Le Tour first visited l’Alpe in 1952 when Fausto Coppi won, hairpin 21 belongs to the campionissimo (he shares it with Lance, who won here in ’01 and against the watch in ’04); but it was 24 years before the race returned, with Joop Zoetemelk winning the stage in 1976.
Fausto Coppi shares Switchback #21 with Lance Armstrong, who has two wins to his names on Alpe d’Huez.
The area has come to depend on le Tour for a much needed summer cash injection, the local restaurant and bar owners wait anxiously for the race route to be unveiled each November – most will only open in July if the Tour is in town.
The sacred, profane and commercial all sit cheek by jowl in this high altitude town.
The hairpins are numbered from 21 down to one at the top ; Hennie Kuiper (’77 and ’78) and Frank Schleck (’06) share number 18 – and this is where the magnificent views across the valley begin to open out.
The winner here in 1979 was Portuguese legend Joaquim Agostinho; he always reckoned bike racing was easy after the times he spent sleeping in the jungle as a conscript in the Portuguese army during the nation’s colonial wars in Africa.
A memorial to the great man – who died after a collision with a dog whilst leading the Tour of the Algarve in 1984 – sits further up the hill.
Hairpin 15 belongs to twice winner here, Peter Winnen of Holland (’81 and ’83), it should have been three but in 1982 his DS made him change to his super light time trial bike at the bottom of l’Alpe, the rhythm was gone and he finished fifth from five behind Beat Breu of Switzerland.
The Dutchman spent two hours walking around l’Alpe d’Huez with his soigneur (PEZ friend, Kris) that evening; Kris explained that the anger had to be put to good use – Winnen went out next day and won at Morzine.
At this point we caught up with Skil pros training on the hill, Albert Timmer explained that they have a training camp at the top; the Pro Continental riders gobbled up amateur climbers by the score.
And the guys from Koksijde were there getting an early advert for the world cyclo-cross champs 2012.
Beat Breu that 1982 winner at the expense of Winnen was one of the pioneers of light weight bikes, on his mountain special he would have the handle bars chopped short and dispense with handlebar tape, all to save a few grammes.
As well as an ace climber he was a cyclo-cross rider and motor paced rider at world level – and the last I heard, he was a club comedian.
It’s thirsty work on the mountain, the Germans have their beer neatly stacked whilst wine boxes lay around like spent shell cases after a battle.
And in case you wonder how they keep the beer cool – they bring a compressor for the fridge.
As the hairpins count down, the views become ever more spectacular – as the standard of accommodation begins to slide.
At the Bugno hairpin – he won twice here ’90 and ’91 – things get seriously crazy; this is ‘Dutch corner.’
L’Alpe d’Huez used to be known as the ‘Dutch Mountain’ with Zoetemelk, Kuiper, Winnen, Rooks ’88 and Theunisse ’89 all winning here; the tradition of partying on the mountain continues, even if the winning doesn’t.
Carola Groeneveld used to race for Rabobank Ladies but is now working for Shimano, she explained that you really have to be on the mountain on Saturday if you’re serious about partying and want the best spot.
She requests ‘Schatje magik je foto’ from the deejay and the crowd goes mad – time to go.
Up, close to where the cable car soars across the road is the Hampsten hairpin; John and I were there in 1992 and I can still remember the slim American his eyes fixed on the road ahead, slicing through the maddest of crowds on his way to glory.
And we were there for Pantani’s 1995 win (he won in ’97 too), on the lowest of gears, the sweat glistening on his shaved head as he spun through the village and up towards that famous finish straight.
By now you can see the top and the views out across the valley are stunning.
Hairpin number one belongs to ’99 winner Italian, Giuseppe Guerini, who was felled by a fan near the spot; he remounted to win and would later accept the fan’s apology.
The one kilometre to go mark is just inside where the built up area starts, but it’s a technical last 1,000 metres to the uphill finish line.
We’ll be at PEZ’s Alpine HQ overnight and tomorrow we’ll try our best to take you with us to this most famous of all the Alpine climbs.
After the surprises on the Galibier today, perhaps it’s too much to expect more of the same on l’Alpe but in this Tour, anything is possible.