Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Alpe d'Huez, Part 1

Alpe d'Huez. Just the mention of the name engenders awe in the hearts and minds of cyclists passionate about climbing the big cols of Europe. There is something very magical and mythical about this mountain; it has an allure that is difficult to explain. It's not the longest, nor the most difficult climb in the Tour de France, but it is definitely the most famous. 

Alpe d'Huez is 13.8 km long, about 8 miles. It has an average grade of 7.9%, an 11% 'wall' at the bottom of the climb, and 21 switchbacks, or as the French call them, "lacets" for shoelaces, that snake back and forth to the ski village at the top. 

First, a little background on my attraction to Alpe d'Huez, and tomorrow, I'll post the profile of my popular AdH ride presented at WSSC and other conferences around the country.

I have ridden AdH 3 times and have driven as sag support for my riders numerous other times. My first time there was in 1988 but I didn't get to ride it, and I longed for years to return. I was in the middle of a 2,500 mile solo, self-supported bicycle odyssey around Europe and took a train to Grenoble in order to ride up the Alpe d'Huez for the Tour de France.

Very long story very French was lacking at the time and I misunderstood about my bike arriving on the train with me... it didn't! "Mais non, mademoiselle! Ca va arriver dans 3 jours!"  It's arriving 3 days later? I was devastated. Fortunately I had my panniers, tent and sleeping bag (back then I was into roughing it. Today, give me a fancy hotel), and hitch-hiked to a nearby campground in Grenoble (about 2 hours from AdH). I met many people going to the stage, and got a ride with a Swiss guy named Christian the next day, the day before the stage. We battled the traffic and found a place about 3/4 up the switchbacks of the Alpe, where he could barely nose in his old stationwagon. He had his bike and rode down and up, and I just hiked around, broken-hearted to be at the Mecca for cyclists without my bike! We befriended our neighbors, shared a meal and slept in the back of his stationwagon which was at a serious tilt. There was no available flat spot to set up a tent.

I remember getting up at 2 am to go to the bathroom...and having to dodge traffic! The cars continued to arrive all night long, as they would be closing the road the next morning.

I hiked around the next day and explored the village a few miles further up. The Tour didn't arrive until late that afternoon.

This was the year Greg Lemond had been shot in a hunting accident, so he wasn't there, but what excitement it was! (Someday I'll have my slides converted to digital). Pedro Delgado won the stage, and was later charged then cleared of failing a drug test. Afterwards we drove slowly back to Grenoble with tens of thousands of other cars, picked up my bike at the train station, and Christian dropped me off at a campground in Annecy a few hours north. It was July 14th, Bastille Day and I was treated to an amazing fireworks display. The next day it snowed as I crossed the mountains of Switzerland...

The next year, 1989, I began working in France as a tour guide for a bicycle tour company but never had the chance to go back to Alpe d'Huez until an amazing opportunity fell into my lap. I was asked to be a tour guide on a bicycle tour to the Tour de France with Greg Lemond in 1999! This exciting tour could take several pages (I've got LOTS of stories about Greg), so I'll keep it short for now. As the guides, we dropped off the clients 10 miles from the base of ADH, so they could ride as a "peleton" up ADH with Greg the morning of the stage, decked out in their colorful Lemond team jerseys. After parking the vans, we were able to climb up. This is one of the only photos that I've scanned into digital, of my co-guide Saunie and me prior to riding up ADH in our Lemond jerseys, gloves and bikes.

Climbing the 21 switchbacks of Alpe d'Huez lined with tens of thousands of people cheering you on is delerious. Few words can describe the exhilaration and motivation it provides. I was in such a daze from the surreal situation I found myself in, I remember thinking that the people around me seemed to move in slow motion. Some offered water or even beer as I climbed! There were far fewer women climbing than men, and we attracted a lot of attention. I seriously bonked 2/3 of the way up (that will happen when you're so preoccupied you forget to eat). I straddled my bike and stuffed my face with a melted chocolate energy bar. Just a few minutes later I felt my energy return and rode triumphantly to the top where we had a private lunch scheduled with Greg and some Tour VIPs.

