The most famous and infamous Tour de France climb begins in Bourg d’Oisans, a base camp for mountain tourists, sporting extremists and mineralogists. For professional cyclists, the city represents one thing: It’s the beginning of the 9.6-mile, 3,800-foot climb to L’Alpe d’Huez, the mountaintop gateway to the Alps.
While brief compared to all-day road affairs, the fastest riders who challenge the race’s most intense climb will do so in about 40 minutes.
But this year in stage 18, the final mountain spectacle stage of the 100th Tour de France, will see the peloton climb L’Alpe d’Huez twice in the final 50 kilometers.
The stage may be anti-climactic since Chris Foome had has about a 4 1/2-minute lead over Alberto Contador. But the stage certainly won’t be without controversy.
The weather forecast has heavy storms on the horizon and in order for the riders to climb to the ski station the second time, they’ll have to first descend Col de Sarenne. In short, it’s dangerous.
Many riders have suggested protesting the stage because of the descent. And race leader Chris Froome has asked race organizers to “neutralize” the descent if the weather is inclement.
Riders past and present know L’Alpe d’Huez well.
“You’re in your own little suffering world,” said Frankie Andreu, the retired nine-time Tour de France finisher and now broadcaster. “You’re just trying to keep the legs going around and keep moving because it’s hard.”
The climb was first used in 1952 and it conquered by Italy’s Fausto Coppi. In 2004, on year after the after the grandeur of 100th Tour de France anniversary, race organizers sought a unique approach to keep race interest unique. It was first and only time the climb-only was featured as an uphill time trial. Each cyclist with team representation and a police escort rode the course individually in reverse order of his overall race standing.
The route has 21 switchbacks or what the French call “bends.” The average grade is 7.9 percent with some sections increasing to 14 percent. The course ends in thin air at 6,102 feet.
“It takes years of experience and it’s also what makes some riders better time trialists than others,” said retired Levi Leipheimer, the retired rider whose four top-10 overall Tour de France finishes were nullified via his doping confession. “You have to shut out as many outside factors as possible and concentrate on how you’re feeling and determine where that limit is and stay right there.
“But for me, I don’t even need to know my heart rate. It’s an outside factor. It’s going to distract from my feeling. Feeling is the most important thing.”
Marco Pantani, the deceased Italian who won both the Tour of Italy and Tour de France in 1998, set the record time for the climb, 37 minutes and 35 seconds, in 1997. His average speed was 14.31 mph.
The climb to L’Alpe d’Huez, while testing riders’ mettle, is equally notorious for its spectators. Hundreds of thousands flock to the mountain as if on pilgrimages of anticipated excess.
Rain or shine, the crowd arrives early, sometimes days in advance. They pitch their tents on postage-stamped sized patches of grass or park their cars and recreational vehicles within feet of shear cliffs.
And then they begin to celebrate in a weird ritual — a combination of cycling reverence and an all-are-welcome party-on-the- patio at altitude.
Undoubtedly, the most raucous fans are visitors from Holland. Five Dutchman have won the stage and riders from the Netherlands not considered skilled mountain climbers mysteriously tend to perform well.
Orange is Holland’s color of choice, and for the Dutch, anything not orange — body parts to asphalt, T-shirts to foliage — is prime decorating real estate. One of the many nicknames for L’Alpe d’Huez is “Dutch Mountain.”
Tour de France organizers condone the activity, with rare exception. The event has proudly touted its pending increased stage security. But any sense of relative calm won’t occur on the mountain until early Thursday morning.
Veteran Tour de France riders, past and present, know the mountain’s racing obstacles and its celebratory ways well.
“You can’t compare it to another sport, really,” said Andreu. “It’s just an intense effort. You’re going flat out at your total limit.”
“They (the cyclists) will definitely be fresher, but the process will likely be the same. You’ve got to pace yourself on the mountain. It’s a fine line between ‘blowing up’ and going hard. Because if you ‘blowup,’ you’ll never recover and you can lose huge amounts of time.”
Despite his cycling longevity, Andreu never mastered climbing and rarely won races. Instead, he built a career as a smart rider who set the pace on long, flat stages and protected his team leader.
“I was always ‘dead’ by the time I got there,” Andreu recalled of many L’Alpe d’Huez ascents. “I always had to do a bunch of work before then when the peloton went through that long valley. So before the climb, I was already ‘toast.’
“But I can remember the year (1992) when Andy Hampsten (his teammate) won. I had just reached the bottom of the climb and everyone was yelling at me ‘Hampsten won, Hampsten won.’ I was like ‘Who the hell cares? I still have 16 km to go up the damn thing.”