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21 levels of hell: L'Alpe d'Huez

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The Dutch fans swarm Alpe d'Huez

The Dutch fans swarm Alpe d'Huez (Image credit: Jon Devich)
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Fausto Coppi made the first Tour ascent of the Alpe d'Huez

Fausto Coppi made the first Tour ascent of the Alpe d'Huez (Image credit: AFP)
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Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault topped the mountain

Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault topped the mountain (Image credit: AFP)
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It's not the highest, nor the hardest Tour climb

It's not the highest, nor the hardest Tour climb (Image credit: Jon Devich)
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Fränk Schleck's last time on Alpe d'Huez

Fränk Schleck's last time on Alpe d'Huez (Image credit: AFP)

Tour de France feature, July 23, 2008

Neither the steepest nor the longest climb in any Tour de France, Alpe d'Huez easily qualifies as the most famous mountain of the race. From the thousands of fans that line its slopes to cheer on their heroes, to the twenty-one numbered switchbacks each labelled with the names of former winners, Alpe d'Huez symbolizes the passion that is the Tour de France. Cyclingnews' amateur historian Stefan Rogers looks back at the history of the famed climb in the Tour and how it determined the outcome of the race.

1952 - L'Alpe d'Huez changed the face of the Tour de France when it became the first ever mountain top finish. At the end of a 266 kilometre stage 10 beginning in Lausanne, the unpaved ascent proved to be the launching pad where Fausto Coppi would return from two rather lacklustre years to take his final Tour victory. Coppi stormed up the mountain in 45'22" - a record which would hold until 1989 - took the yellow jersey from Italian Andrea Carrea and never relinquished the lead.

Surprisingly, twenty-three years went by before the Tour would return to the mountain, and the epic battle which ensued would make the Alpe a fixture of the race.

1976 – On the Tour's second visit to Alpe d'Huez, the 258 kilometre stage nine beginning in Divonne-les-Baines, Joop Zoetemelk and Lucien Van Impe treated the fans along the slopes to an duel all the way up the mountain. Yellow jersey Freddy Maertens was left behind as the top G.C. challengers including Raymond Poulidor, Francisco Galdos, Raymond Delisle, Van Impe, and Zoetemelk battled on the lower slopes of the Alpe.

Zoetemelk and Van Impe would eventually leave everyone else and battle it out in a sprint. The Dutchman took his first of two victories at the top of Alpe d'Huez, while Van Impe would take the yellow jersey and go on to win the Tour overall. Zoetemelk would finish the Tour in second, something he ultimately did six times, but his victory started an unusual run of Dutch wins on Alpe d'Huez. To this day no country has more victories on the Alpe, and the Dutch fans usually outnumber all others on the mountain in July.

1977 - In the Tour which may most closely parallel this year's standings, Bernard Thévenet went into stage 17 to Alpe d'Huez (184.5 km from Chamonix) with three men hot on his heels in the overall classification: Dietrich Thurau at 11 seconds, Lucien Van Impe at 33 seconds, Hennie Kuiper 49 seconds back, and Zoetemelk 1'13.

Urged on by the Dutch fans, Kuiper put in a gutsy ride up the Alpe and took the day ahead of an equally courageous Thévenet, who held onto his yellow jersey by just eight seconds at the top of the mountain. The final time trial only extended his lead to 36 seconds, and until Greg LeMond's win in 1989, this year would stand as the closest Tour de France in history.

1979 – The Tour was so enamoured with Alpe d'Huez that it was decided to climb it twice. The first time up was stage 17, which ran 167 kilometres from Les Menuires. The first trip was won by Joaquim Agostinho, the great Portuguese cycling star, who put more than three minutes into the yellow jersey Bernard Hinault. Unfortunately that didn't help him much as he was still twenty-two minutes back.

The next stage would begin and end at Alpe d'Huez for a 119 kilometre circuit which would give Joop Zoetemelk his second win on the mountain. In a strange bit of symmetry, Van Impe again finished second on the stage, and Zoetemelk would again finish second overall. Hinault, secure in the yellow jersey, finished a much more respectable third on the Alpe, only 47 seconds back. Perhaps losing twice on Alpe d'Huez was not how Hinault wanted to remember his second Tour victory. On the final day in Paris, wearing the maillot jaune, he won the sprint on the Champs Elysees just for the heck of it.

1984 – Frenchman Laurent Fignon would dominate his countryman and former team-mate Bernard Hinault by more than ten minutes to win the 1984 Tour, thanks in part to a storming ride up l'Alpe d'Huez. Fignon took the yellow jersey from the shoulders of his team-mate Vincent Barteau on the 151 kilometre stage 17 from Grenoble to l'Alpe, but it was a Columbian, Luis Herrera, who would ride into history on Alpe d'Huez as the first South American and first amateur to win a stage of the Tour de France.

