It is probably the most famous mountain in cycling. Almost 14 kilometers, 21 numbered hairpin turns. It lies in the the Isère valley, which is narrow and surrounded by mountains so rugged they look as though they were cast in a single day. These mountains are steep and brutal and spring up abruptly from the valley floor. The most rugged of these mountains is l’Alpe d’Huez.
The road to l’Alpe d’Huez is steepest at the base. The road takes a hard left turn and rears up sharply to the first hairpin bend. The road is steepest near the bottom where it clings to the granite mountainside. Past the village of Huez, it gradually levels off before a final steep push into Alpe d’Huez where the Tour races through town, a tunnel, and into the 90 degree corner where Greg LeMond nearly crashed in 1990 before narrowly losing the stage to Gianni Bugno.
This mountain is the reason I am fascinated with switchback turns. I spent my childhood seeking out hills that had a hairpin or some other characteristic that allowed me to imagine it was the Alpe. When I was thirteen, I rode the fabled climb for the first time. I was aboard an enormous Cannondale with a triple chainring and used every inch of the smallest gear. All the way up the mountain, I sucked in the diesel exhaust of the passing cars which ran poorly and smelled even worse on account of the altitude. It seemed the passing cars cheered me on: “Allez, petit grimpeur!” I pedaled through each of the 21 hairpins and arrived at the top in the dark, elated.
During the 2002 Tour, Michelle and I were in the midst of planning a vacation to France to ride and follow the Tour the next summer. We had already made arrangements to stay in a Gite in Aspet where we would ride and watch the Tour in the Pyrenees. During the coverage of the stage to Alpe d’Huez, Phil and Paul briefly discussed the fans on the roadside. Phil mentioned that one of the greatest things to do was to buy a bottle of wine, drive up the mountain, set up camp on the roadside, and make some friends. Michelle and I are notoriously anti-social creatures, but nevertheless this idea resonated with us immediately. We quickly decided to add an excursion to Alpe d’Huez to our plan.
We arrived in Grenoble during rush hour. Unconcerned, we made our way through Grenoble and turned onto the D1091 to drive the 50 or so kilometers to le Bourg d’Oisans and the base of the climb. We hadn’t even left the main road before we realized we were stuck in a queue which stretched the entire distance between us and our destination. We hunkered down and waited, spending long periods of time completely stopped before starting the car and rolling a few meters forward, only to repeat the process.
Nonetheless, we were on vacation and it was a beautiful day. We weren’t so much worried about the traffic jam as we were about the possibility that we wouldn’t make it to the mountain, or that the gendarme wouldn’t let us up the mountain because it could be full (does that even happen?). Six hours later, we arrived at the base of the mountain and were granted access to the road.
As we headed up and up through the steep bottom turns, I was taken by how the mountain had transformed to accommodate the race: campers, cars, and tents littered every available meter of the roadside, leaving a channel just wide enough for the cars to pass. And the fans. The fans. Even then, fully 18 hours before the race would come by, they were yelling and cheering on every passing vehicle, running alongside it as if it were a Tour rider. We headed up through the town of Huez (and past Dutch Corner – in all her orange-clad glory), until we felt we were high enough on the mountain to start seeking out a camping site. On and on we drove, until we found a space big enough for our car and a tent. We parked, pitched our tent on the street, set out our French-style sling-back lawn chairs, and took in our surroundings.
There was an excitement in the air that is impossible to convey. Everyone was thrilled. It seemed everyone was drunk. No one was controlling the volume of their voice. We weren’t sure what had transpired during the stage since we’d been driving all day, but the French seemed particularly thrilled about it. Eventually, a car rolled by with three drunken Frenchmen dangling out the car windows chanting, “Le Roi, le Roi, le Roi Virenque! Le Roi, le Roi, le Roi Virenque!” As it turned out, Richard had staged a typical day-long escape and taken the Maillot Jaune, to the delight of the French. It began to sink in: whatever history was to be made tomorrow, we were going to have a front-row seat.
By this time we were beginning to get friendly with the people around us. There was a group of Italians to one side, Germans to the other, and French across the street. No one cared who was who, and everyone talked in whatever language worked. The Italians shared their grappa. We shared our wine. The crazy old fat Franchman across the street wandered over and asked if I fancied sharing partners for the night (I didn’t). Everyone was friends.
It was early in the morning when we finally crawled into our tent – still pitched on the street – and fell asleep. We had drank enough wine and grappa and who knows what else that we slept soundly. I don’t recall the road being hard, but I’m sure it was.
In the morning, I awoke to the wall of the tent above my head collapsing into my face. I struggled to place myself and to understand what was happening and finally realized that the tent was being pushed down by a reversing car. I also heard the voice of a French woman, apparently telling the driver to continue backing up. I fundamentally disagreed with her assessment of the situation and poked my head out of the tent to express my opinion. We argued a bit (I don’t know in what language, because my French sucks as much as her English) but ultimately found a compromise and we settled into our mornings.
Several items from our camp had gone missing during the night, and I was disappointed that the couple who had almost crushed my head were now parked in our “lounge area” where we had set up our lawn chairs and drinking station. On top of that, the festivities the night before made my head felt like my skull was 3 sizes too small for my brain, we had no food for breakfast, and no coffee. As I surveyed the situation, one of the Italians came over with a Moka pot and said, “Esspressi?” He even brought sugar for Michelle.
Shortly thereafter, the ringleader of the Italians staggered by with a plastic cup. He offered it to me. I looked at the obviously alcoholic dark liquid. “Vino?”, I asked reluctantly.
His face twisted into a scowl. “It is 7:00 in the morning! Who would drink vino rossa?”
I gave him an exaggerated look of exasperation.
