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A Mythical Mountain

It’s a name that’s synonymous with the Tour de France: L’Alpe d’Huez. The numbers are well known — 13.8km long, 21 switchbacks, 7.9 percent average grade — but they can’t begin to tell the story of the fabled climb. It has become to cycling what Kitzbühel is to ski racing, or Monaco to Formula 1. So when planning the course of this centennial Tour, it was clear that L’Alpe d’Huez had to be one of the “must” stage finishes. The Alpe wasn’t included in the Tour’s itinerary until 1952, so it has been featured only 21 times (this year will make it 22) in the event’s 89 editions. Although that

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From Coppi to Armstrong, Tour champions have made their mark on L’Alpe d’Huez, the Tour’s most legendary mountain.

By Jean-Paul Vespini

It’s a name that’s synonymous with the Tour de France: L’Alpe d’Huez. The numbers are well known — 13.8km long, 21 switchbacks, 7.9 percent average grade — but they can’t begin to tell the story of the fabled climb. It has become to cycling what Kitzbühel is to ski racing, or Monaco to Formula 1. So when planning the course of this centennial Tour, it was clear that L’Alpe d’Huez had to be one of the “must” stage finishes.

The Alpe wasn’t included in the Tour’s itinerary until 1952, so it has been featured only 21 times (this year will make it 22) in the event’s 89 editions. Although that total can’t compare with the most-visited climbs, the Tourmalet (68 times) and Galibier (50), L’Alpe d’Huez has undeniably embedded itself more deeply into the Tour’s modern legend than other mountain passes. It is a site that the champions themselves have consecrated.

“It was at Alpe d’Huez that I experienced the greatest joy of my career,” confided two-time Tour winner Bernard Thévenet. “In 1977, I saved my yellow jersey by just eight seconds. That day, I could have died on my bike.” That evening, he couldn’t even climb the stairs to his hotel room.

Most recently, Lance Armstrong took the Alpe d’Huez stage in 2001 on a day when he truly went for the jugular, giving Jan Ullrich the infamous “look” as he attacked the German on the early, steepest slopes. “The reason that we raced like that was simply because it was Alpe d’Huez,” Armstrong explained. “It’s a mythical stage that we wanted to win.”

Birth of a legend
How and why has the Alpe become such a treasured Tour trophy? It heralded its first champion, Fausto Coppi, when the alpine summit was first included in the Tour in 1952. That was also the first time in Tour history that there had been a mountaintop stage finish — even before the Puy de Dôme (which debuted later in the same Tour) and Mont Ventoux (1958). A symbol of the Tour was born, but it did not reappear on the race route until 1976, after much too long an absence.

Once the marvelous climb was rediscovered, it again worked its magic, this time with the heightened suspense of televised coverage. The road had now been paved and the switchbacks had been numbered from 21 to 1 (which was not the case in Coppi’s day) — a stroke of genius originally designed to inform tourists that they were nearing the ski resort. Now it has become a countdown as thrilling as any in sport: “Only five switchbacks to go, four to go, three to go….” It can be a tense countdown, often with a climactic battle for the maillot jaune thrown in.

The Dutch Mountain
As soon as L’Alpe d’Huez was reintroduced to the Tour, it became a stomping ground for the Dutch. Of the 13 finishes at its summit between 1976 and 1989, eight of them went to Dutch riders, starting with Joop Zoetemelk, causing the Alpe to be baptized the “Dutch Mountain.” A full-blown legend was created around this succession of Dutch winners: Zoetemelk (twice), Hennie Kuiper (twice), Peter Winnen (twice), Steven Rooks and Gert-Jan Theunisse. What force pushed these men from the Low Country to set them apart from the rest? “To win at Alpe d’Huez means as much to the Dutch as winning the world championships,” said Kuiper.

For everyone, the Alpe acts as judge and jury: providing verdicts, the settling of scores, coronations, the demise of race leaders and, of course, drama. Drama? In 1977, Lucien Van Impe appeared to have beaten Thévenet and seemed to be headed for victory when he was knocked from his bike by a press car as he climbed the Alpe. A settling of scores? Another Belgian, Michel Pollentier, raced to the stage victory in 1978 to take the maillot jaune, only to be expelled from the race after he attempted to cheat the drug control at the finish.

Cemetery of champions
Just as L’Alpe d’Huez has signaled the arrival of new champions, it has also marked the beginning of the end for others. For Eddy Merckx, the Alpe was the final mountain climb of his career in 1977. Pathetic in his distress, yet emboldened by his stubbornness and pride, the “Cannibal” chose L’Alpe d’Huez as a sort of elephant’s cemetery. In 1984, it was Bernard Hinault’s turn to “die” on the first switchbacks of the Alpe. On a comeback ride after knee surgery, the French champion ceded to a former teammate, the much younger, bespectacled Laurent Fignon who came to “kill the father.” Fignon would don the yellow jersey three times in his career at the top of L’Alpe d’Huez.

It’s true that the climb often anoints the winners of the Tour. Of the 21 times it has been climbed in the Tour, the holder of the maillot jaune on the Alpe has gone on to win in Paris 16 times. Symbolically, though, only the first (Coppi) and last winners (Armstrong) have taken both the Alpe d’Huez stage and entire Grande Boucle in the same year.
L’ Alpe d’Huez has other claims to fame. In 1990, it was the first Tour stage to be broadcast live from start to finish. And in recent years, a new dimension has been added by timing the fastest rider up the 13.8km climb. It had never been measured until Marco Pantani won there in 1995. This changed the way people followed the race. In addition to the traditional classifications, the public, fascinated by this modern hill climb, could now include the fastest time in their post-race discussions.

Pantani holds the climb record (37:35 in 1997), but Armstrong may have had the best choreographed climb, when in 2001 his high pedal cadence combined with the time he gained transformed the end of the stage into a death sentence for his rivals. With this ritual accomplished, a Tour champion is elevated above the competition. As Fausto Coppi established a half-century ago, a champion can eclipse everyone else on the Alpe, and also take out a serious option on overall victory.

(English translation by Mark Deterline)