I think my time was under 2 hours, but I didn't really time myself. There were so many people along the way that we couldn't go fast, and it was fascinating people watching as we rode!  Also I had to stop and eat, and we were actually sent a different way than the official route by a policeman for the final 4 km, so we had to make our way through town.

Later, Giuseppe Guerini won the stage, despite being knocked over by an over ambitious fan taking a photograph! Lance was somewhere near the top - this was the first year he won the Tour. Two days earlier, we had VIP passes behind the scenes at the arrivée in Le Grand Bornand where Lance took the yellow jersey for the first time. Afterwards, Greg had a private meeting with Lance in his team bus to congratulate him and give him his advice. The next day, our entire group packed into Greg's hotel room to watch as Lance won the stage in Sestriere. I remember Greg saying, "He didn't take any of my advice!"

Hmmm, I wonder if that was the original source of his ire with Lance that surfaced years later?Probably not, but it's fun to say I was there!

In 2004 I sagged my own tour group as they climbed it the day before the infamous time trial. It was so mobbed on that day, I'm not sure I would have enjoyed the ride that day quite as much as I did in 1999. The photo below was sent to me from Ron, a Spinning instructor who actually was there for the stage in 2004 and saw Lance when he passed Basso!

In 2005 I set my own personal best. I took a group in June whose goal was to beat Sheryl Crow's allegedly reported time of 1:38. My best rider was a woman who rode it in 1:16, and she said she never stood up once; just sat in her saddle and churned the pedals! After supporting them as they climbed and afterwards were happily settled at a bar to celebrate, I jumped on my bike, descended and rode up. My time was 1:26, but I can tell you I was in some serious pain. 

Last year, I took another group and rode the Alpe by myself prior to their arrival (the photo at the top of the page).  This time I didn't push myself as hard, and was only 10 minutes slower (I still beat Sheryl Crowe!) but I was in infinitely less pain.  On this tour, I had one very fit rider, Mark, who rode it in 1:02. He was unhappy with his time and calculated that if he went a little slower at a lower heart rate at the tough bottom section, he could do it faster overall. He and another client went back the next day (while the rest of us rode another beautiful route) and rode it again; this time his time was :58!

His wife Anne, by the way, also rode up (non-timed) but she rode for two! When her son was born almost 6 months later, she was able to say he got to ride up Alpe d'Huez. Here's a very funny story: the two of them plus two others (Kim and Brian) who were on that tour are all Spinning instructors. They all came to WSSC this year and rode on stage with me in my ADH ride. A week later, Anne called me and said Alpe d'Huez must have a special effect on her - she returned from WSSC and found out she once again rode Alpe d'Huez for two (albeit indoors) - she's pregnant again!

As you can see, I have so many fond memories of this mountain. If you want information on how to go and climb Alpe d'Huez on a self-guided tour, or want to put together your own group at your club for a private guided tour, contact me! I am convinced that with a little training, even primarily in Spinning classes, almost anyone can do this famous climb... You can reach me at 

And check back tomorrow for my Spinning profile of Alpe d'Huez.


sandy said...

Wonderful post Jennifer. I love hearing about experiences with those famous climbs. It felt like I was right there with you.
Still find it hard to believe the Sheryl thing. But I'm sure thats my own ego getting in the way!

Jennifer Sage said...

There's more fun stories where these came from!

Curios, Sandy. Do you find it hard to believe the Sheryl thing because:
1. Lance was even dating her?
2. They broke up?
3. She could make it up ADH in 1:38? (That's a very respectable time! but I'm sure she had a $10,000 Trek Madone, and she had the worlds greatest coach at her disposal!)

At the Tour during the years Lance and Sheryl were dating, you couldn't go to a stage start or finish where they weren't blasting, "All I wanna do is have some fun" on the loudspeakers! Especially in Paris at the finish! I have a photo of "Lance loves Sheryl" written on the road of a climb in the Pyrenees in 2005!