“This is grappa with espresso“, he stated strongly.
Great. What is that, anyway? The Italian version of Irish coffee?
Freshly caffeinated (and having weaseled out of the morning grappa), the world looked a bit brighter, and we set about making a plan for the day. I wandered off to try to find our missing things (which were stowed away neatly by some drunk just up the street) and rustled us up some breakfast (I don’t recall from where). I returned to the car and, after breakfast, Michelle and I got into our cycling clothes to do some riding. We rode down through the crowds to the base, turned around, and rode up to the finish village. We rode through the crowds and were cheered as if we were the Big Men who would race it later that day. The crowds were deafening. They slapped our backs. They pushed us, they offered us booze. When we got to the top, the finish line had been assembled, and we got to ride under the flamme rouge, into the final ninety-degree bend before the finish, and across the line. We bought Tour souvenirs at the finish and rolled through the crowds back to the car. Our tires were white with paint from the road, where fans had been painting the names of their heroes as we rode past. Those tires have since been removed from our bikes and stored.
Waiting for the race is an odd experience. The racers don’t come by until around 5pm, so you sit on the side of the road waiting in the heat all day long. The well-prepared brought radios so they could follow the race. Others brought books to read. Still others, like our Italian friends, brought bar-b-ques and lots of food to cook.
Excitement, booze, boredom, and heat. Everyone copes with it differently. Many people ride all or part of the mountain. Some read, some chat, some play music. Our Italian friends marched single-file down the center of the street, singing the Italian anthem at the top of their lungs – stark naked. Before being part of the spectacle, I had no idea how much the fans drink. And they drink hard. The old man who had propositioned us the night before staggered over some time in the early afternoon, carrying a bottle of Jack Daniels. “See? I’m drinking American whiskey!” This was 2003, just after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and we had just renamed “French Fries” to “Freedom Fries” on account of the animosity between our countries. We saw no trace of that on the mountain. None at all. In fact, the French made a much more clear distinction between a country and it’s political leaders than Americans typically do. But I digress.
With each passing hour, the excitement levels rose as more and more signs of the Tour appeared. A car carrying officials passed by. A police motorcycle. Another official car. Eventually, the Gendarme file up the street and start to tried to instill some sense of order. Then came the caravan.
The Caravan is the part of the Tour de France that you never see on TV. The Caravan is an endless line of advertisement vehicles of all shapes and sizes that passes along an hour or so before the racers come by. They throw memorabilia out to the crowds. They pass out Polka-dot caps and those cool green PMU hands. They drive by with water cannons and spray the crowds.
By the time the Caravan had passed, the crowd was thoroughly drunk and thoroughly excited. Those with radios shouted the news out to the crowd. Everyone was consumed by it, including the Gendarmes. They were as thrilled as everyone else. (It must be an officer’s dream to be assigned to Tour duty on Alpe d’Huez.)
The next thing we heard was the helicopter.
First quietly, “Thuk-thuk-thuk-thuk-thuk-thuk-thuk-thuk.”
Then louder, “THUK-THUK-THUK-THUK-THUK-THUK-THUK-THUK.”
The guy with the radio yelled out, “THEY ARE AT THE BASE OF THE CLIMB!”
The guy with the radio, “Mayo attacked! He is away!!”
At this point, we couldn’t hear the helicopter anymore because the motorcade leading the race up the mountain was honking every horn it had available to it. We caught our first glimpse of the leader. Iban Mayo, in his orange Eusaktel kit, cutting through the crowds. He came by like a shot.
Then Vinokourov came by, also like a shot, but clearly struggling with his machine more than Mayo, who seemed to be soaring. Even from the roadside, you can sense how they’re suffering, trying to stay on top of their gears. the moment when Vinokourov comes by us is recorded on the World Cycling Productions coverage of the stage. You can barely see me, but Michelle is more obvious. She is on side of the road, wearing a cowboy hat. She is clearly in the right side of the picture as she cheers Vino and he cuts closely by her.
The Armstrong group goes by almost unnoticed in the commotion. The only sign that they passed was that the the French started to look at their watches, timing the gap to le Roi Virenque. Many groups and minutes pass. By the time a yellow-clad Virenque passed by, eleven minutes had elapsed. The disappointment of the French crowd was palpable. Virenque later said,
That day on the Alpe d’Huez was… pff!… happiness. When I left the hotel in the morning, the people were there waiting for me and, on the road, they were encouraging me, putting their hand on me. Taps, gestures to encourage me. I could hear their voices, their shouts, which meant a lot to me. The sort of moment, that brings waves of euphoria. To climb the Alpe d’Huez or be in the Tour without those people, that would be… Without that, I wouldn’t be a Tour rider. The Vuelta, the Giro, all that is fading. But the Tour, that’s brilliant everywhere. I climbed the Alpe d’Huez for the pleasure. I never really suffered. It was a 13 July, it was my big day. Let me show my jersey! I basked in the crowd. And what a crowd! They were shouting so hard that when I got back to silence, in the camper car, my ears were ringing. Like when you come out of a concert or a night club.
The amazing thing is that the crowd cheers every single rider that passes through. Long after the Groupetto has passed, stragglers are still passing by, cheered and pushed every meter of the way. I pushed an Euskatel rider who might have been the last rider on the road, until a Gendarme stopped me. Apparently, you’re not supposed to push the riders, on account of that being “cheating”. The rider didn’t seem to mind.
That day on the most famous mountain of the Tour de France, on the day before Bastille Day, amongst the crazy drunken crowds was unforgettable. Virenque may have been the one in the Maillot Jaune, but I think all of us who were there feel the same way about that day.
And that is the undeniable magic of le Grand Boucle, the Tour de France.