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21 levels of hell: L'Alpe d'Huez

The Dutch fans swarm Alpe d'Huez

The Dutch fans swarm Alpe d'Huez (Image credit: Jon Devich)

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.

Continue to the full feature.