Great mountains of the Tour de France: L’Alpe d’Huez to Sestriere

Fausto Coppi to Andy Hampsten, famous Tour de France riders have built their legacies on epic mountain climbs in the Pyrneees and Alps.

L’Alpe d’Huez
It’s not the hardest ascent, but since its debut in 1952, L’Alpe d’Huez (LAY-ALP-DUH-WEZ) has defined the mystique of Tour de France mountains. Fausto Coppi won the inaugural ascent, a 9.5-mile climb that includes 21 switchbacks and an average gradient of 7.9 percent. The course isn’t included every year, but in each of its more than 20 editions, it’s the most highly anticipated race stage, particularly for race fans.
Hundreds of thousands of spectators line the course, many arriving days in advance. It’s a party from start to finish, often to excess, for spectators; It’s a dangerous grind for cyclists who often have to negotiate their way through tight and rowdy crowds. The finishing climb ends at 6,102 feet.

American Andy Hampsten, who twice finished fourth overall in the Tour, won the stage in 1992 a first for an American. Lance Armstrong claimed the stage in 2004 when, for the first time, the 21 switchbacks comprised an uphill individual time trial.

La Mongie
A ski resort near the top of the Tourmalet (TOR-MA-LAY), La Mongie (LAH-MOAN-JEE) has been a Tour stage finish area only three times. The climb is 10.5 miles and the average gradient of the Pyrenees climb is 8 percent. Bernard Thevenet of France (1970) was the inaugural winner at La Mongie. Lance Armstrong has one victory (2002) and one second place (2004) in the resort’s two other arrival days.

The valley approaching La Mongie

La Mongie stands at 5,625 feet and its nearby summit, the top of the Tourmalet, is one of cycling’s grand monoliths at 6,934 feet, the highest peak in the Pyrenees. The Tourmalet was first included in 1910 and was nicknamed Circle of Death, and this Pyrenees climb is where the legendary rider Octave Lapize called race officials “assassins” as he negotiated the mountain in its Tour debut. Eddy Merckx, Claudio Chiappucci and Richard Virenque have also been victorious on the Tourmalet. At the peak of the Tourmalet, a monument honors race founder, Henri Desgrange.

Introduced to the Tour in 1969, Col de la Madeleine (COAL-DUH-LUH-MAD-AH-LAHN) is often presented as a three-part mountain package in the Alps, with Telegraphe and Galibier. Lucien Van Impe of Belgium (1983), Pedro Delgado of Spain (1984), Richard Virenque of France (1995 and 1997), Jan Ullrich of Germany (1998), Michael Boogerd of the Netherlands (2002), and Gilberto Simoni of Italy (2004) all claimed the Madeleine climb. The climb to Madeleine is 15.8 miles and has an average gradient of 6.1 percent.

Mont Ventoux
First included in the Tour in 1951, this climb to the barren peak above the French countryside is as infamous as it is famous. It plateaus at 6,261 feet. A half-mile from the top is where British cyclist Tom Simpson collapsed and subsequently died in 1967.

Like all great Tour mountains, Mont Ventoux (MON-VON-TOO) is steep and long. But it’s the legendary Mistral winds the cold, strong gusts that can surpass 100 mph (160 kph) that most affect the race. The brutal winds have swept away most vegetation on the mountain, leaving it barren and brutally difficult for riders. Mont Ventoux is called the Windy Mountain and sometimes, the Tour of the Moon.

Mont Ventoux has has produced epic battles, including the 2000 challenge between Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani. Armstrong’s strategically eased up at the finish line, allowing Pantani to claim the stage win. Pantani was upset, stating he didn’t need Armstrong’s sympathy, and duo began a nasty battle of words for the remainder of the Tour.

A respected ski resort, Sestriere (SES-TREE-AIR) is just across the French border in the Italian Alps. It has been used as both a mid-stage climb and as a finish point at 6,668 fee. Sestrieres made its debut in 1952; Italian Fausto Coppi was victorious that year, and the mountain has been mastered by Claudio Chiappucci (1992) and Bjarne Riis of Denmark, the 1996 Tour winner on a solo breakaway win. Charly Gaul of Luxembourg (1956) and Jose Jimenez of Spain (1966) are also Sestrieres climb winners.

Lance Armstrong had plenty of nonbelievers when he returned to the Tour de France in 1999. But he had many fewer detractors after claiming the 9th stage from Le Grand Bornand to Sestrieres over Alex Zulle of Switzerland and Fernando Escartin of Spain.

Armstrong had assumed the race lead the day before with a time trial win in Metz, but his mountain stage win in Italy proved he could climb with the sport’s best. After winning in Sestrieres, he maintained the race lead en route to his first Tour title.

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