Conquering Alpe d’Huez is often top on the bucket list of anyone who has fallen in love with cycling. After Fausto Coppi won the first Tour de France stage to summit the fearsome climb in 1952, the snaking mountain road immediately established its legendary status.
Alpe d’Huez is infamous for its 21 brutal but beautiful hairpins, each equipped with signs detailing the winners of former champions to have won on the climb.
Nestled deep within the beautiful valley of Oisans in the French Alps, Alpe d’Huez is climbed by over 1000 riders per day during the summer months.
In this profile of Alpe d’Huez, we’ll be covering:
- History of Alpe d’Huez at the Tour de France
- Guide To Cycling Alpe d’Huez
- Alpe d’Huez: The Surrounding Area
Ready for the lowdown on cycling’s most infamous climb?
Let’s dive in!
History of Alpe d’Huez at the Tour de France
Alpe d’Huez originated as a commercial ski slope during the winter months, and in 1936 it installed the first version of the modern ski lifts we see today. It wasn’t until almost 20 years later that the head of the group of hotel owners, Georges Rajon, tempted the Tour de France to the Alpe d’Huez ski station.
Alpe d’Huez established itself amongst cycling folklore during its first appearance in the Tour de France in 1952. It was also the first year that Le Tour was filmed by TV crews on motorbikes, giving viewers a new and exciting perspective of this strenuous climb.
It was included in the Tour almost every year during the 1980s and ’90s. Featuring 31 times in the Tour de France as of 2022, this climb has often proved decisive in crowning the race’s overall winner.
Some of the most memorable moments include:
- Marco Pantani, Jan Ullrich, and Richard Virenque fight it out on Stage 13 of the 1997 Tour. It was Pantani who would win the stage with a record time.
- Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault cross the finish line, hand in hand. That year, Greg LeMond became the first American to win the Tour de France.
- Geraint Thomas wins in the yellow jersey. Although Alpe d’Huez has often proved pivotal in deciding the overall Tour champion, it wasn’t until 2018 that the stage would be one by a rider already wearing yellow. Thomas took the lead the day before with a surprise victory and crossed the line in style.
As you ascend this famous climb, you’ll come face to face with the 21 hairpins snaking up the mountain, each with names of former winners often marked from where they started their successful attack. Bathe in the nostalgia; perhaps this can prove a welcome distraction from the pain in your legs!
Alpe d’Huez is also known as the Dutch Mountain, with an army of fans from the Netherlands camping out on turn 7. Thousands of Dutch fans dressed in orange take over the corner, with a borderline crazy party atmosphere.
This name evolved from the plethora of Dutch riders who have won a Tour stage on Alpe d’Huez. In fact, eight out of the first Tour de France stages at Alpe d’Huez were won by Dutch riders, including Hennie Kuiper, Joop Zoetemelk, Peter Winnen, Steven Rooks, and Gert-Jan Theunisse.
In recent years, other bends have started the adoption process of particular fans, most notably the Irish at the tenth hairpin.
The Strava King of the Mountain is French pro Romain Bardet, with a breathtaking record of 36 minutes and 21 seconds.
The official in-competition record belongs to the mercurial Italian Marco Pantani who rode a blistering 37′ 35″ at the 1997 Tour – though this record will always have a substantial asterisk by it due to allegations of doping against Pantani and the peloton at large in the era.
Guide to cycling alpe d’Huez
Don’t start too quickly!
We assume you’ve already had the obligatory bowl of pasta the night before and that you are physically capable of conquering Alpe d’Huez. All you need now are some directions!
Here are the key stats for the climb, starting from Bourg-d’Oisans:
- Hairpins: 21
- Departure/Arrival Elevation: 2351-6100 feet / 717-1859 meters
- Altitude Gain: 3749 feet / 1143 meters
- Length: 8.89 miles / 14.3 km
- Average Gradient: 7.9%
- Maximum Gradient: 14%
- KOM: Marco Pantani, 37’35’’
Alpe d’Huez’s 7.9% average gradient over 14 km should not be underestimated. It may not be the longest nor have the sharpest gradients, but the going gets tough as soon as you pass go. It gets steep quickly, so let’s break it down for you.
