By Graham Jones
and Barry Boyce

CyclingRevealed Historians



Stage Winners on
Alpe d'Huez


Tour de France Champions Living and Dead





CyclingRevealed's First Impressions '08

Stage 17 - (Wednesday) July 23rd, Embrun to Alpe d'Huez, 210.5 km Mountain Finish

“Triumph of Mortal Intelligence”

Majestic Alpine panorama: Galibier, Alpe d'Huez, Croix de Fer region (from  private family travel album)

During the first years of the Tour Europe's roads were still built for horse and horse drawn vehicles. Cars were starting to make their grand entry and bicycles were heavy steel machines still going through the teething pains of evolution. Bike races were generally on flat to undulating roads or tracks. Nobody even thought of trying to ride bikes up mountains.

Nobody that is except Tour founder Henri Desgrange who in 1905 made an audacious decision and decided to take his race into the Vosges Mountains. Everyone thought that he was mad. His pioneering plan took the riders up the Cote de Laffrey, the Col Bayard and finally up the now famous Ballon d'Alsace with it's 10km of climbing up to 1247m.

In those days only Desgrange could have dreamed of the concept of taking a bicycle race over mountains. The result was that the riders did not “die” and, no doubt aided by Degrange's famous flowery prose in his newspaper ‘L'Auto', the general public were enthralled. This huge success lead Desgrange to come up with even greater challenges. What about the Pyrenees and Alps ?

In fact it was his friend Alphonse Steines who first suggested the Pyrenees . Without hesitation Desgrange sent him down to the Tourmalet to evaluate the feasibility. Steines managed to get up to 4kms from the summit in his car before a worsening snow storm stopped him. From there he trudged through atrocious conditions to the summit and then continued down the other side freezing and very scared. 12kms later he reached a gendarme post in the valley where he sent the following telegram:

Have crossed the Tourmalet on foot by night. Road passable for vehicles. No snow”

The message was enough for Desgrange as he cared not for any further details! So from 1906 the high mountains became a permanent Tour fixture.

The History of Human Affairs

The Galibier was the first of three HC climbs on today's route. This 21km ascent was first used in 1911. In those day's this climb, like most others, were simple dirt tracks or logging paths. Since 1911 the climb has created it's own legends elevating the riders that conquer it to great historical figures. This was Desgrange's favorite climb and in his famous Victorian flowery prose wrote:

“In the history of human affairs, does not this ascent of the Galibier on bicycles constitute the first triumph of mortal intelligence over the laws of gravity?”

Today, as the modern peloton passed over the summit, they passed within a few feet of the huge stone monument honoring Henri Desgrange.

Henri Desgrange Monument on the Col du Galibier [Images from CCB Archive]

The Final Act?

Even though there are still two more none too easy road stages followed by a 53km time trial, many viewed today as the final act in the battle for GC. Anyone wanting to keep Cadel Evans from riding triumphantly into Paris needs to ensure that there is plenty of air between them before starting the TT.

Currently only 8 seconds separates Frank Schleck, Bernhard Kohl and Cadel Evans. Sastre, Menchov and Vande Velde are also not too far back and could, theoretically still succeed in taking the race.

With the HC Galibier climb followed by the 30km HC climb of the Col de la Croix de Fer, we were already guaranteed a great race. But the icing on the cake was to be the final climb up the mecca of Tour climbs - l'Alpe d'Huez.

A Just Reward

After yesterday's heroics it was something of a surprise to see Stefan Schumacher (Gerolsteiner) leading a small break onto the Galibier. Along with Rubén Pérez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Rémy Di Gregorio (Française des Jeux) and Peter Velits (Team Milram), they pulled ahead of the peloton by 4 minutes at the summit. It was a just reward that ‘Schumi' took the mountain top prime and with it the coveted ‘Souvenir Henri Desgrange' award.

On the descent numerous crashes hit riders throughout the strung out bunch. Luckily nobody was reported to have sustained any serious injuries. Once in the valley a general re-grouping saw most riders rejoin the main peloton as the small break plugged on ahead of them. Most noticeable near the front, and riding alongside the Yellow Jersey, was Oscar Friere resplendent in his Green Jersey. Watch out for this talented sprinter/rouleur at the upcoming Olympics!

