciation of the crowd — you know, the one in your head. Or is that just me?”