Perhaps the most well-known and recognisable climb in cycling, the famous 21 bends of Alpe d’Huez connect the Oisans Valley to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez. Ever since its first inclusion in the Tour in 1952, the “Alpe” has become a pilgrimage destination for cycling fans across the globe. As luck would have it, 1952 was the first year that motorcycle TV crews followed the race, the images of Fausto Coppi dropping Jean Robic several kilometres from the summit would be seen across the globe and the legend of “les 21 lacets” began.
Although due in part to the legendary names to have won stages of the Tour atop this climb, the emblematic status of the 21 bends is very much down to the animated spectators lining the road throughout the climb. With certain claims suggesting up to a million spectators being present on the climb in 1997, the commonly quoted figure is in the 400,000-500,000 range most years. Nicknamed the Dutch Mountain, eight of the first fourteen winners on the Alpe were from the Netherlands, and the most iconic images you will have seen from Alpe d’Huez are most likely from hairpin seven i.e. Dutch Corner.
With French success on this famous climb limited to the singular 1986 Bernard Hinault win in the 20th century, the modern era of French climbers more than made up for this between 2011 and 2015. Pierre Rolland (2011), Christophe Riblon (2013) and Thibaut Pinot (2015) took three back to back wins, becoming household French names in the process and instant folk heroes.
With official times often subject to debate and discussion due to the two different start points of the climb, the fastest quoted time over the 13.8km is attributed to Marco Pantani in a blistering 36m40s in 1995. To give a point of reference, most amateur riders take between one or two hours, and anyone who is able to break the hour barrier is considered to be an extremely strong cyclist.
An interesting fact to finish on, the town of Alpe d’Huez is rather appropriately twinned with the town of Bormio which sits at the foot the Passo dello Stelvio in Italy.
Haute Route and Alpe d’Huez
The climb up Alpe d’Huez has featured heavily throughout the history of the Haute Route, both as a summit finish at the end of stages and as an individual time trial up the 21 bends. Throughout the history of the Haute Route riders have climbed up all three ascents of Alpe d’Huez (Bourg d’Oisans, Villard-Reculas, Col de Sarenne) and there have been many memorable moments lived on this mountain. Since 2017, there has also been a 3-day Haute Route Alpe d’Huez which highlights this mountain in all its glory, as well as its surrounding climbs such as the Col de la Croix de Fer, Col du Glandon and Col de Sarenne.