Last Thursday’s Stage 18 of the 2013 Tour de France was 172.5 km (107.2 mi), from the town of Gap to Alpe d’Huez. This year’s route required the riders to climb up to the ski resort Alpe d’Huez twice, accending 1124 m (3687 ft) in 13.8 km (8.5 mi), an 8.1% average grade. The climb to Alp D’Huez is categorized Hors catégorie, a French term used in cycle races (most notably, the Tour de France) to designate a climb that is “beyond categorization”, an incredibly tough climb. (Wikipedia)
I remember going up Alpe d’Huez in the 1991 Tour de France. I was working for ABC. I took a couple of trains from Paris to Albi. Because the roads were closed, I had to lug my cameras and bag about a mile from the train station to the finish line of the stage where all the team and media trailers were parked. The producers got me a car to take me to the hotel. All I remember about the drive was the driver making like it was a rally car, drifting around the switchbacks that ended up at an alpine hotel.
I went down to eat dinner by myself, and one of the producers, Katherine Love, was kind enough to come over and sit with me to tell me the plan. I was going to ride (in a car with a French driver and navigator) with the ABC camera guy.
The weather at the start of the Gap to Alp d’Huez stage bright and sunny. Our plan was to stop at a great place to get a shot of the peloton, and then try to stick to the backstreets and get ahead of the peloton. This involved a lot of high speed driving through very small towns while the driver and navigator consulted a Michelin map trying to find open roads that were parallel to the stage. I’ll readily admit that there were more than a handful of times that I was scared. Driving through these tiny towns at breakneck speed wasn’t exactly a calm experience. If someone popped out from behind a wall, they would have been instantly splattered on the front of our car like an innocent deer.
All the high speed driving must have taken a toll on our car, because it broke. That left the cameraman and I to find our own way to the finish. Our driver flagged down a carload of Gendarmerie Nationale and they gave a ride to the base of the climb to Alpe d’Huez. I can confirm that those French sirens really sound like they do in the movies because we were whizzing along with sirens and flashing lights in a real Peugeot 404 station wagon. Thinking about it now, it seems unlikely that it would have been a 404 but I distinctly remember it because Emily had one.
When the Gendarmerie dropped us off, the cameraman quickly hitched a ride with another camera car that had no room for me. The Gendarmerie recognized my plight and just in time, flagged the “voiture balai” – the broom wagon – the last vehicle in the peloton that picks up riders that drop out of the race. That was my ride to the top of the Alp d’Huez. I moved to the rear (it-s really just a 20 or so passenger van) past a couple of riders that were already sitting in the front. Even though we were far behind the peloton we still had to trail behind the last riders, so it was slow progress to the top.
The crowds were just like on TV, packing both sides of the road four or five deep. With no restraints holding fans back, they would run, wave, push and scream encouragement just inches from the riders. Due to the size of the van, the crowd had to quickly back away from the center of the road. It was like an icebreaker except we were breaking through a sea of people.