L’Alpe x 2

The online journal cyclingnews reported on September 25 that “on July 18, the Tour hits ‘XXL mode’ according to the report, with two ascents of L’Alpe d’Huez.  Starting in Gap, the peloton will head up the infamous 21 switchbacks before travelling back down via the Col de Sarenne on soon to be asphalted roads. The stage will the reach a crescendo with another ascent of L’Alpe d’Huez.”  (http://www.cyclingnews.com/news/report-ventoux-and-two-ascents-of-lalpe-dhuez-for-2013-tour-de-france )

So far, of course, it’s all rumor; the parcours of the most famous bike race in the world will be formally announced on October 24.  [For me, that will be the second most significant event of that day, since it’s my daughter’s birthday.]  But just the rumor is enough to give one pause.

Some of the hairpin switchbacks on the L’Alpe d’Huez climb.

Tour officials may be raising the bar too high, and trivializing a legendary cycling challenge, in order to create a sensational event.  L’Alpe d’Huez is a ski resort at the top of an arduous alpine mountain pass.  It has appeared in the Tour’s route frequently since 1952, when it became the first mountain-top finish ever in the Tour, and the first winner in that “golden age of cycling” was Fausto Coppi.  As a British cycling commentator wryly observed, the 1952 stage finish was such a spectacular success that the Tour returned for another finish there only 24 years later.  But since 1976 it really has been a staple, and a big fan favorite.  That’s one of the problems.  It’s become so popular that people camp out and party in droves for days prior to the Tour’s visit.  The place has become, in the words of Tim Moore, “the Glastonbury Festival for cycling fans.”

Technically, the climb is not the most difficult, averaging a 7.9% gradient for 13.8 km.  The climb is quite steady, and the length is more daunting than the steepness.  But the unique feature is the 21 hairpin turns, each named for a past Tour winner of the Alpe stage.  Many victories there have been memorable: Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault finishing arm-in-arm in false camaraderie in 1986, Andy Hampsten getting a well-deserved win near the end of his career in 1992, Giuseppe Guerini hitting an idiot spectator but still winning in 1999, and of course Lance Armstrong faking fatigue for most of the stage and then blasting past Jan Ullrich to humiliate him and easily win the climb, the stage, and the Tour in 2001.

Having the Tour do it twice in the same stage would both belittle the difficulty of the climb and diminish the glory of the final victor.  Except for a few stragglers and sprint specialists the peloton will go over the top together the first time, we may be sure, because they will be saving their energy for the end.  All the aspiring climbers will be marking each other, and almost certainly will be together at the foot of the climb for the grand finale.  The double climb will take place only three days before the finale, when many of the leading riders may want to be conservative anyhow, especially with a time trial coming up two days after L’Alpe.  So the stage might well be contested by lesser lights, further diminishing its impact.

All in all, the whole idea seems like ill-advised overreaching to me.  Maybe I’ll change my mind by July.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2012.

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