There are many iconic roads in cycling: temples where epic battles have been fought, and where thousands – if not millions – of people pay homage to their sporting heroes yearly.
Among these mystical arenas, only a few can match the fascinating power of the Alpe d'Huez. Few too are as challenging as the climb up the Alpe. But what makes it so difficult? Is it just reverence for this 13km, uphill road, or is there something objectively brutal encrypted in its 21 notorious hairpins?
We think it's a mix of both...
I've climbed the Alpe a few times now (including almost three times in three days during Haute Route Alpe d'Huez), and every time, I've experienced awe when I was approaching its ramps.
Even driving up the road from Bourg-d'Oisans (750 m) to the 1,815 metre summit of the Alpe is intimidating, as, in the first kilometres, the road climbs up quickly, and you see the valley disappearing even more quickly under your feet.
Even if you don't know anything about the gradients and you try to approach without prior prejudice, the physical presence of Alpe d'Huez is intimidating. If you then stare at the impervious mountains in the backdrop, the picture is complete, eliciting fear and respect simultaneously.
On top of the natural majesty of the climb, there is, of course, a long history of incredible sporting feats associated with this climb. One that adds an extra layer of trepidation and admiration to the Alpe d'Huez.
The Tour de France first used the Alpe in 1952 (this year is the 70th anniversary), and on that occasion, a certain Fausto Coppi was the first man to engrave his name in the history of this natural cycling monument.
The list of great winners is long and illustrious: Joop Zoetelmek, Hennie Kuiper, Peter Winnen, Luis Herera, Bernard Hinault, Gianni Bugno, Andy Hampsten, Marco Pantani, Lance Armstrong (whoops, no, he never won!), Frank Schleck, Pierre Rolland, and Geraint Thomas, who's still the first rider to have won atop Alpe d'Huez wearing the yellow jersey.
The long list of battles and winners on this road makes it even scarier to approach. If it was hard for these athletes, how on earth would an amateur feel climbing it?
The climb in numbers
But of course, the Alpe also is objectively hard to climb, for several reasons. The first are its length, gradients, and vertical elevation.
From the bottom to the top (at least where the Tour finishes), the road is 13.2 km long, with 1,142 metres of vertical elevation and 21 numbered switchbacks. The hairpin count starts from the top, so you always know how many you have left when you go up. If I'm honest, I haven't yet decided whether that's good or bad.
For that 13.2 km, the average gradient is 7.9%, with maximum ramps of 14% right at the start (the average for the first 1.5 km is around 10%).
So, even if the Alpe is not as long as other climbs in the region or of other Grand Tours (like the 24 km of the Col de la Croix de Fer), nor as steep as the steepest ones (like Angliru or Zoncolan), it is still long and steep enough to do damage in a Tour stage and the GC. And, of course, it remains an undisputed challenge for any amateur.
But why exactly? Another reason is hidden in the way the route unfolds.
A perfect blend
As we've already mentioned, the steepest part of the climb comes first (bends 21 to 17). So if you look at the glass half-full, that's great news because it means what comes next is easier, right? Yes and no.
First, what comes after is more manageable, but it's not flat or easy per se. Sure, there are some pauses here and there: the switchbacks, for instance, or a section after the fifth bend and the last km. However, all in all, the climb is constant from the bottom to the top.
That means you'll pay the consequences if you burn your matches early and the result is that the finish line will never arrive fast enough.
The Alpe is a tricky route to climb because the ramps get a bit more gentle after the first hard section. Here (by the village of La Garde-en-Oisans), people decide to either slow down, keep the tempo constant or even increase the pace.
But then bends 15 and 14 pick up again, 13-12-11-10 a little less, but 9 and 8 increase one more time. So, now you get it, the Alpe d'Huez is not super long, but that 13 km never flattens. That's why, if you want to set a PB, or win a Tour stage, pacing the Alpe is crucial.
If you're targeting your best time up the Alpe (or you want to get to the top), the most important thing is to start hard but not too hard, or you'll blow up. You want to push some decent watts even at the start, but you still want to save some for the top (last 4 km) to go full gas and gain more time when the road is a bit less steep.
The idea is to start the first ramps close to your lactate threshold (or FTP) and then increase the more you advance, little by little. Because there are plenty of ramps where if you go too hard, you won't be able to recover, and you'll end up losing time.
The ideal pacing strategy would be to get on that final kilometre with enough energy to dig deep and go above the threshold for as much as possible. But throughout the climb, don't forget to eat and get some carbs in. As mentioned, the Alpe is not super long, but it's long enough to put you on the ropes.
The Alpe is also the perfect road to perform a proper one-hour long FTP (or Anaerobic Threshold, or Lactate Threshold) test. And if you can ride it in an hour or less, that's a fantastic time (36 minutes 50 seconds is the dubious record set by Marco Pantani in 1995).
But even around 1h15 and 1h30 is still a decent time, and the effort would be long enough to calculate your real-world climbing thresholds.
You can decide to run the test for one hour from the bottom and then go easy for the final km, or if you ride faster than that, go full-on to the top.
Other elements that make it hard
Of course, other reasons can make the Alpe even scarier and more challenging than it is. For example, if the temperatures are hot like they are in July when the Tour climbs here, the climb feels much more demanding even if you pace well. Luckily, there are some fountains here and there to cool down.
Then, there are those bends and the kilometre marks. Yes, they provide a little pause in an otherwise steady climb, but they're a constant reminder of how long (or little) you have pedalled and how long you have to the top. Depending on the day, they can become your closest ally or your fiercest enemy.
Finally, for professionals, the climb is hardly presented as a standalone mountain time trial (the last time was in 2004). This year, for example, they get here with 3,500 metres of climbing – plus a dozen stages – in the legs. The breakaway will push hard for the 150 km before the final ascent, and the GC contenders will try to attack to shake up the ranking, get points for the KOM jersey, or win one of the most iconic stages in the WorldTour.
But no matter your cycling level, the greatest thing about Alpe d'Huez is that the climb will always be the same for everyone riding it. Long story short: Alpe d'Huez is hard because is the Alpe d'Huez. And it remains one for the bucket list.