Nothing but Purgatory

On to the Col de la Croix de Fer. Racing uphill for 30kms non-stop is not much fun. To be doing so while the CSC train is driving along at an insane pace can only be purgatory. As we had seen regularly for the past few days, the heavy hitters at CSC were taking it in turns riding flat out at the front. Every now and then one of them would drop to the back of the bunch to collect a fresh supply of drinking bottles. What a well disciplined machine!

But who were they riding for? Frank Schleck or Carlos Sastre? In the good old days of USPS and Discovery everybody knew from day one who was ‘numero uno'. Today anyone wanting to beat CSC needed eyes in the back of their head. Also it would be helpful to have team support just like CSC.

As impressive as CSC's speed making was, it actually played into the hands of Evans, Menchov, Kohl and co. because even though riders were being spit off the back all the time, the big names could ‘easily' match CSC's pace. However it seems that CSC's thinking was that an unrelenting day of intense pace would take the sting out of everyone's legs.

Over the Top

After about 1 hour and 20 minutes of climbing the race finally reached the summit of the Croix de Fer. Schumacher had cracked and Peter Velits took the high altitude accolade about 1m 30s ahead of the shrinking main peloton of about 30 riders.

Bernhard Kohl lead the peloton over the top to considerably build on his KOM lead. On the way down to the valley Jerome Pineau leapt from the bunch and was able to connect with Velits. Behind them Fabian Cancellara was hammering away at the front as they approached the entry to the l'Alpe d'Huez.

After passing through the small town of Bourg d'Oisans the road took a sharp left up what looked like a normal residential street. But about half a kilometer further up the road is anything but normal as it suddenly rears right up in front of you. This was the first steep slope of the climb and from here it is about 15kms of sheer agony with the famous 21 hair-pin bends taking you up to the ski village of Alpe dHuez.

Alpe d'Huez (from Wikimedia)

A Battle Royal

Having tormented the peloton all day, CSC now launched the next phase of their plan. Those first slopes of the climb also happen to be some of the steepest. Having raced down the Croix de Fer and along the flat valley road for about 35kms, the sudden change in pace, together with shifting the chain from the big gears to the small ones, does a real number on your legs.

It was exactly at this moment that CSC fired their winning salvo. Carlos Sastre attacked hard and Denis Menchov gave chase. Briefly Menchov stayed with him and the panic from behind brought the GC ‘heavies' almost back in touch. But Sastre is a pure climber and as soon as the others dragged themselves back he accelerated again. This time it was for good. In the process he quickly overhauled the lone leader on the road, Pineau.

CSC had been protecting both Frank Schleck and Carlos Sastre all day. So a move was not exactly a surprise. What was a surprise was that it was Sastre. His climbing skills are not in question but his habitual tactic, known by the entire peloton, is to hang with the group until the upper slopes of climbs arrive before making a move. This was a totally new Sastre and it very quickly it became clear that he had been preparing for this exact move for a long time.

The cards were on the table and now the small Yellow Jersey group had to react. And react they did as attack after attack did nothing to Sastre's lead. In fact Sastre was adding chunks of time with every passing kilometer. But again it was the CSC game plan that won the day. Every attacking move was covered by either Frank Schleck or Andy Schleck. The result was a killing stop and go pace that had the effect of slowing the group down.

The final kilometers were painful to watch. The small Yellow Jersey group were now totally paying for the tempo imposed by CSC all day long. Every one of those guys had lost their sting. That all important decisive punch had been left on the road. It was now up to Evans to try and contain the damage and keep himself within striking distance for the time trial in three days time. The exhausted riders around him just sat there and watched him turn himself inside out.

On the line Carlos Sastre claimed a victory truly worthy of the l'Alpe d'Huez. Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Andy Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank) came in 2'03" later and 10 seconds after them Alejandro Valverde lead in the rest including Frank Schleck, Evans, Menchov, Vande Velde and Kohl.

