l'Alpe d'Huez and les 2 Alpes

l'Alpe d'Huez is probably the most famous of all Tour climbs.  This fame, really, is in spite of its relatively recent inclusion in the Tour - it was first used in 1952 - and its moderate total elevation gain of 1100 meters.  It is however a fairly steep climb, and when included in the Tour is always a stage finish.  It is not the most difficult of climbs.  I managed it in 54 minutes.  Fausto Coppi rode it in 44 minutes in 1952 - on 46x21 gearin, and Marco Pantani managed it in 38 minutes and change a few years ago.  l'Alpe is famous for its 21 virages (hairpins), which starting from the bottom are numbered in reverse order so that the first hairpin that you negotiate when making the climb is numbered 21 and the last 1.  Each hairpin is marked by a sign that gives the hairpin number, its elevation, and the name of a past winner of a Tour stage that finished at the top of the climb.  

The road climbs from a small village called le Bourg d'Oisans, which is situated in a narrow, steep walled glacial valley cut through folded limestones and slates, to a large ski station called l'Alpe d'Huez.  The road follows a somewhat improbable route out of the valley - hence the numerous switchbacks.  The resort is perched on a broad, relatively flat and gently sloped plateau of sorts.  The plateau may be an uplifted erosional surface - but thats just a guess from the blue.  It at least has a bit of the feel of an uplifted erosional surface.

The climb to l'Alpe d'Huez is also noted for its abrupt start: upon turning off the main highway, the road covers a couple hundred meters of flat valley before suddenly rearing up onto a long steep ramp, about 11%, to the 21st hairpin (the lowest hairpin), and an equally steep but shorter ramp to the 20th virage.  Together, these probably make up the longest notably steep portion of the climb.  I hit the climb nicely warmed up, on moderately fresh legs (I had one rest day since riding the Croix de Fer - Galibier loop), and well fueled with espresso.  I stood on a 39x23 up the difficult ramp to the 21st virage and watched the vertical ascent rate on my Suunto climb to 24 vertical meters per minute - a rate that I feared I could not maintain.  So I sought discretion in the form of my 26 tooth cog as I chugged towards the 20th virage.  Soon, however, the road leveled a tad and I was back down on the 23 with the altimeter pegged on 20 vertical meters per minute all the while.  The climb eases in places and I got down on the 21 and even the 19, but was back up suffering on the 23 on a steep section between the 3rd and 4th virages.  

There were numerous other people climbing the road to l'Alpe d'Huez - it definetly qualifies as a tourist attraction.  Its frequent inclusion in the Tour de France - at no small cost - generates quite a lot of publicity for it.  Some were riding at their limit, others were taking their time and making a day of it.  

The climb to les 2 Alpes is less steep and has less vertical gain - 720 m measured from the turn off the highway to the Col du Lautaret, 925 if measured from Bourg d'Oisans (but there is a 2 km descent between the Bourg and les 2 Alpes).  The climb is mostly about 7% in gradient and can be ridden on moderately large gears.  I rode both l'Alpe d'Huez and les 2 Alpes the same day, and thought it made for a very nice ride.  Including a long warm-up before hitting l'Alpe and spending a fair amount of time soft pedaling around both the ski stations, I was on the bike for about 5 hours and climbed nearly 8000 vertical feet.    

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The marker at the lowest hairpin.
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The lowest hairpin, viewed from above.
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The 'official' summit.  Finding the top of the climb was a bit confusing for me.  There is a vast resort at the top of the climb, and after rounding the last hairpin, you are faced with a number of intersections and choices of directions to ride.
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Andy Hampsten's sign on hairpin 5.  As I climbed l'Alpe, my photo was taken by a professional who handed me a business card so that I could purchase a copy if I liked - just like sports photography companies commonly do at marathons and  some bike races.  The photographer normally positions himself near hairpin 5, and if you purchase the photo it comes packaged in a folder imprinted with Andy's sign.
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This is the very bottom of the climb to les 2 Alpes, just meters from the main highway.  The road was covered with Tour graffiti, from the stage that passed through here just days earlier.
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Here is some particularly good Tour grafitti that I found nearer to the ski station.  It appears that some Germans were hoping Zabel would win the green jersey again in 2002; well, at least they were 2-for-3 in their predictions of the winners of the Tour's main classifications.

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This is the village of Bourg d'Oisans.  I stayed in the Hotel de Milan , on the left.  I very much enjoyed my stay in the town, but I may try a different hotel next time I visit.  The only redeeming quality of my room was the view from the window, which was of the magnificently folded limestone that you can see in the background of this photograph.  
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The profile of l'Alpe d'Huez, slightly modified from the Atlas des Cols des Alps.  The gradient (given in percent) of each one kilometer section of the climb is noted along the profile.  The positions of the hairpins are marked also.
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The profile of les 2 Alpes, slightly modified from the Atlas des Cols des Alps.  The gradient (given in percent) of each one kilometer section of the climb is given along the profile.  The profile covers the route from Bourg d'Oisans to les 2 Alpes; the turn from the main highway, which continues on to the Col du Lautaret and Briancon, onto the road to the ski station is at kilometer 14.    

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