Alpe d'Huez

Ah, Alpe d'HuezThe Alpe.

The toughest climb in road cycling? Probably not.  The most iconic? Most definitely.  

At a  distance of 8.5 miles and with gradients that average 7.9 per cent, Alpe d'Huez  is the mountain where heroes are born and legends are made.

When it features in the Tour de France crowds of half a million funnel the riders to its summit and on any given day of the year cyclists of every shape, age, ability and nationality can be seen toiling up it slopes,  gurning unashamedly as they pose for photos before descending back down into the valley. 

So why does this relative newcomer to the professional cycling circuit hold such a fascination with the cycling world?  One fundamental reason was demonstrated when Alpe d'Huez debuted in the 1952 Tour de France:  Fausto Coppi successfully attacked Jan Bobic of France midway through the ascent, taking the stage, the maillot jaune and ultimately the Tour. 

Similar to Coppi's devastating assult on Bobic,  Alpe d'Huez has the ability to impact on the eventual outcome of the Tour de France GC standings. 

Coppi took the maillot jaune on Alpe d'Huez and kept it all the way to Paris - a feat that has only been shared by Lance Armstrong.  It has been climbed 24 times since Coppi first won there in 1952 and on 18 of those occasions, the rider holding the yellow jersey has gone on to triumph in Paris.

The actual gradient statistics of Alpe d'Huez do not compare to other climbs in the Alps, like the Galibier or Joux-Plane. Demanding though it is, the real difficulty of the Alpe lies in the fact  that it tends to come at the end of a very long,  demading day in the mountains. The level of fatigue, both physical and psychological, will be high by the time the lead cyclists hit the first of its 21 hairpin bends to the summit.

This does not, however, stop the most assured mountain climbers ascending the Alpe in breathtakingly quick times. The Italian Marco Pantani holds the 'official' record for ascending Alpe d'Huez - a frighteningly quick 37 minutes and 35 seconds, though Lance Armstrong came tantalisingly close to improving on this when he triumphed in  the 2004 Tour de France time trial - his ascent of the Alpe recorded at only one second more than Pantani's record.

Alpe d'Huez is affectionally known as the Dutch Mountain due to the thousands of exuberant supporters from the Netherlands who flock to its slopes each year,  They camp out for days - sometimes weeks - prior to the Tour arriving - a national pastime born out of the Dutch dominance on the Alpe from 1976 until the late 80's (a period that saw 8 Dutch riders triumph on the Alpe). The spectacle as the riders run the gauntlet of Dutch Corner is the most compelling, chaotic and noisy spectacle of the Tour de France.

Although Alpe d'Huez will not feature in the 2012 Tour de France, it will continue to hold a special fascination whenever it does.

Famous events happen on the Alpe.

Bernard Hinault relentlessly attacked his teamate Greg LeMond on the Alpe in 1986 and who can forget 'The Look' of Lance  Armstrong in 2001. The defending champion, having feigned fatigue earlier in the stage, glanced back at his nemesis, Jan Ulrich, at the base of the climb, challenging the German to stay with him. Ulrich capitulated and Armstrong accelerated away, emphatically taking the stage, the maillot jaune and ultimately the 2001 Tour.

                 Lance Armstrong powers up Alpe d'Huez in 2001 (Image in public domain)

In the 2011 Tour de France the Frenchman Pierre Roland was the first to the top,  after seeing off a concerted effort by Alberto Contador to take the stage. Luxembourg's Andy Schleck took over the yellow jersey, but a dogged display by Cadel Evans, the eventual winner of the Tour, meant that, once again, Alpe d'Huez had had a bearing on the final outcome of the race.

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