If it were possible we’d interview this legendary character. But it isn’t a person, and it makes no sound: it’s a rock with a winding strip of asphalt that twists itself into 21 hairpin bends. These twists and turns will feature in the 2018 Tour de France for the 28th time — we are of course talking about the legendary Alpe d’Huez.
History (with a Dutch touch)
In the Netherlands, the Alpe d’Huez is known as the “Dutch Hill”. There is a good reason for this, a quick look into the archives illustrates: Dutch riders have crossed the finish line first a total of 7 times, which is a relatively high proportion of Dutch arms being raised in celebration, hence the moniker.
The first of the series of Dutch victories was Joop Zoetemelk during the 1976 Tour. Then followed Hennie Kuiper (1977 and 1978), Peter Winnen (1981), Steven Rooks (1988) and Gert-Jan Theunisse (1989). There hasn’t been a Dutch victory since 1989, but there’s always hope for 2018!
The view above @alpedhuez 21 bends ! 😍
— Alpe d’Huez 🚴♂️☀️ (@alpedhuez) 13 juni 2018
Lance Armstrong also won at the summit in the 2001 Tour. What began as an off day for the American ended in a ruthless attack where he left his main competitors standing. One glance behind him at his main competitor of that Tour, Jan Ullrich, marked the opening move of an impressive solo which lasted until the finish line.
Time to climb
The hill is a bit strange compared with the other climbs in the vicinity. The climb has an average gradient of 8,6% and, with the exception of a couple of gnarly sections and all the hairpin bends, it is relatively constant and therefore perfect to climb at or just under your lactate threshold. It’s also a relatively short ascent, and therefore an ideal place to really test your legs — these could be the reasons why it’s so popular with cyclists.
Choose your approach
Ironically, this hill is actually a good climb for every type of cyclist, even if half-decent, or worse, at going uphill. The kind gradient and the hairpin bends (you can catch your breath by taking the outside line in the corners) make it more do-able. Do-able, of course, is relative: we mean when compared with other, longer climbs, such as the 21.4-kilometre merciless grind up Mont Ventoux climb, for example.
But, and there is a but, you have to get past the first bit before it starts to level out. The corners are all numbered, from 21 at the bottom to 1 at the top, and the first turns numbered 21 through 17 comprise the steepest part of the climb, with an average gradient of 10%.
It’s a good idea to be aware of this early section if you are planning to ascend the Alpe d’Huez for the first time on your wheeled steed. If you study the route carefully, you’ll see that first part only lasts a few kilometres. But going too hard on this section is so easy, and so unadvisable.
The climb offers a whole bunch of beautiful spots to stop to catch your breath and enjoy the beautiful view. With each bend marking the beginning and end of a mini-climb, you can take the Alpe d’Huez bit-by-bit. For die-hard climbers this approach is simply too relaxed, and so each corner simply marks a moment to lighten the load on the legs slightly, change gear, and power on to the next bend.
As you slowly plough upwards against gravity and common sense, you will pass the boards indicating each corner. Each number also lists past winners of the Alpe d’Huez stage in the Tour de France. Every turn has its own story, at least for the real fans, but most climbers merely turn their heads towards the boards to check how close they are to the top.
Every hairpin has a rock wall on one side and a chasm on the other. Except for one turn: the (not so steep) turn 7 that boast a grassy knoll. For 364 days a year, this is no more than a quiet turn along a mountain road, but for one day (if it’s included in the Tour route, that is), it becomes a party — a Dutch party — with a sea of orange and polka dots. And beer, and shouty people.
This is one of the narrower parts of the climb, which during the actual race leaves a tiny strip of road left for the professional riders to pass through the throng of clamouring Dutchies. The professional Dutch riders in the peloton fly up this section of the course, cheered on by the (deafening) shouts of support and helpful pushes. Foreign riders who have not been trained to expect this barrage of Dutchness are often less pleased to pass through the section.
Can’t wait to climb Alpe d’Huez yourself? Check out the film below: it gives you a good foretaste for the climb itself and the (beautiful) surrounding area.