L’Alpe d’Huez is also called L’Ile au Soleil as it is south facing and sometimes in the winter the clouds hover in the valley above Bourg d’Oisans but you are in bright sunshine up in Alpe d’Huez.
The resort is popular with cyclists and skiers throughout the world but mainly with Dutch, Danes and Brits. There are three different ways up to the purpose built ski resort which played host to the 1968 winter Olympics.
The first and most well-known way up is the 21 hairpin bends from the village of Bourg d’Oisans up to the finish which is at the top of Alpe d’Huez near the Palais des Sports. Another way up is via the Col de Sarenne which was used in the 2013 Tour de France when the riders endured a double ascent of the Alpe and they descended down the Col de Sarenne. The final way, which might be the easiest, is by going through Villard Reculas and through Huez, before joining the main climb just before the 5th hairpin. You can come up this way when the Tour is in town as the Gendarmes will not block the road.
Commonly branded the ‘Hollywood of climbs’ due to its popularity and the immensely picturesque 21 bends, Alpe d’Huez would be one that looks beautiful on the red carpet, but ugly as sin when you get up close and see behind the make-up due to the tough climb to the summit .
When you climb the 21 hairpin bends, you will see signs on each bend with the names of Tour de France stage winners up Alpe d’Huez on them. In 1952, Fausto Coppi was the first to triumph at l’Alpe d’Huez, capturing the Yellow Jersey at the summit of the climb famous for its 21 bends.
The series of successes of Joop Zoetemelk, Hennie Kuiper or Peter Winnen then gave it the nickname of “Dutch Mountain” before the Italians then took command thanks to the likes of Gianni Bugno and Marco Pantani. But the French have also had their own success. In 1984, Laurent Fignon scored precious points in his fight against Bernard Hinault who was to become the first Frenchman to win there in 1986. Twenty-five years later, Pierre Rolland gave France more glory, and in 2013, the first double climb of this monument of cycling, saw another French hero triumph: Christophe Riblon. In 2015 it was Thibault Pinot who took the victory in Alpe d’Huez on the short stage from Modane.
In 2018 the Alpe d’Huez is back and is sure to be an enthralling stage. Alpe d’Huez returns to the race for the first time since 2015, but before the riders tackle the famous 21 hairpins they must overcome the other categorised climbs of the Col de la Madeleine and the Col de la Croix de Fer. The historic 21 hairpins will then decide the stage winner, with the General Classification riders having no excuse to hold back as the race heads out of the mountains the following day. At Sports Tours International we are providing an excellent trip that covers the stages between Annecy and Alpe d’Huez . This is a trip that allows spectators to experience first hand the famous climb of Alpe d’Huez.
The famous alpine climb is a spectator hot spot with thousands of fans relishing in the atmosphere as the riders ascend to the summit. The fantastic views from the mountain combined with the excitement of a tough climb creates a truly memorable spectacle.
Don’t be fooled into thinking the swooping bends and glamorous appearance of the Alpe make it a walk in the park(14.3km at 8% says it all, and there’s definitely no easy warm up. The first five or so bends are set at a vicious 10-12% gradient that saps your strength before you’ve even reached half way. It’s easy to get carried away when you hit the initial ramps and push too hard as you’re filled with the adrenaline and excitement of riding this legendary col. If you do this you’re in for a very, very hard hour or so. Take it easy!
Fortunately after these initial bends, the gradient eases to a slightly more tolerable 8%. The gradient is more or less constant from there on, which allows you to get into a rhythm, with the only chance to enjoy a little recovery is on the slightly flatter hairpins. Although if you’re trying for a fast time you are compelled to click up a few gears and accelerate before the gradient forces you back into your lowest gear again.
When the relentless gradient is combined with the furnace-like environment, make this one grueling climb. The cliff-face on your inside and the waist-high wall on the outside seem to reflect the heat directly onto you, so make sure you get your fill at the water stations provided or the special extra stand that Sports Tours International provide if you are riding the Marmotte. On really hot days, you might be lucky enough to have someone offer to pour water over your head – whatever you do just say yes – it’s amazing!
It’s tough to gauge your progress through the climb, as rather than your usual distance and elevation markers that line the side of most European climbs, the Alpe displays a sign at each bend with a past Tour de France stage winner. So, whilst you can count the bends, you don’t actually know how much distance you have left. Once around a bend, you might be able to see the next one, however it might also be the case that it’s a kilometre further up the road! Bend 21 to 20 is a really long way from memory. After a few close bends, you then reach the edge of La Garde before a couple of long stretches between the bends to keep you guessing. Eventually you reach Huez village you know you’re around two thirds of the way to the summit.
From bend five the climb then opens up as you leave Huez and all the trees behind. This for me is the worst part, as you can see exactly how far you have to go. Added to this the distance between bends four and three is much, much further than you want it to be and the ski resort just never seems to get any closer. Once you round bend three all of a sudden the ski resort feels close, only two bends to go! The climb to bend two still takes a while, however you reach bend one much quicker, than you think you will. Don’t go full gas yet though, as the climb to the top of the village can still catch you out and horribly the gradient at the fringes of the resort is still unrelenting. From here on you’d better hope you’re in good shape, as other riders/tourists will be sitting out drinking coffee and eating omelettes in the numerous bars and cafes, casually observing your progress. I always find it difficult to know where to stop in the town, as the road keeps rising! The Marmotte however finishes at the Palais des sports, so I always push on through the tunnel and around that extra bonus bend between the apartments and sprint across the mini-roundabout to the car park outside. You can only now breathe a small sigh of relief between the heavy panting, safe in the knowledge you’ve reached the top of this mythical climb which is definitely nicer on the eye than it is on the legs.
Jim is a passionate and experienced cyclist who has ridden with us for various Haute Routes, the Etape du Tour, and La Marmotte. He keeps a blog of his musings and experiences on the bike here: https://mountainmutton.wordpress.com