ALPE D’HUEZ, France – How steep and grueling is the nine-mile road to Alpe D’Huez? So steep that our rental car did not make it to the top.
I’m proud to say that my bike and I did, though. Score that bicycle 1, Opel hatchback 0.
Gaining 3,700 feet in elevation over 21 switchbacks against a sublime Alpine backdrop, Alpe d’Huez is the iconic climb of the Tour de France. Generally included in the Tour every other year, it is the event’s version of Yankee Stadium, only with way better views and, somehow, even more roaring drunks on the day of competition (just substitute fans wearing devil costumes and man-kinis instead of Derek Jeter replica jerseys).
Very few of us can take batting practice at Yankee Stadium, play two-hand touch at the Rose Bowl or drive into a bunker at Augusta, but you can ride Alpe d’Huez. All it takes is a bike, strong legs, stamina, sufficient water and a slightly unbalanced mind to want to do it in the first place. Well, that and a plane ticket, but it's still cheaper than membership at August National and less of an ethical dilemma than working for the Steinbrenners.
I got passionate about biking seven summers ago while writing about a stage of the Tour de France for my Lost in Translation tour of Europe for Page 2. In addition to avoiding the bulls in Pamplona and carrying my spouse in the world-wife-carrying competition, I rode a stage route of the Tour the day after the competition. I’m embarrassed to acknowledge how little I knew about the sport and its athletes back then, but cycling quickly became a passion bordering on an addiction (just ask my wife).
I’m now on a bike so often that I interrupted a ride earlier this season to cover the finish of Philip Humber’s perfect game, interviewed the players while wearing nothing more than my bike jersey and shorts (“That’s a good look,’’ White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski commented), then got back on my bike and rode home to write the story. But at least I was wearing something that afternoon as opposed to my pose for a recent espnW project.
So as part of a 50th birthday present to myself, I chose to go to Europe a little early for the Olympics so I could ride up Alpe d’Huez. I figured making one of cycling’s most legendary climbs was a better (and cheaper) way to fight off a midlife crisis than buying a red convertible and having an affair.
Marco Pantani holds the record for the fastest ride up Alpe d’Huez, at 37 minutes, 35 seconds. That is an inhuman time. Not knowing what was in store, my goal was under two hours, with a secondary goal of under 90 minutes. Actually, my main goal was just to make it to the top.
My wife was to drive up in our rental car, occasionally stopping for photos and video. I posed for a photo at the start point in the town of Bourg d’Oisans, she wished me luck, I started the stopwatch on my phone and off I pedaled.
I was definitely not alone. Dozens and dozens of cyclists went up and down the road all day long. I rode by a young woman in full bicycle kit at the side of the road. I slowed briefly to ask if she was all right. She said she was fine, it’s just that the road was too steep. We were half a kilometer into the climb.
Each of the 21 bends up Alpe d’Huez is marked by a signpost bearing the name (or names) of a rider who won a Tour stage up the Alpe (Lance Armstrong is No. 19). The names are a tribute to the sport’s heroes as well as a testament to its doping history. (Speaking of which, I’m no Armstrong defender, but this latest attack to take away his seven Tour wins seems nothing more than a mean-spirited justification for an expensive failed government investigation. Is there anything positive that could be gained from this after so many years? Give it up, and leave the man in peace. But I digress …)
I must say, I didn’t feel any need for performance-enhancing drugs during my ride. Granted, I was riding at roughly half the speed of the pros, but I was finding Alpe d’Huez surprisingly manageable.
Near my home outside of Seattle, there is a three-mile stretch of road nicknamed Zoo Hill that I ride occasionally. The first mile is steeper than Alpe d’Huez, the second mile or so has some flat road and some slight downhills and the last section is steep again. The average grade is roughly that of Alpe d’Huez (around 8 percent). To prepare for Alpe d’Huez, I rode Zoo Hill twice last Saturday. That seemed more taxing than Alpe d’Huez did, which has a daunting, but fairly consistent, gradient. As I learned going up The Cline, it's all about your pace.
I felt so strong on the Alpe that I half expected to pass Cadel Evans. I could hear Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen analyzing my ride ("He's digging deep into his suitcase of courage!'') and imagined drunk, costumed fans creating a narrow aisle of roadway.
Or at least I did for the first five miles. Then the sheer length of the climb began to have its effect. As did the heat – Thursday was a glorious afternoon in the upper 80s. Still, I settled into a reasonable cadence and continued up, pausing to take in the stunning views (did I really climb that high already?) and wondering why I hadn’t seen my wife since roughly the third kilometer.
As I rode into Alpe d’Huez ski resort station, the grade began to lessen, and I saw a large banner stretched across the road, marking the end of the climb. With the banner and the surrounding view, it would have made for a glorious finish line -- except for one thing. It wasn’t the end of the climb. There still were almost two kilometers left. I kept riding, following signposts for the Tour Itinerie.
Eventually, I reached the true end, on an ugly, broad stretch of concrete marked by a lonely signpost showing 14 kilometers. This was it. I had climbed Alpe d’Huez. I looked at the stopwatch. One hour, 18 minutes. I rode it much faster than I imagined. It was a tremendous, exhilarating feeling. I was only about 6,100 feet up, but I felt on top of the world.
Then I read the text message from my wife. “Car won’t start. At last place I saw you. Mechanic on his way.’’
As my colleague Bonnie Ford, who has covered many Tours, writes: “The scent of the Tour de France isn't lavender and fresh baguettes, but the more acrid aroma of burning clutches and brakes.”
I hastily tried to take a photo of myself at the finish when a mountain biker stopped and offered to take it for me. It was a very nice photo except he completely lopped off the sign marking the end of the ride. This happens all the time. You’ll be standing in front of one of the world’s great landmarks – the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower, the Wrigley Field marquee – and a friendly person will snap your photo, completely leaving out the landmark.
Fortunately, another mountain biker came by and took another photo, this time with the sign in the back.
I took one last look around, congratulated myself on the ride and began my descent to where my wife and the stalled car awaited. This was the second rental car issue in less than two weeks for me –- my car at the All-Star Game had a flat in Kansas City. From now on, I may only rent bikes when I travel. They’re more reliable, get better gas mileage and are much more satisfying.
The beauty of biking is that it allows you to get someplace reasonably fast but also see so much beauty you miss while speeding by in a car. The scenery is also the reason the Tour is so intoxicating. During my climb up Alpe d’Huez on Thursday and an even more spectacular ride up the Col du Galibier on Friday, I saw snow-covered mountain faces rising dramatically from a valley, ancient stone church steeples poking into the sky, cataracts of water surging through a gorge and, best of all, a roadside creperie serving Nutella crepes when I was close to bonking on my ride back to the hotel.
Although I must admit, riding in a car doesn't leave my, ummmm, undercarriage feeling quite so sensitive. After riding up the Col du Galibier, I may have to stand during the entire Olympics.