You could call the climb to Alpe d’Huez the world’s first purpose-built cycling climb.
It was initially built around 1936 to improve access to the expanding ski resort at the top of the mountain. The road is built for cars, not for bicycles. The average percentage is relatively high at 8.1%, with a length of 13.2 km and 1,071m. of altitude again. Which isn’t, on paper, one of the most challenging climbs.
However, what Alpe d’Huez lacks in altitude and length is made up for in intensity. The climb is full-on from the bottom to the top, with little respite from the infernal gradient or the heat bouncing off the south-facing, rock-lined road. The weather and temperature don’t change from top to bottom, and no altitude kicks in, so riders have no reason not to go for it.
Which they do. There is no gentle run-in to the climb, so the start is brutal.
The climb starts at Le Bourg d’Oisans, going from 0% gradient to 10% average straight up from the Romanche valley floor, continuing in this vein for the first 2.6 kilometres. It’s imperative not to go too hard in this first section. Otherwise, you will pay further up the climb. As someone once said, “Start like a galloping horse, finish like a nodding donkey”.
The bends are numbered from the top of the climb. The first bend is therefore bend 21.
Fausto Coppi won the first Alpe d’Huez Tour de France stage in 1952. His name appears on the first bend of the climb. Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond’s rivalry shaped the 1986 edition of the Tour and cemented Alpe d’Huez’s reputation for out-and-out racing and decisive Tour de France moments.
Marco Pantini became the first modern day legend of Alpe d’Huez after his audacious attack at the bottom of the climb and subsequent stage win during the 1997 Tour de France. The record still stands today at 36.50
Of course, there’s one thing the professional peloton has so far at least never done. Descend the most famous climb in cycling.
What a descent it is. The bends come thick and fast on this super fast road. Your hands will ache from the vibrations coming through the bars as you cling to the brake levers as if your life depended on it, which it does.
The exhilaration is something else. The faster you go into the bend, the quicker you are out of the bend.
This roller-coaster ride plunges down the mountain. Nineteen of the 21 bends of Alpe d’Huez are 360-degree hairpin bends. The bends are fast but predictable, many follow a similar design pattern and shape. They have a clear view of the exit road so that you can pick your line for maximum velocity and speed.
© davidt 2022