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Iconic Places: Alpe d’Huez

  • By VeloNews.com
  • Published Jan. 1, 2013
  • Updated Mar. 31, 2014 at 12:59 PM EDT
Alpe d'Huez climbs 3,608 feet out of the Romanche River Valley at an average gradient of 7.6 percent. Photo: Graham Watson | Velo magazine August 2013

Where: Bourg-d’Oisans, Romanche River Valley, France
Length: 8.6 miles (13.8km)
Average gradient: 7.9 percent
Maximum gradient: 10.6 percent (though you’ll see different figures)
Elevation gain: 3,608 feet
Maximum elevation: 6,102 feet

There may not be a more legendary climb in all the Alps than Alpe d’Huez. Its 21 hairpin bends were first included in the Tour in 1952 and it has been a regular finishing climb since 1976. All told, it has been included on the Tour route 27 times. For the Tour’s 100th edition, ASO has outdone itself. The peloton will climb the Alpe, not once, but twice, as it passes over the summit, off the Col de Sarenne and back down to Le Bourg-d’Oisans, then straight back up L’Alpe for a second go.

History: Some of the more memorable moments in Tour history have played out on “Dutch Mountain,” named so because a Dutchman won eight of the first 14 finishes. The climb became legendary in its first year — the first year motorcycle TV crews came to the race — and Il Campionissimo, Fausto Coppi, attacked Jean Robic to capture the Tour’s first mountaintop finish. Bernard Hinault and Greg LeMond famously finished arm in arm in 1986 in an apparent show of solidarity.

In 1999, Giuseppe Guerini, on his own, collided with a spectator but was able to remount his bike and win the stage. And then came Lance. Armstrong feigned weakness early in the stage that would finish on L’Alpe in 2001. At the base of the climb, he moved to the front and then gave the name infamous “look” to Jan Ullrich. He went on to claim victory, 1:59 ahead of the German.

Cities: A winter and summer sports resort, Alpe d’Huez, nicknamed the Sunshine Island, is situated in the heart of the Grandes Rousses massif. South facing, it is showered with sunshine an average of 300 days per year. From the highest point in the resort, there are incredible views looking over Écrins National Park, Mont Blanc, Mont Ventoux, the Massif Central, as well as Switzerland and Italy. There are 250kms of bike routes that link Alpe d’Huez with seven other resorts and villages in the region.

Travel: To get there, the most convenient airport is Grenoble, just over one hour away. At the base of the climb is the small town of Bourg-d’Oisans.

Ride: The Alpe is neither the most beautiful nor most difficult climb in the Alps, but its place in cycling history is indisputable. From its beginning, the road surface is decorated in bold, white paint from a thousand paint brushes past and present, with the names of Tour riders famous and infamous. At the base of the climb, you’ll notice a small sign that identifies the spot where the time trial started in 2004. If you’re looking to ride fast, remember that the first 2km are the hardest, so don’t attack too early. Warm up well and try not to get too excited about riding the road that has seen the making of legends and the undoing of would-be champions; under an hour is considered a good time. If you’re more interested in the Alpe’s lore, each of the 21 hairpins is labeled and named after a former stage winner.

Lodging: There are a number of hotel choices in and around L’Alpe. If you’d like to stay near the base of the mountain, look into the Hotel de Milan; be prepared for a no-frills stay in a traditional, provincial hotel. However, if you’re interested in something altogether unique and don’t mind an hour-long drive to get to the base of the climb, the Auberge du Choucas in Monêtier-les-Bains offers one of the best hotel-restaurants in the Alps in a rustic, farmhouse setting. Near the Col du Lautaret, the Auberge remains true to its history as a farmhouse, with huge wooden doors and shutters, and a dining room with stone ceilings and a massive hearth.

Food: Lyon, the capital of the Rhône Alpes, is a gastronomic mecca in France, and its influence can be tasted throughout the region. Specialties with an Alpine flavor include fondues, raclettes, gratin dauphinois (potato casserole with cream and cheese or egg), and brochettes d’agneau (lamb kebabs). And then there is the wine. Beaujolais, Côtes du Rhône, and Savoy wines are all from this region; chartreuse liqueur, distilled and aged with 130 herbs, plants, and flowers, is made here. Bon appettit.

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