L’Alpe d’Huez is one of the iconic scenes of Le Tour de France. Since its introduction in 1952 when Fausto Coppi kicked away from Jean Robic 4 kilometres from the summit it has been a legendary stage, looked forward to by fans and feared by riders. In its 28 previous appearances L’Alpe has appeared as a stage finish, a mid-stage climb, and on one now notorious occasion as in individual time-trial stage when Lance Armstrong rode the 15.5 kilometres to the summit in 39 minutes and 41 seconds, a result that has since been annulled.
From Le Bourg-d’Oisans the road sweeps upward through 21 hairpin bends at an average gradient of 8.1 per cent before it reaches the ski resort at L’Alpe d’Huez. At its steepest part the road hits 13 per cent. In 1995 Marco Pantani rode the climb from its base, a distance of 13.8 kilometres, in 36 minutes 40 seconds, a record that still stands. A good amateur would hope to do it in an hour. Many, including myself, would expect to do it in twice that, if not more. Gravity is a demanding mistress and I climb like a sack of potatoes.
Since the 1980’s L’Alpe has been as famous for its excitable and highly partisan fans as it has for the racing on its slopes. Other than the Champs-Élysées it is the place to watch Le Tour. Hundreds of thousands of people line the climb from foot to summit. Many will have staked their place days before Le Tour even reaches the mountains. Many will take the opportunity to ride up the climb themselves while the road is closed before the arrival of the race. A party atmosphere reigns and the most notorious are the Dutch who camp out in droves on Corner 7, a beery sea of orange that raucously welcomes and encourages every rider climbing the slopes, whether Dutch or not. Dutch riders won on 8 of the 14 occasions that Le Tour climbed L’Alpe, the last winner being the 1989 King of the Mountains, Gert-Jan Theunisse.
Each corner on the road carries a sign that tells you the number of the corner, the height above sea-level, and the name of a previous stage winner. Corner 7 is named after Gianni Bugno who won here in 1990 during stage 11 from Saint Gervais to L’Alpe, the Italian lunging past the reigning World Champion, Greg Lemond, to gain the stage win by less than half a wheel on the line.
It was an important moment for both men. Bugno had lifted himself into the top ten of the general classification for the first time in his Tour career as well as winning on one of its most famous ascents. Lemond, a two times overall winner, had shaved important seconds off his rivals advantage, including the yellow jersey, his own team mate Ronan Pensec after an unlikely breakaway had taken 10 minutes out of all the overall contenders on stage 1. Lemond was to go on to win his third Tour that year, finishing in Paris as one of only 5 riders who have sealed overall victory without winning a stage. His second place at Alpe d’Huez was the closest he came in 1990. At Luz Ardiden on stage 16 he was 6 seconds behind Miguel Indurain, who finished 10th overall and as we know was to go on to become the first rider to win five Tours in a row.
Lemond and L’Alpe have history. On two previous occasions he’d ridden up it in yellow. Once in 1986 with Bernard Hinault on a day when his mercurial team mate had repeatedly attacked despite his promise made prior to Le Tour that he would be riding to help Lemond win. On that occasion Lemond had gifted Hinault the win, content that he was in yellow with 5 stages left to go and a 2 minute plus margin, and also aware of how the French press would have reacted if he’d put time into Hinault on the final kilometres of the climb.
Three years later in 1989, and back from a near fatal shooting accident still carrrying shotgun pellets in his body, Lemond crossed the line on stage 17 in 5th place on the day losing 1 minute and 19 seconds and the yellow jersey to Laurent Fignon, leaving Lemond 26 seconds behind in second place and setting up one of the most thrilling Tour finales ever.
If Alpe d’Huez has been the scene of race defining moments, it has also been the scene of one of Le Tour’s most farcical moments. In 1978 Belgian National Champion Michel Pollentier rode himself into yellow by winning the stage to L’Alpe, but instead of going to the doping control headed to his hotel instead. Two hours later he was found and brought to the control where it was discovered that he and Antoine Gutierrez were attempting to cheat the control by providing a sample from a urine filled condom placed under their armpits and released through a tube taped to their arm to give the impression they were urinating. Both were kicked off the race and subsequent tests demonstrated that Pollentier had taken amphetamines. It probably wasn’t the first time someone had won at Alpe d’Huez doped. It certainly wasn’t the last.
Channel 4’s coverage of stage 11, 1990 is available on YouTube. Interesting not only for the race footage but also for an insight into how TV coverage has changed in subsequent years. Phil Liggett in a shirt and tie, a 27 minute programme devoted to racing, no talking heads, and not a magazine style or human interest story in sight.
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