There are times when you realize that you are standing at the foot of greatness. And, for any self-respecting cyclist, standing at the foot of the mythic Alpe d’Huez certainly qualifies as one of those “greatness” moments. Needless to say, we jump at the opportunity to go visit the mythic climb in the French Alps and attack its legendary 21 switchback turns.
Words/Images: James Startt
Théo, a regional triathlete from Thonon-les-Bains, can’t wait to make his maiden voyage up the Alpe while testing out some high-performance PEARL iZumi clothing. Our plan: to ride as many of the roads as possible up and around L’Alpe d’Huez in our two-day trip.
Meeting up at the Hotel Les Grandes Rousses in the heart of the Alpe d’Huez ski resort, we sketch out our plan. It’s the final weekend of the ski season and there’s still plenty of snow on the slopes that tower around us. But we’re more interested in what’s below. Opting to start with the classic climb and its 21 turns, we make our way down to the foot of the Alpe to the village of Bourg d’Oisans, where Théo readies for the ride.
“It’s pretty amazing to be here at the foot of the Alpe,” Théo says. “So many stories have been written here. But you know what? It’s best not to look too far ahead of you, because the summit just seems so far away!”
Preferring to focus on the ride ahead, Théo eases up to a sign that announces Kilometer Zero, the traditional start of the timed climb, reminding you that the greatest cyclists in history have tested themselves on this very same climb. And, soon enough, Théo is off.
In many ways the reputation of L’Alpe d’Huez precedes itself, and it always earns its stripes quickly: The very first slopes are known to be some of the toughest. Here, the ramps are the longest and steepest. Lactic acid builds up quickly as riders’ legs struggle to find their rhythm. And for those who don’t know the climb the first turns can be terrifying.
Théo has been well warned and rides within himself. But, still, he’s duly impressed. “Man, that first ramp is so hard, and you still have so far to go,” he later recounts. “And the steepness continues for three or four turns afterwards. It is just relentless. There’s no letting up!”
Despite the steep grades, Théo, who’s in good condition, maintains a steady pace, passing several other amateurs out for a similar test. And by the time he arrives at the climb’s first village, La Garde, he’s obviously enjoying himself and taking in the scenery. Soon enough giant oversized jerseys can be seen hanging from the rocky cliffs. First, a large polka-dot best-climber’s jersey comes into view…and then a yellow jersey. It may only be April but, in some ways, every day is a Tour de France day on the Alpe d’Huez.
In addition, each of the climb’s legendary 21 turns is marked with a sign honoring at least one of the previous winners of stages here since the Tour de France first ventured up shortly after World War II. On that day in 1952, Fausto Coppi stormed to victory with the yellow jersey already on his back as he cruised toward his second victory in the Tour. His name is the first that comes into view on turn 21, an honor he shares with Lance Armstrong, who twice won stages here.
“Seeing all those names on each turn is really something,” Théo says. “I remember the recent victories by the French riders, Thibaut Pinot, Pierre Roland and Christophe Riblon, but then you see others like Marco Pantani. We’ve all seen images of him racing towards the record here in what 37 minutes? Heck, after 37 minutes, I still had six turns left as well as the last couple of kilometers through town. That’s a pretty sobering thought!”
While Théo maintains a steady tempo, he’s not out to set any records today, instead savoring the moment. Temperatures change quickly as the alpine sun beats down on this otherwise cool springtime weekend. And the road up to the Alpe can be tricky, since the switchbacks are constantly darting in and out of the sun and shade. “I really like Pearl’s pro pursuit jersey,” says Théo. “The fabric really wicks away perspiration while it’s easy to zip open and shut even on the steep pitches. And that really helps with the ever-changing temperature.”
Soon enough, Théo enters the final turns as he passes the first chalets of L’Alpe d’Huez village. Picking up the tempo as the roads flatten out, he weaves through the village and then sprints toward the finish of the timed climb, which is also the finish of all Tour stages.
Coming in at just under an hour, Théo is simply happy to put in an honest ride up the mythic climb. With the late-afternoon sun setting over the neighboring ski lifts, Theo pulls out his Pro Barrier Lite jacket before rolling home. “Wow, what a day,” he says on returning to the hotel. “What a climb!”