It took 36 hours from Kruger National Park in South Africa to get to Alpe d’Huez in the French Alps. A renowned skiing village and home to the iconic stage 18 of the Tour de France.
The view from our hotel room encapsulated the magnificence of Alpe d’Huez. A waterfall cascaded down the sheer endless drop. I was heavy with awe at the dramatic mountains looming on all sides, rising up vertically, reaching up to the heavens with their snow capped jagged peaks, imposing grey faces like slabs of textured slate, interspersed with luscious green and wildflowers.
The bus ride up and down Alpe d’Huez was hair-raising; the bus drivers negotiated sharp bends and nauseating drop offs whilst chain smoking and chattering incessantly. A continuous stream of sweaty cyclists ascended, pain etched their faces as they drove themselves on, determined to accomplish the challenge. Riders enjoyed the buzz of the descent, snaking past cars and endless droves of motorhomes, campervans, tents and people—on deckchairs, eating breakfast and cleaning their teeth at the side of the road.
Respect to anyone who endures the mighty Alpe d’Huez; 13.9 km uphill climb along 21 bends. As well as the super-fit MAMILs (middle aged men in Lycra) we saw many of 70-year plus vintage, women and children. People were also running up, on ski-type rollerblades, tandems and strange bike contraptions like a cross-trainer at the gym. I reveled in the rare occasion of cyclists playing king of the road, taking priority over motor vehicles and pedestrians. Sydney, along with many other cities, should take a good look.
On the first day we descended to the foot of the mountain where Bourg d’Oisans lay. A cute little town; reminiscent of Keswick in the Lake District, England where my husband, Phil is from. It was teeming with cycling fanatics. The clip clop of cleats at cafes was like a chorus of dedication, determination and sweat. A circus, according to the Aussie’s on the table next to me. I liked it. It was buzzing. Everyone was excited to be here for the greatest race on earth. The Tour de France 100th.
While Phil started his grueling ascent of Alpe d’Huez, with raging jetlag, I took root at a café where I sat for hours, sipping café au lait, munching my way through pain au chocolat, followed by croquet monsieur — dripping with oozy cheese, washed down with copious amounts of ice cold eau minerale, and trying out my school-girl French. Marred by injury I had been unable to train to climb Alpe d’Huez with him. I felt like the odd one out, there were cyclists everywhere. Italians, distinctive by their suntans and ability to look hot and stylish at any age. Groups of lean MAWILs: Middle Aged Women in Lyrca. The non-serious MAMILs with generous paunches smoked and drank beer at lunchtime. Whereas the competitors were the sinewy machines, with gaunt faces and shaven legs, who looked like they needed a good feed.
As a fierce anti-smoker the smoking at cafes got my hackles up but I tried to let it go and soak up the joie de vivre of France. Part of its charm was to break rules and laissez-faire. As a country of camping enthusiasts there were no camping restrictions. I soon remembered not to step out onto a pedestrian crossing. Buses didn’t run to timetable but the bonus was you could flag them down anywhere.
On the day of The Tour the cloud clung to the mountains. The place was abuzz with people; playing French boules, zipping overhead on the ski lifts, which take you to breathtaking walks around the peak. There was the usual queue at the patisserie and crowded souvenir shops. Flags of every nationality, particularly European, lined the bends along the mountain that were crammed with half a million fans. Horns blared, drums banged, Euro trash music blared. It was the Ibiza or Glastonbury for cyclists. Ambulances flew up the mountain, tooting cars dodged amateur cyclists that continued to stream uphill, cheered and heckled by the crowd, until only an hour before the big race.
We pitched our spot at bend one, near the top. A popular vantage point, with sweeping views of two bends below and glimpses of the church spire at Dutch corner. By mid morning it was packed with people behind the barriers, spilling onto grassy banks, reclining on camping chairs, picnicking and waiting. Campers lit fires and dogs ran about the mountainside. I love that the French are a nation of dog lovers. They were everywhere, of every kind, in hotels, restaurants, trains and peeping out of tents. I saw two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels just like my two and was just as excited about the dogs as I was about the race.
The road was treacherously wet. British cyclist, Christopher Froome was in the lead overall with the yellow jersey and king of the mountains status. We hoped he wouldn’t encounter any setbacks in the way of spills and flat tyres. The Tour is so unpredictable.
The caravans came through around 2 pm, along with the sunshine. The hills erupted in excitement. People squabbled like vultures over tacky merchandise flung from the carnival floats. A giant inflatable Chris Froome sailed by next to Mickey Mouse and girls on horseback and skis.
When two helicopters hovered overhead and the motorbike and car appeared we could hear Dutch corner, a few bend below us, go wild. The breakaways came first around 3.30 pm. I got so close I almost head butted a few gangly pros approaching. As they hugged the barriers, I could smell their sweat, rolling off them. They looked like they were grinning but I realized they were grimacing in pain. There were the gurners, eyes bulging — digging deep in the recesses of their minds to find the strength to endure.
Van Garderen from USA was leading the first ascent. Froome, overall leader was at the head of the main peloton. Spaniard Contador tried to attack on the narrow dangerous descent from Alpe d’Huez along Col de Serenne to Bourg d’Oisans. We waited another hour and a half. This year, being the centurion, the riders ascended Alpe d’Huez twice.
To our surprise Van Garderen was still leading on the second ascent. Froome was still at the front of the peloton after the few breakaways. French Riblon won the 18th stage at Alpe d’Huez.
The day following the tour Phil couldn’t resist a second crack at Alpe d’Huez. He descended via Col de Serenne, apparently an even more spectacular scenic route, where the pros had cycled. Followed by an ascent of Alpe d’Huez to attempt to beat his first time of one hour and twenty minutes. Meanwhile I decided to kick myself into gear. All these sweaty cyclists made me feel guilty and lazy. So I walked down the mountain. It took two and a half hours and I rewarded myself with a hearty lunch and an afternoon siesta. I was aching for the rest of the day whereas he suffered no muscle soreness or fatigue!
Thankfully after all the cycling of pros and amateurs whilst negotiating crowds of half a million there were minimal accidents at The Tour. Phil didn’t fall off and my only casualty was getting hit in the mouth by a German flagpole on my walking descent of Alpe d’Huez.
With one stage to go it’s looking almost certain Chris Froome will take the glorious yellow jersey into Paris. We will be there cheering him on the Champs- Élysées to complete a unique trip of a lifetime.