Absent from the previous year's Tour, Hinault would struggle on the mountain to challenge Fignon. The revelation of the Tour, American Greg LeMond, would pass Hinault before the finish, as would Robert Millar, who ended up winning the king of the mountains competition. Only Fignon would come within a minute of Herrara by the finish of the stage.

1986 – The 1986 Tour de France was a battle between two men who happened to be on the same team. Early in the Tour, first Bernard Hinault and then Greg LeMond had taken the maillot jaune. By the time they reached Alpe d'Huez for the 163 kilometre route from Briançon, LeMond was in yellow with Hinault in second, and the field had been left far behind.

The stage was marked by a vicious solo attack by Hinault allegedly made to demoralize the opposition, but which added fuel to the pair's rivalry. LeMond matched the 'Badger' pedal stroke for pedal stroke, and while the two riders reached the top hand-in-hand, beaming smiles, their truce was short-lived. The American went on to become the first American to win the Tour de France, and Hinault retired.

1987 - In what could be the closest parallel to this year's Tour situation, the 20th stage of the 1987 Tour, the 201 kilometre journey from Villard-de-Lans to Alpe d'Huez began with four riders in close contention for the overall. In a year where the previous edition's winner, Greg LeMond did not compete due to his hunting accident, the Tour was still wide open heading into the famous switch-backed climb.

Irishman Stephen Roche led with just 41 seconds over Charly Mottet, while Pedro Delgado and Jean-François Bernard were just over a minute back in the overall classification. But Roche faltered on the ascent, losing 1'44 to Delgado who became the new overall leader. Spaniard Federico Echave took his biggest career win on the day. Roche would gain back all the lost time and more in the final time trial and win the Tour by just 40 seconds over Delgado.

1988 – The stage to Alpe d'Huez came early in the 1988 Tour, as stage 12, the 227 kilometre route from Morzine. Just as in 1987, the general classification was separated by seconds, with Canadian Steve Bauer in yellow. Delgado was down by 1'52 at the start, and managed to dislodge all of the contenders except for Dutch rider Stephen Rooks, who stayed with him all the way up Alpe d'Huez.

Climbers Fabio Parra and Gert-Jan Theunisse eventually caught the two leaders as they neared the top, but it was Rooks who sprinted away to take the stage. Delgado came in 17" behind to take the yellow jersey from Bauer, who fought hard by lost the overall lead by 25 seconds. Delgado went on to win his one and only Tour.

1990 – In what would be Greg LeMond's third and final Tour win, he spent much of the race chasing an unknown Italian named Claudio Chiappucci. The stage to Alpe d'Huez provided LeMond one of his first opportunities to get back some time. On the 182.5 kilometre route from St. Gervais, Chiappucci was dropped on the Alpe. LeMond, Gianni Bugno, Eric Breukink, Fabio Parra, and Thierry Claveyrolat stormed into the final corner before the short climb up to the finish. LeMond skidded hard into the turn and ended up in front, giving the perfect lead-out to Bugno who took the victory, and gained 1'26 on Chiappucci.

Still over seven minutes behind the Italian after Alpe d'Huez, LeMond would use the normally not so decisive stage to St. Etienne to gain five minutes on him. He then sealed the deal in the Pyrenees, coming out of the mountains just five seconds in arrears and then finishing Chiappucci off in the final time trial with ease.

1991 – In the first year of Miguel Indurain's reign, the stage to Alpe d'Huez came late in the race, stage 17, just like this year's Tour. The stage, however, was quite a bit shorter, at just 125 kilometres leaving from Gap. Indurain had already gained three minutes on his nearest competitor by the start of the day. It would be Gianni Bugno who would battle with Indurain to the top of Alpe d'Huez.

For much of the climb, Jean Francois Bernard paced his Banesto team leader and the pack up the mountain. Eventually Bugno, Indurain, and Luc LeBlanc would leave the rest behind. In what would be a preview of the World Championships later that year, Bugno out-sprinted Indurain to the line to take his second victory on top of Alpe d'Huez.

1992 – The only American to ever win the Giro d'Italia, Andy Hampsten was never able to achieve the same level of success in the Tour de France. But in his last Tour, he put it all together and had one of his greatest rides on Alpe d'Huez. Reaching the bottom of the mountain with a five-man lead group, Hampsten shed them one-by-one and soloed to victory. He would go on to finish his final Tour de France in fourth place overall, the same position he had finished his first six years before.

