It took 36 hours to get from Kruger National Park in South Africa 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 snow-capped jagged peaks looming on all sides, rising vertically, reaching up to the heavens, their 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: bus drivers negotiated sharp bends and nauseating drop-offs while chain smoking and chattering incessantly. A continuous stream of sweaty cyclists ascended, pain etched into 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, camper vans, 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, a 13.9 kilometer climb along 21 bends. In addition to the super-fit MAMILs (middle aged men in Lycra), women and children, we saw many people of 70-year-plus vintage. People were also running up, rolling on ski-type roller blades, cycling on tandem bicycles and using strange contraptions resembling gym-style cross-trainers.
I revelled in the rare occasion of cyclists playing king of the road, taking priority over motor vehicles and pedestrians, thinking that Sydney (and other cities across the globe) should take a good look.
On the first day, we descended to the foot of the mountain where Bourg d’Oisans sits, a cute little town reminiscent of Keswick in England’s Lake District, where my husband Phil is from. It was teeming with cycling fanatics.
The clip-clop of cleats in the streets was like a chorus of dedication, determination and sweat. I enjoyed the buzz: everyone was excited to be here for the greatest race on earth, the 100th Tour de France.
Phil (who’d been fighting raging jetlag) began the grueling ascent of Alpe d’Huez. Due to an injury, I’d been I unable to train to climb Alpe d’Huez with him, so I took root at a café, sipping café au lait and munching my way through pain au chocolat, then a croque monsieur that dripped with oozy cheese. I washed it all down with copious amounts of icy-cold eau minérale, as I tried out my school-girl French.
Cyclists were everywhere: Italians with their suntans and style; groups of lean MAWILs (Middle Aged Women in Lyrca); the less-serious MAMILs with generous paunches, who smoked and drank beer at lunchtime. The competitors—sinewy machines with gaunt faces and shaven legs—looked like they needed a good feed.
A fierce anti-smoker, the smoking at cafés got my hackles up but I tried to let it go and soak up France’s joie de vivre. After all, there were few rules, not even camping restrictions. I soon learned to not step out onto a pedestrian crossing. Buses didn’t run on time, but you could flag them down anywhere.
On the day of The Tour clouds clung to the mountains. The place was alive with people playing French boules. Others zipped overhead on the ski lifts, heading to breathtaking walks around the peak. There were the usual queues at the patisserie and the crowded souvenir shops. Flags of every nationality lined 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, people were crammed behind barriers, spilling onto grassy banks, reclining on camping chairs, picnicking and waiting. Campers lit fires and dogs ran about the mountainside.
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 mine. I 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-mountain’ status. The Tour being so unpredictable, we hoped he wouldn’t encounter any setbacks in the way of spills and flat tires.
Caravans rolled through around 2.00 p.m., along with the sunshine, and 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 heard the Dutch corner go wild. The breakaways came first around 3.30 p.m. I got so close I almost head-butted a few of the approaching gangly pros who were hugging the barriers.
I could smell the sweat rolling off the riders: they looked like they were grinning, but I realized they were grimacing in pain.
USA’s Van Garderen lead the first ascent, Froome was at the head of the main peloton. Spaniard Alberto 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. France’s Christophe 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, descending via Col de Serenne, apparently an even more spectacular scenic route, then ascended Alpe d’Huez to attempt to beat his first time of an hour and 20 minutes.
All these sweaty cyclists made me feel guilty and lazy, so I kicked myself into gear, walking down the mountain. It took two and a half hours and I rewarded myself with a hearty lunch and an afternoon siesta.
Thankfully, despite all the cycling of pros and amateurs while negotiating the huge crowds, there were minimal accidents. 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 Froome will take the glorious yellow jersey into Paris. We will be there cheering him on the Champs-Élysées and completing the trip of a lifetime.
All photos by Tina Wild.
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Asst. Ed: Renée Picard / Ed: Brianna Bemel