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How We Saw Lance on the Alpe d’Huez

by ExperiencePlus! - Tuesday, July 27, 2010 travel-stories

How We Saw Lance on the Alpe d’Huez

by Rick Price

One of the most frequent compliments we receive at ExperiencePlus! is how well planned and organized our tours are. Customers often comment on the fluidity of tours and our attention to detail. Just as the lighting technicians and the stage director are behind the scenes in a theater production, we have "backstage" staff at ExperiencePlus! who tend to all the details so that you can experience a region or country to the fullest. Our phenomenal experiences at the Alpe d’Huez during the 2004 Race exemplify the ultimate in challenges we face in delivering quality experiences to our customers.

 Planning for the Alpe d’Huez

ExperiencePlus! tours to The Race 2004 were in high demand and sold out by last January. We had five groups of customers in the Alps to see several stages of The Race. The attraction was the first-ever time trial up the ten-mile climb to the ski resort of the Alpe d’Huez. Other attractions included critical mountain stages in the Alps that most people thought would determine the winner of the Tour. Everybody, it seemed, wanted to be there.

 

The resort town of  L'Alpe d'Huez on Race 2004 race day.  Note the famous chapel rising just above the mountain skyline in the top center of the photograph.

The resort town of L’Alpe d’Huez on Race 2004 race day. Note the famous chapel rising just above the mountain skyline in the top center of the photograph.

 Our challenge was to deliver the once-in-a-lifetime experience of seeing these critical stages of The Race to our customers. Our job was to devise a plan that would negotiate the expected one million people on the mountain, road closures and bottle-necked lines at the ski-lifts while cycling this historic climb.

Our tour groups were based in two places in the Alps: one in Grenoble, northwest of the Alpe d’Huez, and another in Les Deux Alpes, a ski resort to the south. Beginning in two different places required two separate plans to get to the Alpe d’Huez.

Between November 2003 and July 2004 our staff visited the Alpe d’Huez a total of five times scouting out a strategy, and indentifying local informants to help us with a plan for July 21st. One local resident agreed to provide roped off viewing space for us on the grassy slope in front of her condo between the last two switch-backs on the mountain (turns one and two).

The Alpe d’Huez is a ski resort that developed in the second half of the 20th century. It sits high on the slopes of "les Grandes Rousse" a small mountain massif which is a part of the Dauphiné alps. Just down the mountain is the original farm village of Huez which gave its name to this famous mountain. Three roads lead to the Alpe d’Huez: the primary road which was to be the race course and two secondary roads, one each on the north and south side of the mountain. The south-side road would work to get our groups from Deux-Alpes up the mountain and another road from Villard Reculas might work for our Grenoble groups if it were not closed by the gendarmes. From Villard Reculas we could get to the heart of Huez where we could secure bikes and then hike up the mountain to the Alpe d’Huez.

I decided that I would drive a rental van up the night before, camp on the north side of the mountain and call in reports as necessary. If the authorities did close the road, I would lead our group in on the various hiking trails that crossed the ski slopes to the Alpe d’Huez. We had identified these trails and knew that it would only be a three or four-kilometer hike (about 2.5 miles).

 Putting Plans in Motion

 

Lance Armstrong wearing the leader's yellow jersey  and surrounded by his USPS teammates the day after the 2004 Race  on the Alpe d'Huez time trial.

 

Lance Armstrong wearing the leader’s yellow jersey and surrounded by his USPS teammates the day after the 2004 Race on the Alpe d’Huez time trial.

 

While Lance took the yellow jersey at Villard-de-Lans on July 20th I was bound for the Alpe d’Huez. We had less than 12 hours to finalize the details on how to get our Grenoble groups up the mountain.

I found myself in an Alpine traffic jam at 6 p.m. that evening. As a geographer addicted to maps, I had acquired all possible maps of the area and studied them as I waited in traffic. As I had thought, there weren’t many options available.

