We are counting down the most legendary climbs, the ones that all riders need to tackle once in their lives. Check out number 5 – Col du Tourmalet.
Most people dont know the intricate details of the other legendary cycling climbs but we all know there are 21 hairpins to the top of Alpe d’Huez. This is cycling’s most famous climb and any time it features in the Tour de France, it is always the most watched stage with huge crowds partying on the mountain for days just to see their heroes struggle past for a few seconds. There are definitely prettier, more remote climbs with better views. But Alpe d’Huez is unique and there is an excitement to climbing this mountain that nowhere else can match.
First seen in the Tour in 1952 and featured 29 times since, the climb brings a spectacle quite different to the remote mountain passes of the Galibier, Tourmalet and Izoard. It feels like the road is there just for us, designed to maximise the drama of the Tour. Each corner has the name of a stage winner on it and because you are turning a corner every three of four minutes, there is little time in your mind to think of anything other than the climb and history of the place.
In summer, the mountain is full every day with riders taking on their dream climb and the cafes at the top are packed with tired and happy cyclists. There are lots of events up the mountain include Tour stages, weekly time trials and the original mountain sportive – La Marmotte.
Situated in the Oisans region, this is also known as the six valleys from the base of the climb in Bourg d’Oisans you can climb in many different directions. Alpe d’Huez is a vibrant winter resort and has all the comforts of a purpose built tourist town set in a stunning spot in the mountains. Back down in the valley, Bourg is a small town that buzzes with cyclists for whole summer season.
Stay in – Either Bourg d’Oisans or Alpe d’Huez
Recommended Bike Friendly Hotel – A few options, in Alpe d’Huez Hotel le Pic Blanc is excellent. Back in Bourg, Cycling Ascents is the place to stay.
Nearest Airports – Lyon (LYS) is just over 1hr30 away. There are more flights to Geneva (GVA) which is a 2hr30 drive.
There are other climbs up to the ski resort from other sides but there is only one way up the classic Alpe d’Huez climb. The start is just outside Bourg d’Oisans and marked by a line in the road and straight away the gradients are steep. The first three hairpins are probably the hardest with gradients of 9 to 10%. This means you gain height quickly and before long you have nice views of the valley below.
There are a couple of real benefits of all the hairpins. Firstly, it gives you a natural countdown and focus for the ride and secondly the corners are almost flat so by going wide around them you can gain real momentum for the straight section. After the first six hairpins there is a short straight taking you to the next tight turns up to the village of Huez. The gradient never dips far below 8% and one by one you tick off the hairpins counting down from 21. Heading through Dutch corner is a real highlight, if you are lucky to ride in the days before a Tour stage there is not just a party atmosphere, there is a full blown party complete with disco balls, djs and of course thousands of drunk Dutch fans.
In between Huez and the top the route is lush green and picturesque with the sound of cowbells accompanying you. The finish is visible for the last few hairpins but the gradient do not let up so digging in for a quick finish is easier said then done. As you go past hairpin 1, there is just one straight left to the finish. As you come into town you will see the finish line drawn into the road right next to a podium where you can take a celebratory selfie.
Distance – 13.2km
Average Gradient – 8.1%
From Bourg d’Oisans, there are numerous famous climbs. Due to the length of these climbs and limited passes over the mountains, a lot of these rides are mostly out and backs or long loops.
A perfect practice for Alpe d’Huez is Les Deux Alpes – 9.8km at 6.2%
From here, you soon hit the long drag of the Col du Lautaret – 34.1km at 3.8% where a sharp left turn takes you up the mighty Col du Galibier – 8.5km at 6.9%.
Going the other way from Bourg, you hit the Col du Glandon – 24.1km at 4.8% and then on to the Croix de Fer.
The other famous way up to Alpe d’Huez is the Col de Sarenne – 12.7km at 7.5%. This is a more remote route which was featured in the Tour de France in 2013.
If the thought of a 13km climb that rarely dips below 8% scares you, we recommend avoiding La Marmotte. This is the original sportive and has been running since 1982. The route is a punishing 174km going over the Glandon, Telegraph and Galibier before finishing with an ascent of Alpe d’Huez. Over 7,000 riders compete in this each year from all over the world and is a massive test for even the best climbers.