l’Alpe d’Huez 2006
They are mad, aren’t they? Let me give you the facts. Every July, up to half a million people congregate on a mountain to watch 150 guys on bikes on one given afternoon. Let’s call the mountain l’Alpe d’Huez, let’s call the bike race the Tour de France. The people on the mountainside make long journeys through vast traffic jams to make the pilgrimage, and at the end many of them have to walk up the mountain, although just as many ride their bikes up the mountain, putting themselves through physical suffering and indignity that the guys they have come to watch are paid millions of euros for.
Once actually on the mountain, they camp out. They can’t choose their neighbours, and there are no facilities such as you might have on a campsite. If they are lucky there is a yard or so of grass verge between them and the cliff that goes down to the next set of hairpin bends. There is no food so you carry your own. Worst of all, there is little shade and no water among the rocks, so they end up baked half to death by the sun if they aren’t deafened by the bands of young guys who have brought ghetto blasters or rock guitars.
They may wait for up to 36 hours for what they have come to watch, which begins with about 3000 cars driven by tired looking people with corporate guests, journalists and television crews in the back, followed by a few hundred publicity vehicles that defy description, being got up as giant tins of beans, robots, superman, gas pumps, bars of chocolate. Mind you, the weirdness of the publicity people’s vehicles is nothing compared to the outfits the mountain people wear: pink wigs, orange wigs, Danish horn-helmets, American Eagles, giant sharks, cows with huge udders, syringes. Are we hallucinating? No, it’s just the sun.
Among all this, the mountain people are doing their best to get themselves killed. There is so much noise that they don’t hear the cars and vans approaching; they walk in front of them, play chicken with them, keep painting things on the road until they are squashed, and ride their bikes downhill onto the cars’ bonnets. That’s nothing compared to the mayhem when the publicity vehicles come past and the mountain people fight like rats in a barrel for the free plastic bags, pens, and leaflets advertising cutprice mailorder and insurance. And the hats worth a euro – they beg for those and use their children as beggars use their children on the street, to elicit sympathy and earn those hats.
If the publicity people won’t bung the tack out quick enough, the mountain people try to get in the cars and grab the freebies. That can lead to roadside boxing matches with the people in the publicity vehicles, assuming they haven’t been so stupid as to try and hand the stuff out rather than throw it. If they do that, they get dragged out onto the roadside and are never seen again.
Then come the men on bikes. Ah yes, the men on bikes, we forgot those didn’t we? By the time the bikes come, the mountain people are really demented. The roads are white with painted slogans, the screaming is deafening, and most of all, the mountain people want to participate. They want to ride the bike race, but they can’t – most of them could barely make it down the shops, those who ride up the mountain for fun do so in a painful wobble, with one or two heart attacks and near-deaths from heat exhaustion along the way.
So they do the next best thing. They participate. They push the guys, they pour water on their backs. They run alongside them yelling things in their faces, so many of them that the cyclists cannot see where they are going. The girls do this in tight t-shirts, but the guys on the bikes are too out of it to notice. There are cars and motorbikes around the men on bikes, but none of the spectators care about their toes, or a few bruises. Then it all passes, and it’s time to go down, into another vast traffic jam.
L’Alpe d’Huez, on the Tour de France: the most extreme spectator experience in world sport. And yet, 54 years ago, when the world’s greatest bike race first went up its greatest mountain, one thing strikes you from the black and white pictures of Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali. There are no people.
It all truly began on the Alpe in the 1970s, when the Tour begin its regular visits. First came the Dutch. Their cyclists won eight times on the mountain in 14 years, and Dutch families holidaying in the Alps came to the Alpe to watch. They are still there, tanked up on Oranjeboom, oompah bands going strong, orange from head to toe. As the Tour has become more international, they have been joined by Danes, Germans, Britons, and Americans. It’s a cycling Tower of Babel: myriad languages, one focus.
The Alpe is the ultimate expression of what makes the Tour unique in world sport; it is the greatest free show (and some would say freak show) on earth, the most dramatic natural stadium in an event that has an entire country’s geography as its backdrop. In no sport in the world can the fans get so close to their heroes; look them in the eye, give them water, push them if the judges aren’t looking. The Alpe is hard to get to, and it’s usually the decisive climb – the old saying goes that the man in the yellow jersey at the Alpe will have it in Paris.
There will always be debate about whether those fans get too close, and whether there are too many of them. In 2004, after the half-million left the mountain, the body of one fan was found at the foot of a cliff. No one quite knew how he got there. In Armstrong’s first Tour winning year, 1999, a fan with a camera knocked the eventual stage winner Giuseppe Guerini off his bike, and in 2004 Armstrong had four bodyguards as he clinched victory No6. His view was that the stage should not have been held, because the fans could not be controlled, and those around him were terrified for his welfare.
But the bad side is the flipside of the good, which is that without the access, the Alpe is nothing. Here, the fans ride their bikes in the wheelmarks of the greats. They can believe, for an afternoon, that they are Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain, Lance Armstrong. All today’s fans will remember the look Armstrong gave his great rival Jan Ullrich at the foot of the mountain in 2001 – the glance of appraisal that said he had won the Tour for the third time. Some may recall the Frenchman Pascal Simon’s suffering as he rode here in 1983, struggling to hold the lead with a broken shoulder, and heroically failing. The frenzy may at times beggar believe, but it does not defy understanding.
Anarchy on the Alpe – five key moments
July 4 1952. The Tour climbs the mountain for the first time, on roads that are barely tarmacced, to a ski station which consists of a handful of huts. The Italian “campionissimo” Fausto Coppi wins en route to a dominant Tour win – 28 minutes clear of the next man – and his second “double” of Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.
July 15+16 1979. In an act of sporting sadism, the Tour climbs the Alpe twice in two days, with the second stage a loop out and home from the mountain top. As Bernard Hinault rides to Tour victory, the Dutchman Joop Zoetemelk wins the second stage. The Alpe becomes the “Orange mountain”, a Mecca for Dutch fans.
July 21, 1986. Team mates and rivals for the overall win Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond cross the line together hand in hand, with the stage win awarded to Hinault. It’s an image of sporting unity that belies the facts: to this day LeMond believes Hinault was deceiving him and Hinault believes he could have won the Tour.
July 12, 1995. Marco Pantani sets the record time for the climb en route to his first Tour stage win: the Tour falls in love with the man variously nicknamed “elefantino” (Dumbo), the Pirate, and Pac-man, for the way he “devours” any riders ahead of him one by one. Less than nine years later, Pantani is dead of a cocaine overdose.
July 22 2004. The maddest scenes yet on the Alpe as Lance Armstrong rides through spittle, jeers, and death threats to win the first ever time trial to the top, sealing his sixth Tour win.
Alpe d’Huez facts
Location: above the village of Bourg d’Oisans, which lies on the N91 between Grenoble and Briancon.
Total length: 13.8km
Hairpin bends: 21
Total height gained: 1089
Record time for the climb: Marco Pantani, 1995, 36min 50sec
Average gradient: 7.9 per cent
Steepest section: the first kilometre, at 10.6 per cent