Indurain was already in the yellow jersey when the Tour hit its 14th stage, this year a proper length from Sestriere of 186.5 kilometres passing over the Col du Galibier and La Croix de Fer. Big Mig wasn't too concerned with Hampsten who was over eleven minutes down on GC.

1995 – Marco Pantani was a revelation when he arrived at the Tour de France in 1994, but in spite of his incredible climbing abilities he didn't win a stage. So when he hit the bottom of Alpe d'Huez the next year, he raced up the mountain faster than anyone before or since. Dancing out of the saddle in his typical style, he passed rider after rider until he had ridden everyone off his wheel. Pantani was so focused on the win that he nearly missed the final corner, and yet he still beat Miguel Indurain and Alex Zulle by almost a minute and a half.

Despite Pantani's antics, the Alpe was not terribly decisive as the Tour's 10th stage, since Indurain could not gain time on Alex Zülle and Bjarne Riis on the 162.5 kilometre stage from Aime La Plagne.

1999 – Giuseppe Guerini's win atop Alpe d'Huez will most likely be remembered for one thing: the unfortunate fan that knocked him off his bike. Nearing the top of the climb with riders like Lance Armstrong and Pavel Tonkov in hot pursuit, Guerini crashed into a fan that had stepped out of the crowd to snap a photo. Quickly back on his bike, Guerini was still able to celebrate his greatest victory with about twenty seconds to spare.

Armstrong already had the yellow jersey in a stranglehold despite the fact that day to Alpe d'Huez was only the 10th stage. He'd stormed to Sestrieres the previous day and already had six minutes on Abraham Olano at the start of the 220.5 kilometre stage.

2001 – This was the year a large breakaway was given a somewhat ridiculous 36 minutes, and Stuart O'Grady was in yellow heading into Alpe d'Huez, the 209 kilometre 10th stage from Aix les Bains. After playing possum for much of the stage to Alpe d'Huez, Armstrong reached the final climb in a group containing his arch rival, Jan Ullrich.

Leading the way up the mountain, Lance turned to look behind him, and seemed to gaze directly into the eyes of Ullrich. After a good long stare, Armstrong turned around and raced away to win on top of the Alpe by nearly two minutes over the German. Armstrong later claimed that he wasn't looking specifically at Ullrich, but actually to see where his team-mates and the rest of his competitors were. Uh-huh, right. While that GC battle was won, Armstrong didn't take the yellow jersey until three stages later after an epic day in the Pyrenees ending on the Pla d'Adet.

2004 – Alpe d'Huez normally draws some of the largest crowds of any stage in the Tour de France, but perhaps no day saw more people on the mountain than on the stage 16 individual time trial. The estimated 900,000 fans were able to cheer on each of the 157 survivors as they raced up the mountain one-by-one.

Perhaps no one has suffered more on the climb than Jens Voigt. One day earlier, Voigt, a team-mate of second placed Ivan Basso, single-handedly dragged a group containing Lance Armstrong and Basso back to Jan Ullrich, who had broken away. German fans, apparently unaware that Voigt's paycheck came from his CSC team, were incensed that a fellow countryman had chased down Ullrich. They let him have all the way up Alpe d'Huez as he raced his time trial, an unprotected target for their jeers of 'Judas' and 'traitor'.

Ultimately all of those voices cheered Lance Armstrong as he made another amazing ride up the mountain, already in yellow after his 'no gifts' sprint in the previous stage. At the end of the day, Armstrong had put a minute into Ullrich, and nearly two and a half into Basso, putting to rest any doubt about whether he would win a record sixth Tour de France.

2006 - The most recent trip up the Alpe d'Huez was Fränk Schleck's biggest day in the sun before his current stint in the yellow jersey. That day, Oscar Pereiro was in yellow as the Tour traversed the 187 kilometre stage from Gap, having taken the yellow from Floyd Landis after making a break which held a 30 minute gap on stage 13.

On stage 15, Schleck made the early breakaway, and survived the push of the GC contenders along with Damiano Cunego and then out-sprinted his Italian companion to take the win. Landis took over the yellow jersey, but the courageous Pereiro limited his losses and stayed within 10 seconds of the American, and the rest is history.

For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Jonathan Devich

  • It's not the highest, nor the hardest Tour climb but these switchbacks are steeped in history.
  • The Dutch fans swarm Alpe d'Huez because of the history its riders have had there.

Images by AFP Photo

  • Fränk Schleck's last time on Alpe d'Huez saw his most brilliant performance to date. But rest assured, he won't get in a breakaway this year.
  • Fausto Coppi made the first Tour ascent of the Alpe d'Huez in 1952.
  • Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault topped the mountain hand in hand in 1986, but their truce was short lived.

Special thanks to for pre-Cyclingnews race results.

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