Three giant sperm, a baby sumo wrestler and a large amount of assorted half naked, flag wrapped passionate cycling fans. Along with a dozen or so wool clad Beefeaters at the famous Beefeater Bend. That’s just some of what I saw on my walk up the Alpe d’Huez on July 19 for Stage 12 of the Tour de France. I made it to switchback eleven at 1205 meters, well shy of the full 1860 meters of the climb. I was done in and could walk no more.
What you don’t see on television is the determination and power of will it takes for these cycling crazed super fans to get up the mountain to cheer their heroes on. In temperatures nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit the Alpe d’Huez was a vertical pizza oven with little shade to offer. Shade was in fact so scarce I witnessed people laying under their camper vans parked precariously on the edge of a cliff. The mountain was as hot and dry as any desert, I may have seen a camel or maybe it was just a heat induced mirage.
If you plan to take the walk on the day of the race you start before noon. Two hours before the road is closed to traffic. You walk or you ride your bike, most walk. For generations entire families and groups of friends make the trek on this hallowed ground. You lean forward and trudge the average 8% grade for the next how many miles you can take. You find your place on the side of the road and you wait.
And you wait.
You wait for another two hours before the caravan comes by. Yes the caravan of advertising sponsors makes the climb as well. As giant floats with pretty French girls toss keychains and spray water on you at 30 miles per hour on a hairpin switchback you are mesmerized. It’s well beyond dangerous, it’s sheer lunacy and something you’d never see in the US. All bets are off, complete madness has come to the mountain.
They go by and so you wait.
In another two hours you hear the helicopters, now this is the cool part. You don’t see them yet because they are below you. You hear them. And you hear the crowd on the mountain below as the roar begins to swell and rise upward. The helicopters come into view across from you looking out over the valley. The noise gets louder as the leading group is seen on switchbacks below.
All the waiting is over.
The race has arrived. The leaders ride past as if the mountain was flat, they motor by you as you cheer them on. You see the yellow jersey, you see your favorite riders up close, you see them working, you see they’re human not machine. Fans jump into action chasing with flags and banners screaming “Allez, allez, allez!” At each and every rider. From the first to the last as the peloton gets spread out on this giant zig zag road to cycling fame and glory. It’s absolutely exhilarating. All the waiting has been forgotten as you try and find news from the top as to who has won the day.
On this day history was made again on the mountain as Geraint Thomas becomes the first ever Briton to claim the stage. Fitting glory for the eventual Tour de France champion.
Like any sporting event in our modern world you can see much more of the action on television. But as a cycling fan and lover of the Tour de France this experience was well worth the effort. Well worth the long walk and enduring the heat. Because now this adventure is a part of my history and in my book, well worth the wait to spend a day watching a Tour de France stage on the Alpe d’Huez.
Vive le Tour! m