Blazin' Saddles: Does the 2018 Tour de France really need Alpe d'Huez?
With the Tour de France tipped to return to Alpe d'Huez in 2018, our cycling expert Felix Lowe ponders whether the monotonous 21 hairpin bends of Dutch Mountain should feature so frequently on the world's biggest bike race. Surely ASO should prioritise their assent to other ascents rather than kowtow to a fanatics' favourite?
"The ideal Tour de France would have Alpe d'Huez in it – there's no doubt."
It's hardly a surprise that Peter Cossins would take this view: when we were talking for a piece I was researching for Cyclist magazine last year, the prolific author had just published a book dedicated to those famous 21 hairpin bends. He was hardly going to stick the knife in.
Peter's perfectly acceptable stance is that you can't omit a climb like Alpe d'Huez from a notional ideal Tour on the grounds of its "unique atmosphere" and "iconic" status.
But not all his colleagues agree: the Mountain High (and Higher) author, the Cycling Podcast reporter Daniel Friebe, describes the Alpe as "meh" while Michael "Doctor Hutch" Hutchinson, the time trial-loving scribe of Re:Cyclists, labels the "easy" ascent as simply "Box Hill, but longer".
Why are we even having this debate?
Well, this week it was revealed by Le Dauphine Libere that Alpe d'Huez will return to the Tour after a three-year absence. According to the French newspaper, the 105th edition of the Grande Boucle will feature a stage finish atop Alpe d'Huez in the second week of racing, two days after the first rest day.
There are few details other than the fact that start of stage 11 is said to be Bourg-Saint-Maurice and the finish Alpe d'Huez. Presumably the riders will head to the Alpe via the Col de la Madeleine and the Col du Glandon – making it a ride of 147km.
The less likely alternative – taking in the Col de l'Iseran (at 2,764m, the highest paved pass in the Alps) before the mighty Col du Galibier – would push the kilometre-count up to 195km and out of kilter with ASO's recent favouring of shorter mountain stages.
This is a shame. The under-appreciated Iseran has only featured seven times in Tour history since making its debut back in 1934. Meanwhile, Alpe d'Huez has cropped up 30 times – and that's distorted given it took 24 years for the race to return after its inaugural, and thoroughly underwhelming, visit in 1952.
Why Alpe d'Huez?
It seems that Alpe d'Huez is like the ugly ex you can't stop going back to – even though it's not even a particularly good ride.
To get to the bottom of the Alpe's appeal, I spoke to a Canadian chap called Will who lives – and mainly rides – in the Alps and whose deservedly popular cycling-challenge.com blog includes a feature entitled 100 Climbs Better Than Alpe d'Huez. Above all else, Will believes that, historically, the Tour has "got the mix wrong" when it comes to climbs.
"I get lots of emails from people looking for help planning their first cycling trip to the Alps," he says, "and at least half have Alpe d’Huez as their primary goal. This is depressing. While it may be an exciting place to watch a pro stage, it is nothing more than a relatively interesting, big, busy, modern ski station road."
"It's not a particularly attractive mountain but it's so iconic and has such a unique atmosphere that you can't leave it out, really."
And here's the thing. What brings the Tour back to Alpe d'Huez is quite simple, really: the fans love it. "The problem is that people like familiarity," says Will. "Alpe d'Huez isn't the most famous climb in the world because it's that great. It's famous because it's a zoo on race day – a familiar zoo."
Anyone who's seen coverage from Dutch Corner during an Alpe d'Huez stage – better still, anyone who has been decked out in orange on said hairpin number seven – can vouch for the bestial nature of such a spectacle. Chris Froome certainly can.
Hairpin heaven, but too predictable?
The last finish in Alpe d'Huez was indeed in 2015, two years after the highly successful double ascent during the centenary edition of the Tour. In fact, we've had French winners for the past three visits, with Pierre Rolland preceding Christophe Riblon's triumph after that double ascent, and Thibaut Pinot winning two years ago.
While the host nation lapped up Pinot's latest win, behind there played out a rather stale GC battle as the sheer magnitude of the crowds negated any significant attacks and Riche Porte metronomed Froome within yellow jersey-winning distance of Nairo Quintana, who had finally attacked on the penultimate day of the race.
Herein lies the problem with summit finishes – in particular, ones that even the most leisurely fans know by heart.
"Summit finishes have generally disappointed in the last – well, since professional cycling's become more and more obsessed with them," claims Friebe. Note that the Tour's first summit finishes all took part in the 1952 Tour and were one-sided affairs with Fausto Coppi winning at Alpe d'Huez, Sestriere and Puy de Dome.
Friebe's issue with summit finishes is a common one.
"They mean everything is funnelled towards a particular tactic, outcome and denouement, and everyone rides like zombies towards that scenario."
Intimidated by the profile, the big GC favourites rarely show their hands before the final climb. Doctor Hutch even claims that "summit finishes are a much bigger problem" then the supposed predictability of his preferred discipline of time trialling.
