The Tour makes much of its romanticism. And yet at its heart this event – established in 1903 to help boost sales of a flagging newspaper, and thus a marketing exercise from day one – is the most commercial of sporting events.
Many will know that the teams rely entirely on sponsors, that stages are timed according to the TV audience, and that ahead of the race the “publicity caravan” is a garish parade of floats dispensing various tat. But do they realise that the most romantic of mountains owes its status as the Tour’s showcase climb to pure pragmatism?
With its 21 hairpins, Alpe d’Huez is cycling’s Maracana, its Fenway Park, its Monaco Grand Prix circuit. “But why Alpe d’Huez and not Avoriaz, Orcieres, Merlette, Pla d’Adet, the Puy de Dôme or the Ventoux?” asks author Peter Cossins in his new book, Alpe d’Huez. “The simple answer is that the resort high above the Romanche valley kept paying for the Tour to come back.”
Still, there is no doubt that Alpe d’Huez has earned its place in Tour history. And as Cossins adds, “The more esoteric explanation is that the race and the resort fell in love with each other.” But the affair only blossomed long after the first date: 24 years, to be exact.
Alpe d’Huez was the scene of the Tour’s first ever summit finish, in 1952. The organisers were looking for a climb to shake up the race, and, by happy coincidence, the hoteliers at the winter resort were looking for ways of raising its profile, particularly as a summer destination. So a couple of local businessmen approached the Tour, who inspected the road and the facilities at the top, and agreed it would be suitable. The fee for hosting a stage finish was £32,000, the sum was raised by the hoteliers, who gambled that the publicity would boost business. Thus was the legend born. And it helped enormously that the winner was one of the sport’s icons, Italy’s Fausto Coppi.
Coppi attacked near the foot of the climb and rode alone to the summit – unlike today, the crowds were sparse most of the way up, thickening at the top. Next day, Cossins tells us, the grainy, almost extraterrestrial-like footage was broadcast to the 5,000 French homes that had television sets, with commentary by Georges de Caunes, father of Antoine, best known in the UK as the presenter of Eurotrash. The summit finish, and the fact it was broadcast, “were undoubtedly hugely significant landmarks for television and the race, and indeed for Alpe d’Huez,” writes Cossins.
But not everyone was impressed. The 250km preceding the 13.2km climb were “perfectly insipid,” according to L’Equipe. It was as though the riders were daunted by what was to come; fearful of making any efforts that might cost them later. But the biggest problem was Coppi. As well as being one of the most stylish men ever to ride a bike, ‘Il Campionissimo’ dropped his rivals easily every time the road went up. He made it look effortless, and won the Tour by more than 28 minutes. (God knows what Twitter, where Froome has been receiving such a grilling, would have made of Coppi. Then again, he was quite open about his doping, and also liked to drink up to 28 espressos a day.)
The summit finish experiment seemed to be considered a failure. It wasn’t repeated for six years, when Mont Ventoux featured in 1958. Then it wasn’t until 1976 that the Tour returned to Alpe d’Huez, since when it has become a regular feature, arguably the race’s most iconic climb, certainly the most popular. The reason for the latter is more clear – its qualities as a natural amphitheatre. The 21 hairpins (actually, there are 22, though only 21 have number plates, for some reason) spiral up the mountain, creating numerous vantage points for the crowd. “It’s like Mecca for people on two wheels,” the current tourism director tells Cossins.
There are other unique features. The seventh hairpin from the summit is commandeered every year by the Dutch, whose riders have an incredible record here, winning in 1976, ’77, ’78, ’79 and ’81. The atmosphere on the climb has been compared to Glastonbury: nowhere is this more the case than at Dutch Corner, where the music blares and the beer flows. At times the huge crowd has caused problems, such as when a fan knocked over Giuseppe Guerini in 1999. Two years ago there were allegations of rough treatment towards some of the Sky riders. It is the visceral intensity of the Alpe that makes it such a special place; but it is also where the fragile pact between the public and the riders faces its biggest test, no more, perhaps, than this year.
l Alpe d’Huez: The Story of Pro Cycling’s Greatest Climb, by Peter Cossins, is published by Aurum.