Note that the hairpins are numbered in reverse when ascending, so Bend 21 is at the bottom, and Bend 1 is at the top.
After a gentle warm-up on the straight roads out of Bourg d’Oisans, you cross a roundabout and reach the foot of Alpe d’Huez. Keep your eyes peeled for the “Depart, KM” by the side of the road. Soon after crossing this starting line, you’ll be in the thick of it.
The climb starts at 737m, with the first fierce slope taking you to your first of 21 hairpins at 806m. The grind continues up to Bend 17 at 965m.
The first six bends up to La Garde are the toughest of the mountain, averaging around 11%.
Once you’ve passed Bend 17, you ride through the village of La Garde. Take a second to recover from the harsh gradients on the gentle 200 m slope crossing through the village at Bend 16.
By Bend 14, you can see the monument dedicated to Joaquim Agostinho, a former champion at Alpe d’Huez whose illustrious career ended tragically in 1984 at the Tour of the Algarve.
A few corners later you’ll reach the church of Saint-Ferréol. Gradients in this section are still a formidable 8-9%, but they’ll feel relatively more manageable than the bends you have already ticked off.
A slightly shallower gradient will bring you to Ribot d’en Bas, which means “down below.” Soon after, a steep slope will get you to Ribot d’en Haut (on top).
By Bend 12, you’re at 1161 m, and it ramps up again with a succession of turns; 11,10, and 9, which will put any rider’s physical fitness to the test.
If you need a water stop, there’s a fountain at Saint-Ferréol (1390 m – cemetery of Huez). From there, you’ll cross through Huez village.
As you head out of Huez, be prepared for a series of stinging bends which are as difficult as the first on the mountain. Only in the last three kilometers do you find some respite with average gradients of 5-6%.
Bend 1 to finish:
The climb to the apex of the resort ends with Bend 1 (1713 m) before you come out in Vieil Alpe and pass through the tunnel. The last kilometer is flanked by the bustling resort town of Alpe d’Huez.
Take it all in, as you will soon have finished the 21 most mythical bends in cycling!
If there’s anything left in the tank…
If you’ve somehow reached the top with life left in your legs, don’t get a pint just yet!
For those keen on finishing in a stunning place of untouched nature, carry on to Lac Besson.
Just pass the finish, up the road, and over the roundabout. Via the Col du Poutran (1996m), you continue over bumpy asphalt for an extra 5km and 275m elevation gain to the parking lot of Lac Besson (2080m). The views are truly stunning.
Alpe d’Huez is steeped in history and nostalgia. Soak it in whilst you are climbing. Famous Tour de France battles were won and lost on this mountain. Think of the sheer number of cyclists, from amateurs to pros, who have been before you!
Alpe d’Huez: The Surrounding area
The Oisans Valley is truly spectacular for cycling. If you are in the area for longer than a few days count yourself lucky.
Here are a few climbs nearby that also deserve a mention:
Col de Sarenne
If you want stunning views and to break from the crowds streaming up Alpe d’Huez, this detour from the main climb is superb.
Starting at the same point as the Alpe d’Huez route, tackle the climb until you reach La Garde. Once there, take a right onto the D211A.
Continue climbing until you meet a fork in the road. Take a right again down into Le Freney-d’Oisans. The final climb, or the beginning of the end, starts as you take a left through the village of Mizoën.
You would be remised to meet more than a handful of vehicles on this route. The serenity of this climb greatly contrasts with that of Alpe d’Huez, where most riders will experience relatively heavy traffic.
Col de la Croix-de-Fer / Col du Glandon
The Col de la Croix-de-Fer is a beast with extensive Tour pedigree, spanning 28.1 km and climbing 1537 vertical meters. The top of the ascent is located at 2067 meters above sea level – slow and steady wins the race on this one!
It’s another moderately quiet climb compared to Alpe d’Huez, with long stretches of road and panoramic views that elicit a feeling of spaciousness.
Expect exceptional scenery on this demanding and irregular climb. There’s plenty of opportunity for speedy descending if that’s what gets you going too!
Here is a route that includes a stint up Alpe d’Huez to take advantage of the stunning D44B descent. As you reach Les Travers, you will begin the ascent up to Col de la Croix-de-Fer.