How to make Alpe d'Huez better
Many climbs only boast one way up but Alpe d'Huez isn't one of them. If the centenary Tour introduced fans to the magical Col de Sarenne – on a madcap descent between the two ascents of the famous 21 hairpins – then it was not until last summer when ASO finally sent a professional race going up its narrow switchbacks.
Oddly enough, it was a British one-two through Peter Kennaugh and Ben Swift when stage 7 of the Criterium du Dauphine finished in Alpe d'Huez but after the peloton entered via the back door marked Sarenne (at 1,979m high some 141m loftier than its more illustrious neighbour).
Even before ASO announced this game-changing route, Cossins had voiced his interest to me. "I think [climbing Alpe d'Huez via the Sarenne] would be brilliant and would ask very different questions not to come up the main climb," he said.
"There's no doubt that the Sarenne is much, much harder than Alpe d'Huez as a climb. It takes you up higher and the gradient is steeper as well."
The big issue is accessibility. The Col de Sarenne is a protected zone where marmottes have more rights than humans – especially tanked-up humans in fancy dress. The road, too, is far narrower and may not support the Tour's infamously huge entourage.
And, of course, there's the issue of prestige: would fans accept a Tour stage to Alpe d'Huez that eschews Dutch Corner or would that be met with the same disdain as an English Breakfast without the bacon?
Alpe d'Huez like you've never seen it before
But there are other ways in which Alpe d'Huez could be used innovatively without – well, without not using it at all. Just ask the organisers of the amateur Haute Route event, who this summer organised a three-day event in and around Alpe d'Huez aimed at showcasing some of its hidden wonders.
For instance: the peloton could attack the climb from the balcony road that comes in via Villard-Reculas to the north. It's a more scenic approach to a climb which many label drab – although it joins the main drag in the village of Huez between hairpins 6 and 5, whereby missing Dutch Corner by less than a kilometre.
This is the route that many believe will be unveiled next week when ASO reveal what they have in store for the 105th edition of the race.
But for the traditionalists, it may not cut the mustard – even if the 'new' road rising up from the Lac du Verney compensates by adding on an additional nine hairpins, while the total length of the stage would be a punchy 139km.
If this it too much of a perversion then another option would be to switch sides and use another balcony road: the one that joins the classic climb from the south at the village of La Garde and only misses the first four hairpin bends. It would come in at the conclusion of a 190km stage that takes in the Iseran and Galibier before missing the turning to the Sarenne and taking the narrow back road from Le Freney-d'Oisans.
Tour de France : "Dutch Corner"Eurosport
Both these routes would rock the boat a little but the second would at least keep the mid-July parishioners of the Eglise Saint Ferriol – not to mention purveyors of Dutch techno, lager and orange paint – happy.
Although both approaches raise the issue of whether it would still be correct to award the stage winner his own plaque on one of the climb's bends. We may soon find out.
ASO's willing to change
The organisers of a race and fan base rooted in conservatism may favour glacial change when it comes to route-planning, but they have shown themselves prepared to take a punt on occasional innovation. ASO won't also get stuck in a rut: after all, the Alps appearing in the second week in 2018 opens the door for a Pyrenean denouement to the race for the first time since 2014.
With this year's Grand Depart taking place in the Vendee region in north-west France, there had been high hopes for some sections of the Ribinou farm tracks of Brittany that play host to the annual Tro Bro Leon race (known affectionately as the Hell of the West).
With those rumours seemingly put to bed whispers emerged that stage 9 would finish in Roubaix, getting fans excited about the prospect of a return to the cobblestones of northern France. Again, those hopes have seemingly been dashed: it is thought that a mere 3.2km of pavé will be used on the Gruson and Carrefour de l'Arbre sections in a short stage that has been designed not to clash with the football World Cup final on the same day.
But despite saying non to the Ribinou and only half-committing to the cobbles, it now seems that the organisers will include some gravel sections in the race after all – in the Alps during the stage preceding the slog to Alpe d'Huez.
The first of three mountain stages after the first rest day, Le Dauphine reports, will take the riders from Annecy to Le Grand Bornand via the Col de Fleuries, Cote de Romme and Col de la Colombiere, as well as the Plateau des Glieres, which features a breathtakingly scenic 1.8km stretch of gravel track that the organisers are said to have no intention of tarmacking over.
And look, our friend Will has it covered…
While those views are undoubtedly sumptuous, it's not the kind of place the yellow jersey will want to pick up a puncture.
Of course, until ASO confirm the route on 17 October, all this talk is just speculation. Whether the route contains cobbles or gravel and which approach it takes to Alpe d'Huez could well be immaterial, anyway. For as Christian Prudhomme so often drills home, at the end of the day, it's the riders who make the race, not the route-planners: les organisateurs proposent, les coureurs dispose.