Tour Reload: The 2015 Tour de France will be making it’s return to the Alpe d’Huez and like every other time the race has tackled the 21 hair-pin bends, there will be a battle royal. Ed Hood has seen the Tour on the famous climb many a time, so here is his 2011 Alpe d’Huez adventure.
Roadside Vuelta’11 St.19: The Spanish guys on the other side of the road are winding up the Luxembourg fans; ‘Venga Alberto!’ The Schleck guys aren’t amused – but the police are. A gust of wind blows the Schleck flag over – is it an omen? From the tiny TV outside the bar we know that Contador has broken clear and is taking time out of the favourites – what a Tour!
But it’s cool late afternoon now; this day started way back on a fine Alpine morning . . .
. . . there’s been a huge influx of people into the town over night, there are cars and campers everywhere.
The camper clan aren’t embarrassed about where they breakfast; a back street in l’Alpe d’Huez is just fine.
L’Equipe has a huge picture of Tommy on the front page.
Yesterday was a day of surprises and broken dreams.
Schleck finally came up with an ‘exploit,’ Evans showed real grinta, Voeckler amazed once again – as did Rolland and Contador cracked.
‘Contador rend les armes’ says the headline – ‘Contador hands over his arms,’ a reference to his ‘pistollero’ patter.
Did he and Riis prepare perfectly for the Giro, on the basis that the Spaniard may be excluded from the Tour?
Or perhaps it’s just that the days of a Tour & Giro “double” are gone forever; it’s a dozen years since Pantani pulled it off – but cycling has changed a lot in that time.
In some ways for the worse, but in many ways for the better – no one can ‘top up’ after a tough day anymore.
But enough polemics, with seven hours to go, the clans are gathering in the finish straight as the technical guys stencil the finish line adverts.
Some fans have the cards out, whilst some just wait and watch and dream of their man in yellow in Paris.
Without doubt the Schlecks have most support, their image is everywhere.
Whilst ‘Tommy’ dominates the newspapers and TV, there’s little in the way of roadside support like there is for ‘An-dee & Frawnk.’
Further down the hill there’s all manner of humanity; including a ‘tandem band’ at the flame rouge.
At 1500 metres to go there’s grid lock; it’s like two ocean currents meeting as the down hill racers meet the hill climbers and no one is going anywhere – a whirlpool of jerseys and bikes.
But they all need fed and the paella is being boiled up in industrial quantities.
None of the senses are spared, the views are stunning, there are colourful jerseys everywhere, ‘crazies’ aplenty, the smell of paella, barbecues – and the ears are treated to Belgian and Dutch ‘Euro Pop.’
Whilst I have huge respect for Belgian and Dutch cyclists, the Euro Pop is another matter – it all reminds me of Lonny Donegan’s British ‘skiffle’ from the late 50’s.
Anyway . . .
By early afternoon the tide of humanity has calmed as the police tighten up and a road closure rolls down from the top.
The crowds at the top are not as they used to be; when I saw Hampsten win in ’92 they were like a sea, the motor cycle outriders swept them back to allow clear passage for the Boulder man but the crowd tucked in behind the ‘motos’ as soon as they passed.
Hampsten sat smooth, still, the sweat dripping from him as he headed for glory – behind him the race director waved wildly from the sun roof of his car, trying in vain to keep the crowd back.
It’s barriered now from around five kilometres out – much safer, but not as emotional or spectacular.
We have coffee on a hotel terrace, 14:50 and the race is on, a tiny TV crackles to our right as Crazy Danskas glug over priced beer beside us, the Norge march south and below us the ‘roos have a chat about Cadel’s chances.
We hop the cable car over the town to see what we can come up with in the way of different pictures; golf, swimming, and yes – there’s the parcours.
The tarmac artists have been out in force; but soon it’s time to settle down in front of the tiny TV – and wait.
It’s another mountain epic, Alberto takes it on, Cadel has bad luck and Andy digs deep.
Caravan time, it’s hard to tear myself away from the tiny screen to take some pix; but not for our waitress, customers are forgotten as she launches herself in pursuit of caravan loot.
I take a couple of token snaps then get back to the tiny tele – Dave reckons we’ll be blind by the end of the afternoon.
A free copy of a newspaper, launched from the caravan smacks me on the back of the head; ‘heroique’ they say of Tommy – but the dream is dying out there on the hard, hot roads of the Alpes.
Eventually we have to abandon the TV in case we can’t get a spot on the barriers; even although the crowds aren’t massive.
The barriering of the last five K means that the hardcore fans have moved down the mountain where you can still reach out and touch your man.
Our last bad image on the tele was Contador, alone against the mountain and a band of tired but desperate men.
Samuel Sanchez and Pierre Rolland were somewhere in between.
The motor bikes buzz, the cars screech, the choppers deafen and there’s the leader.
Tall, slim, committed, relieved of his ‘loyal lieutenant’ duties for Tommy, he’s riding to the first French stage win of the Tour, the white jersey, a wage rise and the monstrous expectation of the French media.
‘Samu’ is next, ‘Bert’ hurts – but he has every right to, this has been an exploit.
There’s a gap; Evans clambers all over his bike to keep the gap in check, he can win this Tour in the Grenoble chrono tomorrow provided he can control Contador.
Schleck junior grimaces in his wake – he’s riding into yellow.
Big bruv Frank is hurting too, a little further back.
Ryder Hesjedal has ridden hard today, he drops his head in exhaustion, but still has 1500 metres of Alpine hell to endure.
Basso claws at the pedals, he’s been on the defensive all day – there’ll be no podium for Ivan.
Taaramae is desperate too – that pristine white jersey is slipping away to Rolland.
Tommy gets a huge cheer, but the dream has gone – but what a run he gave them for their money.
Chavanel looks cool as a cucumber, he’ll win races after this Tour having ridden into form after the crashes.
The Europcar guys ride up in a mini peloton, head high, a show of solidarity by a team which has ridden out of it’s skin for their leader.
Vanendert and Gilbert ride together, well down; Jelle has lost the polka dot jersey to Samu, but a great Tour for Omega Pharma – Lotto.
The Autobus arrives, outside the time limit, we reckon – the autobus was huge yesterday, they all missed the time cut and Cav was penalised points but still leads by a reduced margin from Rojas.
Rojas actually beat the cut yesterday – but he’s in with the dead men, today.
Tony Martin is at the tail of the group – he’s already thinking about that Grenoble chrono.
Stone last, we make it 35 minutes down, is Bjorn Leukemans; no number, that means he’s on a spare bike – he must have been on the deck.
Andy in yellow but Evans is the best chrono man and should win the TT and take the Tour.
But I seem to remember, the last time I was here, this guy Sastre won the stage but not by enough to hold off Evans in the time trial, and . . .
But it’s the Tour – who knows?
It was November 2005 when Ed Hood first penned a piece for PEZ, on US legend Mike Neel. Since then he’s covered all of the Grand Tours and Monuments for PEZ and has an article count in excess of 1,100 in the archive. He was a Scottish champion cyclist himself – many years and kilograms ago – and still owns a Klein Attitude, Dura Ace carbon Giant and a Fixie. He and fellow Scot and PEZ contributor Martin Williamson run the Scottish site www.veloveritas.co.uk where more of his musings on our sport can be found.