By John Wilcockson
There are 21 hairpin turns on the famous mountain road that climbs from the Oisans valley to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez, where stage 10 of this year’s Tour de France has its conclusion on Wednesday.
Coincidentally, the Tour has seen stages finishes on the Alpe 21 times -– from the victory of the legendary Fausto Coppi in 1952 (when the road was still unpaved) to that of another Italian, Giuseppe Guerini, who won here in 1999.
Each of these stage winners has his name posted on the apex of each turn, giving riders and race followers a timely reminder of this mythic climb’s history. The list is something of a rollcall of the Tour’s most famous climbers, including names like Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk (who won here in 1976 and 1979), Colombian Luis Herrera (who brought a touch of the New World to the Alpe in 1984) and Frenchman Bernard Hinault (whose breakaway here with teammate Greg LeMond pretty much sealed LeMond’s first Tour win in 1986).
The only American to win the Alpe d’Huez stage was Andy Hampsten in 1992, the year he finished fourth overall, only 13 minutes behind five-time Tour champion Miguel Indurain of Spain. The other six Alpe stages in the 1990s were taken by Italians, including two by Marco Pantani, absent this year, who set the record for climbing the 14km ascent in 1997.
Besides the memorable winners, there have been less glorious scenes on the Alpe.
Two years ago, of course, an excited spectator ran into the road 2km from the finish and Guerini rode straight into him and fell.
The Italian (racing for the Telekom team again this year) had just enough of a lead however that he was able to hold of the chasing Pavel Tonkov of Russia, to win the stage.
When Hampsten won in 1992, some of the 250,000 spectators on the climb were so boisterous that the normally mild-mannered American had to push fans out of his path some 4km from the line. And in 1978, the stage win and yellow jersey were taken from Belgian Michel Pollentier, who was caught attempting to substitute a clean urine sample at the drugs control through a rubber pouch and plastic tube taped to his body.
In this year’s Tour, where drug controls are the strictest ever, don’t expect any such dramas. Instead, we can hope to see a dramatic athletic contest on a stage of 209km.
Prior to the Alpe, the 173 men still competing from the 189 starters have two other above-category climbs to negotiate. First comes the Col de la Madeleine, which tops out at kilometer 114 after 24km of climbing at 6.3 percent.
It has a steepest pitch of 10.4 percent, 2km from the 6561-foot summit. Next is the rugged Col du Glandon, 21km of uphill averaging 6.9 percent, with the final kilometer at 10.4 percent leading to its 6312-foot peak.
The Glandon’s 26km-long descent (punctuated by a one-kilometer uphill at over 10 percent) leads to the Oisans valley, where 10km of flat roads lead into the final hurdle. Looking to their left, the riders can see most of the 21 switchbacks scaling the deep valley side to the rambling ski resort 3641 feet above their heads. L’Alpe d’Huez is not the steepest or longest climb in the Alps, but the first kilometer is like a wall, rearing up at 11 percent, the steepest pitch of the 13km ascent. The average is almost 8 percent.
Almost certainly, the Alpe will see a change in ownership of the yellow jersey Tuesday. In Aix-les-Bains Monday night, current Tour leader Stuart O’Grady of Australia said that he only barely stayed with the front group of 11 riders on the last hill of Monday’s stage.
“It was the yellow jersey that got me through,” he said. O’Grady added that Frenchman François Simon, the man in second place 4:32 behind him, “is a much better climber than me.”
If it isn’t Simon that takes over the lead, then it could be the man in fourth overall, Andrei Kivilev of Kazakhstan.
As for a stage winner, expect the strong men of the Tour like Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, Joseba Beloki and Bobby Julich to ride well, but a breakaway group from an earlier climb might well hang on for the win. If it’s another Italian winner, look for Mapei’s Stefano Garzelli or Fassa Bortolo’s Wladimir Belli, to be the one.