Cycling has a rich history and the history of the Tour de France has to be the most frequently referenced of it all. History is respected in cycling, and the Tour de France loves to publicise it, so it stands to reason that as obsessive cyclists we could do to know at least a little about cycling history. Widely regarded everywhere outside of Italy as the biggest and most important bicycle race in the world; the Tour de France has made legends of the men who’ve taken part, surviving the gruelling distances and testing terrain. Nowhere is the terrain more testing than in the mountains of the Alps and the Pyrenees. From these landscapes come legendary passes that surely all cyclists want to conquer: Ventoux, Col d’Aubisque, Tourmalet, Galibier, Col d’Izoard and so many more. From the array of legendary mountain passes made famous by the tour, one stands out as being the most iconic spectacle of all, Alpe d’Huez. Not the highest, not the longest or most scenic but the most iconic. Just a quick google of the words “Dutch corner” shows scenes of such energy and chaos it’s hard to imagine a bike race making it up those roads at all. Love it or hate it there are few that would disagree the crowds on the Alpe are spectacular.
This book takes you through the history of how this climb came to be. The main focus of the book is on the second time it is used in the tour, in 1976. Previously used in 1952 the summit finish stage was won by Fausto Coppi, but without any significant rivals present to challenge him the summit finish was not heralded as a great racing format. Upon it’s eventual return to the Alpe in 1976 the racing did not disappoint and it is every detail of this battle that connects the story throughout the book. Interspersed with facts and relevant background information it is clearly a very well researched book. The level of detail helping to paint a complete picture of the riders that helped to embed this mountain in the imagination of the watching public. Mixed within is a lot of local history including information about the church, whist not as enthralling as the cycling it does all seem relevant to the story being told.
There are some interesting facts, interviews with more recent winners and references to modern day cycling. Short stories of other ascents of Alpe d’Huez help to paint the continued relevance of the mountain to the Tour de France’s GC riders (General Classification – overall winner) right up to present day. It is very well written and clearly very well researched. Before I’d stated reading I did not know what to expect from a book about a single climb. Having ridden Alpe d’Huez myself I found much of the description to be particularly engaging, with a few “yeah I thought that” moments. If you haven’t ridden it and have no plans to then it might not have the same relevance to you, but the general description will help in understanding the challenge posed to riders racing up it.
This is not a light-hearted “holiday” read. It’s enjoyable and very interesting but it does take a degree of concentration to keep track of how the book develops. Whilst it was enjoyable to read throughout, the overwhelming feeling of being educated is just about level with the feeling of entertainment. I should point out that 1976 was before I was born, so for the main story it was not a case of recalling the relevant riders from my memory, rather forming them from written media and various YouTube clips and photos (many contained). Rider names and nationalities should be memorised along with their DS (Director Sportive). So from my perspective I would recommend, for anyone interested in reading this, that they have at least some familiarity with some of cycling’s history, as the whole story flows much better if you can place each rider correctly in your mind. For many people with expansive knowledge of cycling in the 1970s this whole book will read like a nostalgic dream.
Tour de France obsessive? history buff? Dutch? You’ll love it.
New to cycling? Never heard of Eddy Merckx? Think Greg LeMond might be French? You might find it a bit hard work, but you’ll definitely learn something.