Alpe d’Huez: Cycling immortality awaits on the ultimate climb of the Tour de France

A few months after winning a rugged Alpe d’Huez wearing the yellow jersey, Geraint Thomas snuck back to the site of his greatest triumph to check if it really happened. Signposts at each of the Alpe’s famous 21 switchbacks bear the names of riders who climbed the Tour de France with victory at the summit, and Thomas, immortalized under the likes of Fausto Coppi and Bernard Hinault, found his own name on the 13th written Biege.

Whoever was in charge of signposting the alp was probably not a cycling fanatic, as the Welshman climbed halfway up only to find his name was misspelled – ‘Thomas Geraint’. Today, if you look closely, you can still see where the correction was later printed at the top to hide the initial error.

Thomas wasn’t impressed when he was reminded of this The Independent on Wednesday morning, but rest assured he’ll take a moment to look up near the climax of stage 12 on Thursday to check if it’s still there. It was the defining moment of his 2018 Tour de France victory, and the win at Alpe d’Huez remains one of road cycling’s greatest achievements (Thomas is unique in that while wearing the maillot jaune).

Geraint Thomas cheers as he crosses the finish line in 2018

(Getty Images)

It may not be as high a peak as the Col du Tourmalet, or as long a climb as Mont Ventoux, but Alpe d’Huez is the iconic climb of the Tour de France, one with its own folklore and an atmosphere like no other, where more than half a million spectators fill the mountainside, flock to the streets and where screaming fans can reach out and touch their heroes. For an afternoon every few years it is the largest sports arena in the world.

The party atmosphere on the ‘Dutch Mountain’, so named because of the horde of orange fans since the success of the Netherlands in the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes boils over on sunny days when the drinks are flowing. Vincenzo Nibali was obliterated from the 2018 Tour by a fan’s stray camera strap, nearly 20 years after another spectator with a camera pushed runaway leader Giuseppe Guerini off his bike – he was able to get back on his feet and claim his prize.

The climb is almost 14 km (9 miles) long and has an average gradient of more than 8 percent. It requires about 45 minutes of grueling effort from Tour pros (well over an hour for most amateurs). The low road climbs over 10 percent in the steep initial section, then flattens out into six successive sharp hairpins, constantly changing direction to eliminate the need for any downwind. After the village of Huez, the road climbs again before briefly reaching the finish.

Dutch fans line the road to the top of Alpe d’Huez

(Getty Images)

This week, the Alpe awaits at the end of a long 165km (103-mile) stage that begins with the cloud-high Col du Galibier, and Europe’s heatwave will only make the climb more difficult. Hennie Kuiper, stage winner in 1977 and 1978, recalled: “I can remember looking ahead and being willing to wait for shadow spots.”

Denmark’s Jonas Vingegaard will start the day in the yellow jersey with designs emulating Thomas four years ago and he will be happy to do so after his dominant Stage 11 win that decimated reigning champion Tadej Pogacar’s lead. Of course, Pogacar loves the sense of occasion and will have his own notions of glory in his first race at Alpe d’Huez.

“I was just there for the exploration and it’s really such an iconic climb,” said Pogacar The Independent lately. “The atmosphere at this climb will be fantastic so I’m really looking forward to it. I think either way I’ll enjoy the stage because it’s quite beautiful.

“[The fans] make the sport even better. In training you’re alone all the time, you’re always struggling with your mind, but in the race when you have so many people cheering for you around you, I think you get that little bit extra, and that’s when you’re at the limit and when a lot of people are cheering you on so loudly, it gives you more energy.”

American Greg Lemond (left) and French teammate Bernard Hinault cross the finish line

(AFP via Getty Images)

It’s a route that leaves lasting memories, from Coppi winning the first win in 1952 to Lance Armstrong’s self-proclaimed “coup de poker” when he bluffed his rival Jan Ullrich and left him at the bottom of the climb (a win later off erased from the record books). Perhaps the most famous image is from 1986 when teammates Hinault and Greg LeMond fought all the way to the top, only to call a truce at the summit and cross the line arm in arm.

As the Tour contests Alpe d’Huez for the 30th year, new stories will be made and likely a new name inducted into the road’s Hall of Fame. Turn 12 is the next signpost waiting for a winner. Attention organizers: Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogacar are not easy to spell. Alpe d’Huez: Cycling immortality awaits on the ultimate climb of the Tour de France

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