IN COLLEGE I RODE ALPE D'HUEZ DAILY. To everyone else it was just the ho-hum two-mile climb up to our Northern California campus, but to me it was The Alpe. It was the Tour de France, and my situation was do-or-die. I may have been playing the cycling equivalent of air guitar, but I was good at it. My tattered T-shirt became the yellow jersey, and every book-toting commuter on the road before me made a target to be caught and dropped. True, I never claimed the maillot jaune. But I was never late for class.
Technically, the real Alpe d'Huez route is just a road, 8.5 miles linking the valley town of Bourg d'Oisans in the French Alps with the ski village at 6,102 feet. The bottom-to-top altitude gain, however, is a vertiginous 3,678 feet, parceled out in 21 whiplash-tight switchbacks at a hefty average gradient of 7.9 percent. Alpe d'Huez is cycling's Everest.
This year the climb may also be the last barrier between Lance Armstrong and a record sixth triumph in the world's most famous bike race. "It's a pivotal day and probably the day that will decide the Tour," the 32-year-old American said after a presentation in Paris that outlined the 2004 race route. Why? On July 21, four stages from the conclusion of the 20-stage race, the Alpe d'Huez ride will be an individual time trialflinging cyclists one by one into a daunting race against the clockfor the first time in the Tour's 91-year history.
What exactly is the American in for? There's only one way to find out: Go. And take your bike.
The hub of the southeastern Isère region of France, a 4,617-square-mile roadie's playground blessed with one of the best mountain skylines on earthand the ideal staging area for a challenging cycling vacationis the animated city of Grenoble, population 157,000. Easily accessible in three hours via bullet train from Paris, Grenoble lies relatively low, held prisoner at 702 feet by three ranges of the Alps (the southwestern Vercors, northern Chartreuse, and eastern Belledonne), which spike to 9,770 feet.
Despite the thunder of its reputation, Alpe d'Huez is not the sole climb in Isère. Pick a road, any road, from Grenoble and you've hit the Alpine jackpot: snow-capped spires, immaculate mountain villages, and cow-studded plateaus with valley views aptly described as breathtakingmostly because the terrain is vertical. But if you bonk, refueling is just a quick coast to town.
A stellar rideand a perfect warm-up for an assault on Alpe d'Huezis Chamrousse, a ski station at 5,414 feet, situated 18 miles from downtown Grenoble. Chamrousse staged the majority of the alpine-skiing events at the 1968 Winter Olympics, but it also has Tour de France significance: The last time the Tour featured an uphill time trial, it was here, in 2001, and Armstrong won the stage.
The U.S. Postal Service team leader, however, isn't taking anything for granted. "Alpe d'Huez has nothing to do with Chamrousse," Armstrong said. He's right. Chamrousse's ascent is taxing but gradual, while Alpe d'Huez is a wall, a psychotic procession of cruel switchbacks that Armstrong will nonetheless gobble in about 38 minutes (meaning he'll average more than 13 miles per hour), according to Chris Carmichael, the rider's longtime personal coach.
Ready to ride? First take Carmichael's advice (see training-plan, page 3), and then drive east 33 miles from Grenoble on the N91 road to Bourg d'Oisans. The N91 is a rideable highway, but it's traffic-congested. Better to rent a car in Grenoble and make Alpe d'Huez a day trip.
To begin the climb, pedal N91 about half a mile east from Bourg d'Oisans and hang a left onto the D211. Within 50 feet a crosswalk plays the part of start ribbon; to its right, a broad white sign marks the ascent's opening salvo. The finish of the climb, also marked, is at the end of Avenue du Rif Nel in Alpe d'Huez, the bustling village near the mountain's top. Mortal riders should allow at least two hours to cycle up and down.
The road is open year-round, but wait till mid-April, when winter weather risks recede. Each of the 21 switchbacks is marked with a signpost (emblazoned with the name of an Alpe d'Huez stage winner), counting down from 21 at the bottom to switchback 1 up top. One bit of caution for your morale: After signpost 16, the road levels onto a short plateau, granting a first glance at the distant summit; the wicked scar zigzagging skyward taunts that the worst is yet to come.
Catch your breath at the summit, but don't leave without visiting the tourist office, which issues diplomas to all who survive the climb (and fork out $1.25). Mine says I did it in 15 minutes and 26 secondsbut that's because the staff will write in whatever time you tell them. Even if it's obvious air guitar.
Maybe Alpe d'Huez doesn't have to be that tough. Chris Carmichael, coach to Lance Armstrong and head honcho at Carmichael Training Systems (www.trainright.com), shares three secrets. For his entire eight-weeks-to-Alpe-d'Huez plan, visit http://proshop2.trainright.com/outside/.
1. Pedal Quickly.
Maintaining momentum is the secret to climbing fast. A gear that keeps you spinning at a cadence of 90-95 rpm will prevent you from bogging down if the road pitch suddenly changes.
2. Choose Your Line.
Hugging the inside line through corners looks like a shortcut, but that's where the pitch is steepest. Stick to the middle or outside of each switchback, where the rise is shallower. True, it's added distance, but you'll preserve a steady climbing rhythm, which will save you at the finish.
3. Ease In. Starting fast is the biggest mistake racers make in uphill time trials. There's no place to let up, so if you go anaerobic from the get-go, you'll be cooked well before the finish.
GO WITH AN OUTFITTER
Many tour operators hit Alpe d'Huez during the race, affording you a ringside seat. An eight-day trip with VéloSport Vacations ($4,695$5,995; 800-988-9833, www.velovacations.com) lets you ride Alpe d'Huez the day before the Tour, then watch the race at the finish. Warning: Everybody wants to see Lance chase win number six, and VéloSport stockpiles reservations 18 months in advance. Call now for possible cancellations or to book for 2005according to Armstrong, likely his last go at the Tour de France.
ACCESS + RESOURCES
TGV bullet trains travel daily from Paris to Grenoble. Carrying on a bike is awkward, so send it ahead. For $61, the SNCF (France's Amtrak) will pick up your bike at your hotel and deliver it to Grenoble. Call baggage service at 011-33-825-845-845. In Grenoble, stay at Tulip Inn Hotel d'Angleterre (doubles, $109$186; 011-33-476-87-37-21, www.hotel-angleterre.fr). The regal rooms have views of the mountains and the manicured Place Victor Hugo. Reserve a spot for your bike in the storage room. Just outside Grenoble, in Gières, Cycles Routens (011-33-476-89-43-15, www.routens.com) sells road-racing bikes, and the service department has a solid reputation.