It's one of the Tour de France's most celebrated climbs, and one of its most challenging. Arnout Brokking has this first-hand account of taking on Alpe d'Huez.
Statistics will tell you that the highest point in the Netherlands is at Vaals, 322.7 metres above sea level. But statistics only tell half of the story; Dutch cycling fanatics agree that there is one stretch of hallowed ground much higher still. Whenever the circus of the Tour de France storms the slopes of Alpe d'Huez, Turn 7 is more Dutch than clogs, windmills and cheese. The road that passes the picturesque medieval church is then no longer the grey of asphalt, but the orange of Dutch fandom. And the mountain seems to approve.
Between the first ascent in 1952 and the 15th in 1990, a Dutchman won the stage eight times.
Climbing Alpe d'Huez
I've climbed Alpe d'Huez twice, in 2009 and 2010 to raise money for charity. This year, Alpe d'HuZes inspired more than 4,500 cyclists to make the ascent and collect more than €20 million for cancer research. I couldn't take part this year, but I remember it as a beautiful, emotional and humbling experience.
In 1997 Marco Pantani, the Little Elephant, flew up the 13.8 kilometres of the Alpe in 37 minutes and 35 seconds. That's an average of 23km/h on a 7.9% gradient. He had to use his brakes in most of the 21 hairpin bends. I am more of a Big Elephant, and Pantani's time is simply too quick for me to comprehend. I cannot tell you how to get to the top fast, but I can explain what Alpe d'Huez is like for honest toilers like yours truly.
The climb commences just outside of Le Bourg d'Oisans, a charming village on the banks of the Romanche river. For our charity ride we started at the roundabout just across the river. That gave us a good 700 metres of flat to take a few deep breaths before the road turned left and upwards. The first kilometres of Alpe d'Huez are the steepest. The straight to turn 21 is also the longest of the climb. Do not attempt to sprint up the early slope like you see the pros do. The Alpe will break you in two. Instead, pace yourself. Take the time in the first hairpin to recover, and maintain your rhythm. Rhythm is the key to Alpe d'Huez.
After the initial 11% climb, the road flattens out in La Garde at turn 16, the first of two towns on the way to the top. Resist the temptation to speed up, and take the chance to recover instead. The gradient will rise again soon enough. When it does, the quick succession of hairpins provide ideal opportunities to catch your breath. I found this to be the nicest part of the climb. The roads are wide and well paved, and the trees provide plenty of shade. This section will quickly bring you to turn 7, the Dutch corner. It's the hairpin with the ancient church and graveyard, and your first glimpse of the town at the top.
Riding into history
Alpe d'Huez is not the most beautiful climb in the Alps. Although the alpine views are stunning, they are merely mediocre compared to what a ride up the slopes of the Galibier offers. The town of Alpe d'Huez itself is a ski resort that is simply too big to retain the charm of a mountaintop village. If you climb Alpe d'Huez, it is for the history of the tarmac beneath your tyres. This is where Robic and Coppi duelled in 1952, LeMond and Hinault in 1986, and where Sastre claimed the 2008 victory.
Actually being there gives you a whole new perspective on what you thought you knew about the mountain. The stretch between turns 7 and 3 is harder again. The hairpins are further apart and there is less shelter. In summer, the sun can turn this side of the mountain into a natural barbeque. Counting down the numbers, which seemed cool and fun at the beginning of the climb, has lost its appeal as well. The wait for turn 6 can drive you to curses, if you've paced yourself enough to waste your breath on them.
The trees make way for meadows and as you reach turn 4, the town looks close enough to touch. The slope doesn't let up, however, in fact the climb packs a sting in its tail. The home straight into Alpe d'Huez after turn 1 kicks upwards suddenly and makes you work hard for every metre. Once in the town, there are signs to direct you to the finish. You've done it! Go get a drink, and buy yourself a T-shirt.
Next time the Tour takes in the Alpe, you will look at the climb and the riders differently. Remembering how it felt to ride up, it's impossible not to marvel at their pace and sympathise with their hurt: the heroes of cycling on hallowed ground.
Arnout Brokking raced bikes in his teenage years, but he quickly realised the pen was kinder to him than the pedals. Nowadays he enjoys the luxury of riding for fun, often with his wife Camilla. He has a three-year-old son, Emrys, and looks forward to embarrassing him in the future with tall tales of steel bikes and steep cols.
Accommodation for Alpe d'Huez
Search our accommodation database here, or email me for a personal recommendation. See also here for more advice on finding accommodation in France. As with bike hire (below), book well ahead, especially in summer and when visiting Alpe d'Huez for the Tour de France.
Bike hire for Alpe d'Huez
Guided rides up Alpe d'Huez
Many companies offer fully supported rides up Alpe d'Huez, either as a standalone tour or as part of a larger itinerary that traverses the Alps or follows the Tour de France. Packages include accommodation, local vehicle support and some meals. High-spec bike hire can usually also be arranged by your tour company. Both self-guided and guided options are available. You can search our organised tours section here.
What else do I need to know?
Good local website: bike-oisans.