Tuesday 21 July 2015

Alpe d'Huez by Peter Cossins

Over time certain sporting venues become iconic. Sometimes because of the historic events that are held there, sometimes because of legendary performances, sometimes because of their own inate grandeur or beauty. Football has Wembley and the Maracana, tennis has Wimbledon, triathlon has Kona and Formula 1 has Monaco.

Cycling is lucky enough to have several such venues, from the bergs of Flanders to the cobbles of Roubaix to the high mountains of the Grand Tours. But one place stands out from them all in cycling folklore. To win there is to join an exclusive club, to just survive the time limit is a massive achievement and to spectate there is to participate in one of the great festivals of sport.

That place is of course the famous D211 road in the department of Isère, France which culminates at the ski resort by who's name it's better known, Alpe d'Huez.

Veteran British cycling journalist, Peter Cossins, has just published a "biography" of this amazing climb, "Cycling's Greatest Climb" according to the subtitle.

By interweaving factual detail with accounts of some of the most exciting and iconic Tour stages fought out there, Cossins brings the mountain alive for the reader. The passion, the pain, the intrigue and the excitement of the road are all captured on the pages as well as fascinating behind the scenes history of how this remote ski resort has managed to place itself centre stage in the story of France's premier sporting event.

2015 marks the eightieth anniversary of the building of the first paved road, with it's now famous 21 hairpins, up to a cluster of ski cabins and chalets. That decision, along with some very canny celebrity-endorsed marketing, inspired the rapid development of the resort into one of France's most popular pre-war ski destinations. Once hostilities were done it was hotelier George Rajon who saw the benefits that attracting the Tour might bring and who set about wooing organisers Jacques Goddet and Felix Levitan. As it happens, at the time they were looking for a way to break the stranglehold time-triallists were exerting on their race. The rest is history.

Surprisingly, given the almost mythological status now bestowed on the Alpe, it was to be another 25 years before the Tour visited again in 1977. That return, won in a spectacular race by defending Tour champion Lucien Van Impe, was to be the beginning of what's been called a love affair between the resort and the race, albeit a love affair driven by very unromantic financial considerations.

That's not to say there's been any love affair between the riders and the climb. Climbing legend Robert Miller "hated" it, while 87 Tour winner, Stephen Roche, famously said "Of all the climbs in the Alps, Alpe d'Huez is the one I fear the most". At just over 13km, it's neither the longest nor steepest climb faced by Tour De France participants, But Alpe d'Huez is special because it always comes at the end of a tough stage and because it's very hard to ride, especially since the steeper lower slopes are where the damage is often done, leaving all but the best climbers scrambling to get back on terms.

While it's the riders that make any race, and Cossins describes in detail the exploits of many who have made their name (by fair means or foul) on the Alpe, from Van Impe to Pantani to Armstrong, Alpe d'Huez has become just as renowned for the fans who line the roadside. Just like the famous "12th man" in football, the energy of the fans has been an integral factor in many exploits played out there as well as a few mishaps, as in the case of Guerrini and the camera toting German lad.

Often described as "Dutch" mountain the stories of how it became so associated with Holland are fascinating. Who knew the local parish priest for many years, now buried in the churchyard at Dutch Corner, was a Dutchman? Of course, in recent years some us are challenging that Orange dominance, hence the birth of Irish Corner 10. We have a way to go though!

Alpe d'Huez is an amazing place, with a still expanding legend being built around it. Cossins has captured that in this book. If you have going there for the Tour (at Irish Corner 10, of course) at least once on your bucket list, when you read this book you'll be adding it at the very top.

"Alpe d'Huez, Cycling's Greatest Climb" by Peter Cossins is published in hardback by Aurum Press and is available from Amazon (click here) or, in Ireland, from Easons and all good bookshops, RRP €25.50