Day 15: Alpe d’Huez
It’s our fifth and final Tour de France day! Today, the 12th stage of the tour starts in the familiar location of Bourg Saint-Maurice and concludes atop the legendary climb of Alpe d’Huez. The Alpe d’Huez is a staple of the Tour de France with an elevation of 1850 meters (6070 ft), a length of 13.8 km (8.6 mi), and an average gradient of 8.1% (with maximums of 13%) over 21 hairpin turns. So — obviously — that’s why Matt and the boys will attempt to bike it before watching the stage finish on the same roads later in the afternoon.
First order of business was getting to the town of town of Borg d’Oisans, which lies at the base of Alpe d’Huez — about a two hour drive from the Chalet. We set our alarms for an earlier wake up call and breakfast and got on the road by 7:30am. Most of us nodded off a bit in the van ride for a little extra sleep. When we arrived, we parked a few km outside of town to help avoid getting caught in traffic on the way out.
After biking into town and finding the base of the climb, it was immediately clear why people say Tour de France day on Alpe d’Huez is something to behold. It was 10:30am, the race was not scheduled to come thru until roughly 4:30pm, but the place was already bustling with thousands of fans and other bikers starting their trek up the climb. Crazy costumes, music blaring from speakers, you name it.
The first six turns (counting down from 21) are the steepest part of the climb. If you can power your way thru those, the gradients get a little easier. But — as Dave suggested — don’t look up yet, because you’ll see a massive wall with the rest of the 15 turns winding back and forth as high as you can see.
Eventually, in the final turns, the ski village of Huez comes into view. The village center was packed with fans and cyclists milling about, buying souvenirs and eating lunches at the bars. Matt biked to the point where security has closed the area for the finish line, and then immediately looked for a place to buy a giant bottle of water.
Meanwhile, as the guys biked up the mountain, Eileen and I walked from the car to Bourg d’Oisans and stocked up on supplies including waters and sandwiches. We continued walking through town and headed up the base of Alpe d’Huez to just beyond the first turn (Turn 21), where we found a good spot in the shade (for the moment) to camp out and watch the race go by — plus the always-exciting sponsor caravan.
Phil reached the top and came back down the mountain first. He descended so fast that neither of us saw him pass our location, but after a few calls, he made his way back up to turn 21 and joined Eileen and myself. Next down the line was Paul and Jason, who proceeded into town and found a bar to spend the rest of the afternoon.
Finally, I spotted Matt on his way down and successfully got his attention to join us as well. It probably helped that I was not trying to flag him down in any of the crazy party zones he biked thru higher on the mountain, including the well-known “Dutch Corner” on Turn 7 of the climb. Here’s a video Matt shot at Dutch Corner — about 4 hours until the race arrives: Video
It wasn’t long after Matt arrived, that race officials shut down all bike and car traffic on the road. Dave warned us about “getting stuck” up the mountain, but from our location, we would be able walk down from Turn 21 if needed.
As the afternoon sun crawled across the sky, our shady race-viewing spot slowly became quite sunny (thanks astronomy). The four of us braved the heat and drank every last drop of water in our supplies. Then… like a miracle, the trusty Vittel water truck appeared! Unfortunately, they weren’t handing out water this time. But… they were handing out really nice race shirts. Score!
The rest of the usual sponsor caravan came through shortly thereafter and we got even more free crap that, alas, was not water.
After the sponsor parade, the arrival of the Tour cyclists gave us a jolt of energy. A Dutch rider named Steven Kruijswijk passed first with a ~4 minute lead, attempting to revive the storied history of Dutch riders winning Tour stages on Alpe d’Huez. See: Video
The next group of cyclists that passed included Team Sky, who were working together for Geraint Thomas (current yellow jersey wearer) and Chris Froome (defending Tour champion). Despite a nearly 4-minute gap as they passed us near Turn 21, the importance of teamwork during climbs was made obvious when these guys later caught the Dutch rider and Geraint Thomas won the stage. See: Video
After several more groups of riders passed, we started walking down the course along the fencing. We were able to stop and watch the other groups of bikers as they climbed up the mountain. Because we were on a mountain, the riders were actually riding slow enough to really see what was going on. 🙂 Here’s is a video I took of Peter Sagan as he passed by: Video
Once we made it to Bourg d’Oisans at the base of the climb, we IMMEDIATELY bought water and coke popsicles (or “ice lollies” as Eileen says). Refueled, we continued our walk back to the car, loaded up the bikes, and waited for the rest of the group to return.
We managed to hit the road just before 7pm and we arrived back to the Chalet around 9pm. After dinner, we relaxed a bit with the group before going to sleep. Tomorrow we have a bit later start (yay!) and the plan is to ride the Col de la Madeleine, while I’ll cheer/help out from the support van.