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L’Alpe d’Huez: Clockwork d’Orange?

Some say the Tour isn’t the Tour without the l’Alpe d’Huez, and anyone who’s been there will tell you it’s the ONLY place to be when the race comes through.  L’Alpe returns again this year and PEZ’s Ed Hood knows the 21 bends better than most – here’s what race fans should expect…


Tour de France 2013 Stage 18 Roadside: It’s become the stuff of legend and there’s nothing like witnessing the Tour de France from the roadside on the 21 switchbacks to Alp d’Huez. On this first day in the high Alps – PEZ was buried deep in a sea of orange…

The roar from the French guys watching the TV in the back of the SUV tell us what most folks on this mountain wanted to hear. So sweet revenge for the men in the kit you either love or hate.


Frenchman Christophe Riblon has finally given the home nation a victory and with an immaculate sense of timing; AG2R team mate and best French rider in le Tour, Jean-Christophe Peraud crashed out of the race in yesterday’s time trial.



It was a case of fortune favouring the brave; Riblon passed us on his own on the first ascent of l’Alpe, in pursuit of BMC’s Tejay van Garderen – the tall American bravely trying to make amends for the Swiss team’s hitherto disastrous Tour.


The status quo was the same on the second ascent but French honour was at stake and Riblon caught van Garderen then held off rapidly closing mountain revelation, Nairo Quintana (Movistar & Colombia) to place himself firmly on the front page of tomorrow’s L’Equipe.

We drove race route and whilst there were a third cat and two second cat climbs on the parcours, for us it was all about one stretch of steep tar – l’Alpe d’Huez.

The first time the mountain was raced in le Tour was 1952, the Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi won that day.

Then there was a big gap until 1976 when Zoetemelk won; ’77 and ’78 was Kuiper; ’79 was Zoetemelk again when Agostinho also won – there were two stages to L’Alpe that year; ’81 Winnen; ’82 Breu; ’83 Winnen; ’84 Herrera; ’86 Hinault; ’87 Echave; ’88 Rooks; ’89 Theunisse; ’90 and ’91 Bugno; ’92 Hampsten; ’94 Conti; ’95 and ’97 Pantani; ’99 Guerini; ’01 Armstrong (tt); ’03 Mayo; ’04 Armstrong; ’06 Frank Schleck; ’08 Sastre; ’11 Rolland.

That’s a total of 28 times, with a home win just two years ago, France can’t complain too much – but Rolland hasn’t displayed anything like that form since and a home win would be a surprise.

But a very welcome one; Tommy Voeckler would be “the man most likely to” but his form in this Tour hasn’t been the best. Surprisingly, only two French riders have ever won on L’Alpe – Rolland and Bernard Hinault.

The hill is 13.8 kilometres long, rising to 1,850 metres with an average grade of 8.1% with the steepest section the ninth kilometre at 11.5% grade. The mountain is climbed twice today, after the first ascent it climbs even higher to breast the Col de Sarenne at 1,999 metres.

The descent off the Sarenne hasn’t been well received by the coureurs – it’s very dangerous with a poor surface and big drop offs if a rider gets it wrong. It’s closed to all traffic except official vehicles, police, team cars and nominated photog motor bikes – no caravan, no press, no ViP’s.

The Dauphine descended the Sarenne in June but this will be the first time the Tour has plunged down it. Pictures from the Dauphine show a barren, twisting ribbon hacked in to the hillside – and little margin for error. (Our Chris Selden took a close look at it here.)


The first stop was ‘Dutch Corner’ the maddest place on earth when the Tour circus hits l’Alpe. We couldn’t get parked there but managed to abandon the Opel at Huez village, just up the hill. And full marks go to the guys who converted the Huez bus stop into their bedroom for the stage – complete with beds, chairs and laptop.

The caravan – why am I always compelled to take dozens of photos no one will ever see? And fill the back seat of the car with tat – anyone want 12 hats?


