There are places that are woven deep into the culture of road cycling. Roads that stand as proving grounds and places to define a part of yourself. As the Tour de France moves into its second century it has arguably made icons of just a handful of mountains: the Col du Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux and, with a place on most road riders’ bucket list, Alpe d’Huez. It is this climb that makes champions every time it is included in the Tour.
It is so much a part of Tour de France history that each of the 21 switchback corners is named for a stage winner when the Tour has included this climb.
To have the chance to ride this climb, especially so suddenly (we had only a few weeks’ notice) was both exciting and mildly terrifying. There was simply not the time to fully prepare and I’m aware most people planning this kind of trip give themselves six months’ notice to build toward these kind of challenges.
Stef had the advantage of a week in Italy before we met — I was looking forward to riding it the day after I arrived in France. I was desperately jet-lagged and having had my legs immobile for the best part of two days in planes, trains and airport lounges. “Shabby” is the best word to describe my state as we prepared this morning.
But the shabbiness, or at least the conscious sense of it, fell away as soon as we got on the road to Bourg d’Oisan, the small town that sits at the bottom of huge cliffs and epic mountains. As we approached I remembered again how Australia doesn’t do mountains – not really. Australia throws the term around with gay abandon and applies it to anything that rises a small distance above its timeless, eroded plains. Mount Macedon – I’m looking at you.
The Alps are on an epic scale – my shabbiness simply fell away in front of them. After a 30 km run in to Bourg d’Oisan and some lunch we headed, with some trepidation, toward the base of the climb.
There’s no lead in. It ramps up immediately to somewhere around 10% and holds it for at least the first few of the 21 switchbacks. In the end whatever race we were running became irrelevant – I was delayed at the base with camera issues and Stef floated up the first ramp despite the extra seven kilograms his camera gear weighed. I didn’t see him again until I caught him stopped taking photos after which he then dumped my arse all over again. The times on the Strava segment may say different but whatever race was being run, he won. My jetlag and his extra weight were equal handicaps.
I can’t call myself a climber, but I’m bloody minded. My approach to cycling is more an internal one than one of external competition. I don’t need to beat anyone — I just need to get there. Stopping is failing. Petty I know.
So while the road wasn’t fenced by caravans and drunk Dutch guys, as it is when the Tour winds its way up these switchbacks, the history and culture is written all across the roads. There’s something about this that draws you on – counting down from 21, marking off each of the champions’ names as you make it past each corner. And very quickly the views open out and it’s breathtaking enough that is serves as motivation in itself.
I found some rhythm around half way up as the temperature dropped a little below the mid-thirties.
I was joined by Jen, an ex-pro who works with Bikestyle Tours, for the last few switchbacks and was barely able to make conversation. To give you an idea about relative effort, while I slipped quietly into my pain cave she was on the internet on her phone, looking up CyclingTips. I shit you not. Not long after she disappeared into the distance.
The record on this legendary climb belongs to Marco Pantani with 37 minutes and 35 seconds over the 14.4km, a time unbroken since 1997 even through the excesses of the Armstrong years. It would be too easy to compare our times with theirs, instead we compared how much of the climb we were able to climb in Pantani’s time, and how other riders’ times compare. How many km did we do in 37 minutes and 35 second of climb? Stef: 4.79km; Matt: 5.47km. One word for both of us: “embarrassing”.
All of us who ride know there’s something elevating and cathartic about pushing yourself, about discovering where the limits and edges are. I can’t say Alpe d’Huez is the toughest climb I’ve ever completed – tough, yes, but I was still able to string some school-boy French together to secure a beer at the summit. There have been others where speech was far more difficult that it reasonably should have been.
I can say though it is the most extraordinary ride I’ve ever done. The scale of the landscape, the sense of history, the awareness of those that have ridden this road, of how it has made and broken some of toughest athletes in history. To be able to claim some small part of that as your own is really why people come here. There was a different quality to it – something unsaid but shared with every other rider on its slopes – a sense that we were all on hallowed ground.
I won’t buy the T-shirt (just not my thing) but I’ll have that crisp knifeedge of the line of the Alps against a clear blue sky burnt deep into some part of me forever.