Its the 20th anniversary since I first rode the l'Alpe d'Huez during the Tour de France. Today was my eighth ascent since that memorable ride up cycling's unoficial monument to climbing on a bike. The Alpe isn't the most beautiful climb, it isn't the most difficult time, but there is a curious amalgamation of history, location and those 21 pesky switchbacks that all mix together to create the most unique experience in cycling.
On every cyclists bucket list should be to climb the Alpe on the day of the Tour. Unless you have climbed the Alpe on a day when common sense and judgment are replaced by wanton craziness, you haven't experienced the full effect. It is nothing short of sheer madness and only those who can let down their guard and join in the celebration will fully enjoy all that is the Alpe on Tour day. The 8-mile, 3700' climb is difficult, especially the first two miles, but if you can get into the spirit of the day, you are almost carried uphill by the cheering fans and all the fanfare that awaits you around each corner.
Turn number 7 is appropriately named Holland corner because each year the Dutch set up a mini-village on both sides of the road and the fun and games go on for days before the Tour passes through. On race day, a corridor of orange-clad fans greet and cheer all cyclists and if you happen to be wearing the orange and blue of the home team, Rabobank, a hundred hands will appear to push you closer to the summit amidst deafening cheers.
I remember back in the early 90's when the Dutch called turn number 1 their home turf and set up shop for their beloved climbing ace Gert-Jan Thuenisse who won solo on the Alpe in 1989 and in doing so created a living legend for the Hollanders. Their chants of Theunisse's name went on, unabated, for 24 hours before his arrival and probably just as long after he had ridden past. But, the party has now moved down the mountain to a much better location for the festivities.
Every year, the Alpe seems to sprout more road graffiti for the current hot favorite. There were very few signs for Luxembourger Frank Schleck when he won on the Alpe in 2006. This year, his name, and that of his brother Andy's, are plastered all up and down the climb and Luxembourg flags are everywhere. One can only imagine how many residents of that country of only 450,000 people are on the slopes of the Alpe. There is a distinct possibility that the tiny country is empty!
What's up with all the crashing on descents? You have to feel for Garmin-Chipotle rider Christian Vandevelde, after getting dropped with about 5 miles to go on the Bonnette, he limited his losses to only 30 seconds at top then crashed on the descent to Jausiers and lost another two minutes to the leaders. Christian is a very good descender, but when you are dropped and the yellow jersey or a podium place is on the line, sometimes you feel you need to take risks on the descent to make up time. It is an awful position to be in, and sometimes, as happened yesterday, a bad situation becomes worse.
On today's stage to l'Alpe d'Huez no fewer than four of the Team Columbia's riders hit the pavement. Again, these guys are very good descenders, but sometimes mistakes happen.
Team CSC Saxo Bank continues to put on a racing clinic. Buy the book and the DVD! To see Fabian Cancellara drive the leaders up the second to last climb, the Croix de Fer, and drop a bunch of noted climbers was nothing short of incredible. The fact that he chased back on on the descent so he could continue to drive it to the base of l'Alpe d'Huez was simply beyond words. I want that guy and Jens Voigt on my team, big time.
The final climb to the summit of the Alpe d'Huez was some of the best mano y mano bike racing we have seen in the Tour in years. Team CSC Saxo Bank pulled an incredible sleight of hand. While everyone was watching the Schlecks and expecting the team to defend the yellow jersey, they sent their best time trialist up the road in an attempt to carve out enough time on Cadel Evans to keep the maillot Jaune all the way to a Paris. That move was clear when CSC pulled their lead team car from behind the Schlecks and took it up to Carlos.
Evans appeared to not realize what was happening until the final 4km when he was forced to go to the front and try to peg back time on Sastre. In the end, Sastre has 1'30" over Evans which is probably not enough to keep yellow, but will probably put him on his first ever podium at the Tour.
Vandevelde recovered brilliantly from all the drama of yesterday's stage and was clearly in the mix and not just hanging on for dear life on the ascent to the Alpe. He is totally capable of uncorking a big effort in the final 50km time trial and climbing onto the podium. Chapeau!
In his post race interview with the press Carlos Sastre said that the team was originally going to start driving the pace on the Col du Galibier but decided to wait until the Croix de Fer because there was a big headwind on the Galibier.
Regarding his attack at the base of the Alpe, he said he decided to attack from the start as everyone was tired from the efforts of the team over the Croix de Fer. He wanted to go early on the climb so the others would not be in a good rythmn and he wanted to surprise them as quickly as possible.
When asked if he thinks his 1'30" advantage is enough to hold off Cadel Evans he replied that for now, he just wants to celebrate the yellow jersey with his team and enjoy the moment. He will worry about the time trial later.