One mystery we did sort out is all those sightings of Elvis – he has a twin brother.


“Elvis is dead?” don’t be silly, they told us they’ll be doing a season at Vegas soon and cutting an album after the Tour…


Dutch Corner is deranged, the sounds pump – there’s a DJ with all the kit – everything from ‘oompah’ to current European chart hits to banal Europop. The beer flows, the party takes over the road and Tour vehicles are stopped and the occupants vetted.


Belkin vehicles are greeted with pagan idolatry, with Argos not far behind in the worship stakes. But maybe jumping on the Belkin van roof as it drives the hill is taking it too far.

Sky? Well, that’s another story, boos, hisses, thumbs down, beer chucked over the bonnet – and the chant; Bauke ! MOLLEMA ! Bauke ! MOLLEMA ! It’s all a wee bit scary, a tad reminiscent of a George A. Romero horror film.


The Zombies hi-jacked the Tours social media wagon – you could see the panic in the guys in the pick up truck’s face as beer crazed nut cases spilled into their vehicle – wild.


The road was running with beer when the Sky second team car appeared – wild eyed orange men threw themselves on the bonnet like that scene from ‘I am Legend;’ maybe we best get another spot for actual race pics?


We weren’t sure if the muscled guy sprinting up the hill with a US flag was meant to be comic book hero Thor or a WWF protagonist – either way, we reckoned it was safe bet he was announcing the arrival of Tejay. And there he was, too early on the offensive we figured – but looking good and demanding respect.


In hot pursuit were Riblon and Cannondale’s rising young Italian star, Moreno Moser; with the rest of the break scattered across the hill – Voigt, Jeannesson, Amador, Danielson, Boom and Chava. Sky led the pursuit, their black jersey looking incongruous next to the much more colourful kit of their European counterparts.


Cav was safe in the autobus but Cadel Evans was in no man’s land. Stone last was Argos’s Tom Veelers; a position he’d maintain for both ascents but still beat the time cut – hats off to the Dutchman.

The race had to loop over the Sarenne before the second ascent.

Yesterday’s baguette with butter and cheese washed down with our last Stellas hit the spot for us as we waited on the final act of the opera, next to the car up at Huez.


The big old Dutch DJ had the tunes pumping and updated us on the race. Kreuziger and Contador had jumped the Froome group but been caught – meanwhile, Tejay still lead with Riblon, then Moser in hot pursuit.


It was apparent that the race was between these three men, even though Froome’s group – although much diminished – was ripping up the climb with Quintana looking dangerously relaxed.


By the top, the pieces of the puzzle fell into place; Riblon caught and dropped van Garderen to win whilst Quintana attacked, putting time into a struggling Contador and a shaky Froome, the little Colombian now lies third.


And if the writing was on the Belkin wall yesterday after the time trial, today it was writ large as Mollema and Ten Dam – despite their fanatical following – both cracked on the second ascent of L’Alpe and dropped from fourth to seventh and sixth to tenth, respectively.


And another bad day for Cadel Evans – that issue of Evans or van Garderen to lead BMC which the Media was so concerned with seems a long time ago and totally irrelevant.

But with all said and done – an epic; or an over-long grovel fest as PEZ’s soothsayer Vik maintains? I can see his point; it would have been more aggressive and spectacular if everyone knew they only had to get to the top once.


But the rain stayed away, we enjoyed scenic Dutch Corner and Riblon rode a man’s race – not such a bad day, Vik.


And it wasn’t all craziness.

Tomorrow: if you ask me it’s way too tough for the day after a double ascent of L’Alpe – two HC climbs, two first cat climbs and one second cat. However, PEZ will be there over every climb – if we ever get to the hotel out of this post l’Alpe apocalypse traffic jam, that is.

Wish us luck!
A demain.

Ed will be back on l’Alpe this year on stage 20, keep it PEZ for all the Tour de France action.

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.

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