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Part 6 - L’Alpe d’Huez
13.9km long, average gradient of 7.9% with sections over 10%, 1100m of climbing to the finish at 1860m. L’Alpe d’Huez may not be the highest, steepest or longest climb in cycling, but it is certainly the most famous. It has been climbed 24 times since Coppi first won there in 1952. On 18 of those occasions, the rider holding the yellow jersey has gone on to win in Paris. It will be a defining moment in this year’s Etape too.
“As far as prestige is concerned, nothing is better than Alpe d’Huez. It is the most incredible sensation riding up there, half a million people screaming for you to win.” – Andy Hampsten
There won’t be half a million fans on the Alpe at the Etape, but there will be friends and family and it will feel every bit as important as it does for the Tour riders. This is where you’ll meet your destiny. Pantani’s record for the climb stands at 37 minutes. On a good day you might hope to finish in little over an hour. After 174km expect to add 50% to that. And if you’ve blown up on the Lauteret and run out of gas it could easily take over 2 hours.
No doubt you already know a lot about this legendary climb. After 174km, we can’t tell you how to ride it – it’s going to be a case of grinding up the best way you can. But we can give you some more information to help you prepare your effort.
You’ll be surrounded by legends on this climb (and I don’t mean the moustached Belgian guy, muttering expletives beside you). The 21 hairpin turns are numbered and count down. Each one records the exploits of a legendary rider: Hinault, Pantani, Armstrong, Hampsten, Coppi. Glance at the signs and draw some inspiration if you can.
The apex of each hairpin is almost flat, giving you a few precious seconds of recovery before the suffering continues.
Even after 174km there are going to be a lot of other riders on this climb. If the organisers are true to their word, part of the road may be partitioned off for descending competitors who have already finished. The usually wide road will feel congested. Riders will be walking from the first hairpin. Others will be weaving across the road, trying to lessen the gradient. You’re going to have to keep your cool and make your own pace.
Stage one - shock
The climb can be broken down into four stages. It starts with a steep ramp that rears up in front of you as you turn left onto the climb. The drag to turn one is almost a kilometre at over 10%!
The steep gradient continues until turn 16.
After turn 16 the climb eases as you go past the church at La Garde. This was where Armstrong gave Ullrich ‘the look’. Probably best not to give anyone your own ‘look’ on the Etape. Use this section to recover, find your rhythm, take on fluids and more food.
From turn 13 to 7 the climb gets steeper again. This is where many of the Tour attacks have happened. You’ll be climbing up through trees, the gradient changing often, but always tough. Dig in.
At turn 7 you get a great view down the climb to the valley floor. You’ll see a snake of toiling ‘etapistes’, winding up behind you. Looking up to the left you get your first view of the finish village, still a few hundred vertical metres in front of you. But you know you can make it now.
At turns 6 and 5 in Huez there are bound to be a lot of people in orange. These corners are where the thousands of Dutchmen gather each year to cheer on the next Rooks or Theunisse.
The last few corners are through open ground, with the village always in sight. Watch out for the ramp after the last turn, corner 1, where the road gets alarmingly steep for 50m or so.
The village isn’t the finish
When your reach the village of Alpe d’Huez you’ll think you’ve finished. But the traditional Tour finish is another 1.3km away, at the top of the village near the ski lifts. It’s not steep and euphoria should carry you the last few metres.
For more information about the cols on the Etape route and bike riding in the area, see www.grenoblecycling.com
Thanks to Russell Standring of Grenoble Cycling for these Alpe d'Huez photographs.