Stage winner Carlos Sastre [ Image ©: Eurosprot TV/AP]

Theirs to Lose

Carlos Sastre now leads the Tour by 1'24" from his team mate Frank Schleck. Bernhard Kohl is third at 1'33", Cadel Evans is fourth at 1'34" and Denis Menchov is fifth at 2'39".

Assuming that CSC maintains the status quo for the next two days, this Tour is theirs to lose. However in looking at the time trial skills of each rider, both Sastre and Schleck are going to have to produce something very special to keep Evans out of Yellow.

We have had Tours in the past where it has come down to the wire at the final time trial. But on those previous occasions it has been a battle between two men. This time we have four (if not five) riders as a possible winner of the 2008 Tour. We could well witness an historical finish with the time spread across the podium, and below, being the smallest ever.

If Henri Desgrange were with us today he would be extremely proud of his Tour. What would he have written about today's race? Probably something describing “triumph of mortal intelligence”.



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L'Alpe d'Huez
Height: 1,860 meters
Range/Area: Alps
Route: from Bourg d'Oisans 13.8 km - 8.5%, through 21 switchback turns
Category: HC
Stage 10 Lausanne (Sui) to Alpe d'Huez, 266 km Fausto Coppi (Ita)
Stage 9 Divonne les Bains to L'Alpe d'Huez, 258 km Joop Zoetemelk (Ned)
Stage 17 Chamonix to L'Alpe d'Huez, 184 km Hennie Kuiper (Ned)
Stage 16 St Etienne to L'Alpe d'Huez, 241 km Hennie Kuiper (Ned) *
* Kuiper was awarded the stage after Pollentier was DQ'd for doping.
Stage 17 Les Menuires to L'Alpe d'Huez, 167 km Joaquim Agostinho (Por)
Stage 18 L'Alpe d'Huez to L'Alpe d'Huez, 119 km Joop Zoetemelk (Ned)
Stage 17 Morzine to L'Alpe d'Huez, 230 km Peter Winnen (Ned)
Stage 16 Orcieres Merlette to L'Alpe d'Huez, 123 km Beat Breu (Sui)
Stage 17 La Tour du Pin to L'Alpe d'Huez, 223 km Peter Winnen (Ned)
Stage 17 Grenoble to L'Alpe d'Huez, 151 km Luis Herrera (Col)
Stage 18 Briançon to L'Alpe d'Huez, 163 km Bernard Hinault (Fra)
Stage 20 Villard de Lans to L'Alpe d'Huez, 201 km Federico Echave (Spa)
Stage 12 Morzine to L'Alpe d'Huez, 227 km Steven Rooks (Ned)
Stage 17 Briancon to L'Alpe d'Huez, 165 km Geert-Jan Theunisse (Ned)
Stage 11 St Gervais to L'Alpe d'Huez, 183 km Gianni Bugno (Ita)
Stage 17 Gap to L'Alpe d'Huez, 125 km Gianni Bugno (Ita)
Stage 14 Sestriere to L'Alpe d'Huez, 187 km Andy Hampsten (USA)
Stage 16 Valreas to L'Alpe d'Huez, 225 km Roberto Conti (Ita)
Stage 10 Aime La Plagne to L'Alpe d'Huez, 166 km Marco Pantani (Ita)
Stage 13 St Etienne to L'Alpe d'Huez, 203 km Marco Pantani (Ita)
Stage 10 Sestrieres (Ita) to L'Alpe d'Huez, 218 km Giuseppe Guerini (Ita)
Stage 10 Aix les Bains to L'Alpe d'Huez, 209 km Lance Armstrong (USA)
Stage 8 Sallanches to L'Alpe d'Huez, 219 km Iban Mayo (Spa)
Stage 16 Aple d'Huez ITT, 15.5 km Lance Armstrong (USA)
Stage 15 Gap to L'Alpe d'Huez, 187 km Frank Schleck (Lux)
Stage 17 Embrun to L'Alpe d'Huez, 210.5 km Carlos Sastre (Spa)




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