The 21 hairpin bends of Alpe d’Huez have become synonymous with the Tour de France since Fausto Coppi took what was the first mountaintop finish in the race’s history in 1952, also the climb’s first inclusion.
Enormous crowds hold a three-day party on the mountain, awaiting the peloton’s passing. Some riders will be racing to win, others simply to survive the time-cut.
Here, we speak to two legends about their experience: Lotto-Soudal’s Adam Hansen soaks up the atmosphere and enjoys a beer, while the American Andy Hampsten blocks out the chaos to win in 1992.
How many times have you been up Alpe d’Huez, Adam?
Four, I think. We went up it twice in the 2013 Tour. I did some of it with a camera on my helmet at the 2008 race, too.
What’s the story behind the camera?
HTC-Columbia had a barbecue for the sponsors about 5km from the finish. It was my first Tour de France, so my family came over to watch. I was like a tourist – I wanted all the memories possible and Alpe d’Huez is the most famous mountain in stage racing.
So I took my video camera from my mum, stuck it on my helmet with this patch I made and filmed the last part. It’s really interesting watching the footage from inside the gruppetto. We’re going slow, everyone is dead – there’s no talk happening at all.
We look like a herd of cattle walking up a mountain. Everyone’s too fatigued to spin, they’ve got the wrong gear and they’re simply powering up out of the saddle, taking big steps.
Do you think you had a different anticipation towards doing the Alpe, compared to a European rider, because it was more distant?
I knew what it was when I was in Australia. But Alpe d’Huez was like nothing I’d ever done. It’s the legend: there’s a lot of people that have never been there, never seen it, have no idea what it’s like, but so many people talk about it. It’s really like a part of history – and
I don’t mean cycling history, but real history.
Do the riders notice the sheer masses of people on those hairpins?
Definitely. As a rider, you see everything up Alpe d’Huez: the spectators and how creative they are with the costumes; old ladies and young kids scream at you; some people set up like they’ve been there for a month before.
You don’t see how big it is. When you do a hairpin corner and look down a little, the corners are more than five deep. It’s like a concert or international cultural event: people are packed in, and countries all stick together and play their own type of music, drinking their own type of beer.
The Germans shout “hop, hop”, the Italians say “dai dai”; every language has a different way of saying ‘”go, go, go!” Each corner, you know which nationality is there. There’s nothing like it anywhere else.
The nationality is a magnet, bringing people together. I rode up there with [Lotto-Soudal team-mate] Lars Bak once and the Danish fans went crazy. Every rider has a fan base on that mountain. Sometimes there are riders you don’t even know and you learn about them from the crowd calling their name.
Would you like to go and watch as a fan when you retire?
Hopefully before I retire. I would like to have training camps around the area. We’ve been up there in the race and that’s something magical, but I’m sure it’s even more magical, in a different way, without other people around. It’d probably be peaceful; it’s a bit of a roar the whole way up normally.
You’re known for taking a beer on the Alpe at Dutch Corner in the 2013 Tour, too. Was that a spontaneous act?
It was. They were so excited holding it, and I thought ‘Why not just take one…’ They’re definitely not going to complain, are they? Then everyone wants to give you beers.
It was one of the most emotional times for me: there were so many people roaring; there was so much energy; I had goosebumps.
Is the Alpe one of your favourites?
It is. I think when a lot of riders look back on riding it, one thing they do not remember very clearly is how hard it is. It’s hard, but they have 1,000 memories before they remember the pain: how magnificent it is, the fans, the atmosphere, all the nationalities, everyone in a party mood. That’s what you remember, not the killing yourself on a bike.
The video camera, the beer drinking; what’s in store for you this year? Ha! I’m sure I’ll find something.
The atmosphere, the fans, the party mood: that’s what you remember, not killing yourself on a bike
What are your memories of winning the stage on Alpe d’Huez in 1992?
That year, we did four climbs: Alpe d’Huez was the last one. I jumped away on the penultimate climb, the Croix de Fer, with Franco Vona, Jan Nevens, Jesús Montoya and Eric Boyer. I think we had three or four minutes at the top, and, miracle of miracles, we worked well on the flat valley bit at the bottom.
I really don’t like the beginning of Alpe d’Huez, it’s the steepest part of it. Especially after a hard breakaway, I don’t like the sharp attacks at the bottom. So I set a hard tempo at the front. I thought ‘this is so silly of me, I’m highest on GC and other people are gonna sit on and maybe attack. My team director Hennie Kuiper, who won on the Alpe twice, is going to be very angry with me for being such a knucklehead’. But he was actually completely in agreement I should keep the tempo high and tear it up towards the end if I felt good.
Four or five kilometres from the finish, Montoya and Nevens had already dropped away. I attacked in a corner from the front: I just kept it in the same gear at the same cadence and made it look like I didn’t notice that the road just got steeper. Eric Boyer slipped off and on the next switchback, I noticed I had a couple of metres on Franco Vona. I kept it at what I was hoping was 98% effort to make him fight for those two metres. It was above his pace, he backed off a little.
On Alpe d’Huez, it’s so exciting. As a climber, it is the one day that I want to cross the finish line first. So I had to resist getting too excited. As I was contemplating how hard to push myself – how much pain I should feel in my legs – in those last few kilometres, I reminded myself of 1989 on Alpe d’Huez. Eddy Merckx was in our following car that day and I had food poisoning. I was embarrassed he chose ours: he wanted to see me win the stage and he saw me barely struggle across the line in agony. So I thought ‘I’m just going to make my legs feel as bad as that day.’
Why does Alpe d’Huez hold such a special personal fascination?
I think I’m caught up in the Tour history. It’s certainly not the hardest climb, but it’s become such a stadium for so many spectators to come and see the riders that the atmosphere is special. Italians would call it clamoroso: it’s absolute bedlam on Alpe d’Huez. Sometimes riders get knocked down or we don’t really know where the road is, it’s that swamped with fans. The ones closest to us are the ones that have been drinking for three days, so there’s some downsides to racing on it. But it’s the most exciting stage. When I was training, I’d keep Alpe d’Huez in mind when trying to do one more interval at the end of a hard day.
When leading the Tour up it, are you still aware of everything around you?
I’d like to say that I was in a zen state, but that’s absolute nonsense. It’s hard to not let the fans’ voices join my own little governor, telling me how hard to go. It’s an enormous distraction too, thank God. Some are pushier – a pat on the back is like a punch, it’s really not nice being touched – but it’s absolutely fantastic having hundreds of thousands of very enthusiastic fans cheering everyone on.
Where does that win rate in your career?
It was a huge joy and relief to finally win it, my only Tour de France stage. My stage win at the 1985 Giro is my favourite because it was the first and opened up a whole new world for me. But as far as experiencing the joy of winning a stage goes, it’s my greatest one-day victory.
Every winner is given his own plaque on one of the hairpins. Where is yours?
Mine is turn five, fifth from the top; I know because I stopped and goofed around with some friends. It’s not far from either where I attacked or was already alone. It’s an enormous honour just to be on the mountain with all those great names.
First published in issue 55 of Rouleur, the world’s finest road cycling journal, for the most discerning rider. Subscribe today to try your first copy free at rouleur.cc/square