MOVING MOUNTAINS

Alpe d’Huez is the Tour de France’s most famous climb, but to understand how horrendous it really is you have to ride it. InGear takes on the mountain so you don’t have to

Words: Warren Pole

Photos: Chippy Wood


IN JULY THE Tour de France hits Alpe d’Huez, the most iconic climb in this most iconic of races. 13.8 kilometres long and rising from lush Alpine pasture at its base to 1850 metres at the finish its legendary 21 hairpins are named after the stage winners over the years. All the greats are there. Coppi, Pantani, Induráin and more. The place has a mythical air.


Tour pros rip up its sheer sides in 39 minutes or less but the record belongs to the late Marco Pantani in an incredible 37 minutes 35 seconds. Records may fall here again on July 22 but today the mountain is all mine and I’m about to learn what cycling hell feels like. Because even with cameras covering every angle, the brutality of a climb like this is diluted on TV. You can only understand the true ferocity by trying it for yourself.


As I roll to its base clipping into my pedals the mountain is plain intimidating. A voice in my head cries ‘not possible’ as I begin the ascent.


                                               

This is the road to hell...


The first minute is one of confidence as my pedals spin easily but by the second minute I’m already into first gear. The climb steepens and I check for another gear. There isn’t one. I settle in.


A handful of gentle corners pass before I hit the first hairpin. Number 21. They count down as you ascend. 20 more to go and the climb already feels never-ending. I look up and feel dizzy. The summit is too far away to contemplate.


                                               

Hairpin 21. Probably not named after Armstrong anymore...


Breaking it down is the only way. I can make hairpin 20 I tell myself. All the while my pedals are spinning painfully slowly, every stroke an effort.


Other riders pass on their way down, smiling, their own ascent done. I curse them.


By halfway sweat is pouring off me, dripping onto the handlebars. A natural waterfall at the roadside is too much temptation. I stop, and stuff my head into it. The ice cold soaking is nectar. The stop has cost 30 precious seconds, but was worth it. I’m reinvigorated.


                                               

Popping to the shops for a pint of milk


A slower rider ahead provides a target, and passing him provides a further lift. I dig in, and in my head I am in the Tour fighting among the legends. My legs feel light, the bike fast and as another hairpin passes it affords an incredible view back into the valley below. I can’t believe I’m so high, both literally and mentally. I feel alive and at one with this timeless mountain, all my senses heightened.


Fifteen minutes later and I’m in the blackest pit of despair. My legs can barely turn the pedals, my tongue is lolling and I can no longer hold a straight line as my shaking arms join my aching legs in begging me to stop but the summit is within sight now. I stare numbly at the tarmac inching by beneath my front wheel and keep pushing.


I reach the finish in one hour, 12 minutes and 32 seconds. Despite starting with fresh legs, despite not having spent the last three weeks averaging 100 miles a day at inhuman speeds as the Tour pros will have done when they come here I have still taken almost twice as long as they will. I have no idea how they do it.

 

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