In the world of cycling, there is no other venue quite like L’Alpe d’Huez during the Tour de France. Hundreds of thousands of fans from all over the world descend on this mecca of cycling whenever the Tour comes to the mountain, which is famous for its 21 hairpin bends on the road up towards the summit. And Thursday’s 18th stage of the 100th Tour included two separate climbs of the legendary peak, further increasing the excitement among fans.
It was estimated that between 700,000 and one million fans lined the road from the town of Bourg d’Oisans up to the finish, at an altitude of 1,850 meters, and access to the road had been closed to cars for days before the race arrived. The sheer number of fans made it difficult just to drive up the road, while members of the peloton could be seen pushing over-enthusiastic fans out of the way as they battled to clear themselves a path.
As is usually the case, the most impressive point on the whole climb came at the seventh bend from the summit, which has become known as Dutch Corner. The Netherlands has a fine tradition of success on the Alpe d’Huez, with Hennie Kuiper, Joop Zoetemelk and Peter Winnen all having won stages atop the mountain on two separate occasions.
In contrast, Christophe Riblon’s success on Thursday was only the third by a French rider there.
One Dutch fan described the mountain as the Netherlands’ equivalent of the Eiffel Tower, and Dutch fans clad all in orange had been partying for days before the peloton arrived. The degree of fervor had been made all the greater thanks to the success of Dutch duo Laurens ten Dam and Bauke Mollema on this year’s Tour, with the latter sparking a new craze in the country, known as Mollemania. Fans desperate to see the Belkin rider would have been disappointed when he eventually came home 6min 13sec behind stage winner Riblon to lose more than two and a half minutes on overall leader Chris Froome and drop to sixth overall. “I didn’t have a good day, my legs were terrible,” said Mollema, who added that he had not recovered sufficiently from Wednesday’s time-trial.
The huge Dutch contingent may not have given Mollema the hoped-for boost, but another of his countrymen, Tom Veelers, admitted that their presence helped spur him on. “As a Dutchman, like for everyone else, it’s really crowded and there are really a lot of people, but it is amazing how many were cheering for me and just how cool it is to ride up L’Alpe d’Huez,” said the Argos rider, who had never previously taken on the climb in the Tour. “We don’t gain a second or two thanks to them, we gain a minute or two.”
Meanwhile, race director Jean-Francois Pescheux admitted that he hopes never to lose the degree of intimacy between spectators and rider that makes L’Alpe d’Huez so special. “The Dutch have two riders doing well in the GC in ten Dam and Mollema and so maybe they had a bit more of a party than usual, and it was a bit more nervy than usual,” he said. “It was difficult to get past at that point. “It’s not just the Dutch. There are people from everywhere. The advantageof a finish like that is that you can touch the riders, but that is the problem too.
“We must not be forced to erect barriers all the way up the mountain because then it would no longer be L’Alpe d’Huez.”