A tiny tertiary road to a gravel quarry was indicated on the map. If I could get to that road I could take the turnoff I needed to get up the north side of the Alpe d’Huez. Of course, I knew from experience that small roads often end in the middle of nowhere, bridges sometimes are washed out, and getting lost or stuck was a real possibility. Another problem is that these roads are normally not sign posted. In this case, this turned to my advantage.

Just as I was resigned to spending the night on the side of the road surrounded by trucks and RVs, my little turnoff appeared on the left. I took it along with one or two other cars, and in no time made more progress toward my goal than I had in the last three hours.

I reached the slopes of Les Grandes Rousses an hour before sunset (9:30pm in the Alps in July). The road up the mountain was lined with RVs the further I went. On the lower, slopes of the mountain people pitched tents, barbequed dinner, and shared bottles of wine. I drove as high as I could go in the village of Villard Reclusas. The road to the Alpe d’Huez was blocked at this point by a gendarme , as I had expected, so I found a parking place and settled into an Alpine meadow with my picnic dinner of quiche lorraine, chocolate cake and fresh yoghurt.

 

Croix de Chamrousse silhouetted against the sunset, as viewed from Villard Reclusas the evening before the July 21st time trial on Alpe d'Huez.
Croix de Chamrousse silhouetted against the sunset, as viewed from Villard Reclusas the evening before the July 21st time trial on Alpe d’Huez.

 

The silhouette of the Croix de Chamrousse to the west was spectacular against the setting sun as clouds slowly moved in and a brief rain squall sent most of us camped on the mountain to bed early. I was asleep by 10:30 p.m., stretched diagonally across the back of my cargo van, my bicycle bungeed to the mesh screen separating the cargo area from the cab. (It was a good thing Paola had opted not to come with me as there would have been no room for the four of us – two of us plus the two bikes!)

 The Day on the Alpe d’Huez

Claudio Strocchi, one of our Italian tour leaders, was in Les Deux Alpes with his motorcycle. Claudio was our eyes and ears on the ground the morning of the 21st on the south side of the Alpe d’Huez. He could get access to the small road up the back side of the mountain and report back as to whether and how far our cyclists could pedal.

On the north side, we had awakened our Grenoble groups at 3 a.m., gave them breakfast at 4, and began shuttling out of the city by 4:30 a.m. Most were on their bikes and on the road by 5:30.

"At the start of the serious climb up the backside of the mountain, we stopped for a hot drink and it was one of those "it doesn’t get better than this" moments. And as we went up the 3000 foot 7 mile climb I felt my legs coming back and actually getting stronger as I went."

I was up at 5:30 a.m., well before my camping neighbors, and drove down to the center of Villard Reculas to see what the day promised. I got the last parking spot in the village square and found, to my surprise, that the village café and bakery were open. They had some early bird customers, like me, but it was not too crowded. I could see two gendarmes, now, and all traffic was being turned back down the mountain.

While I waited I had my coffee from the café, enjoyed a couple croissants, and bought five copies of the daily sports newspaper, "L’Equipe." The paper carries photos and results of the previous day’s stage of The Race and is in great demand during the Tour. "Five copies?" the man at the café asked in alarm. "You’re not reselling these on the black market are you?" He asked, only partly in jest. "No," I said, "but now that you mention in . . . I’ll split any profit with you!"

Our cyclists started arriving soon after, since there are only 3 km to the Alpe d’Huez from Villard Reculas. Seeing that it wasn’t even 8 a.m., there was no rush to move on. I encouraged them to grab coffee, use the bathroom at the Tourist Office and to move on to the Alpe d’Huez at their leisure. In time our staff began to arrive so we could send them on to secure a safe spot for bicycle parking.

Meantime, on the south side of the mountain our groups from les Deux Alpes were making their way off their mountain and up the back side of the Alpe d’Huez. They had no trouble with road closures.

Slowly our people began to arrive. Things went without a hitch, although a few of them, tired by the climb up, wondered how and when they’d get off the mountain after the race. The group from Deux Alpes slowly arrived in the Alpe d’Huez where we had found safe bike parking in a large garage.

Our last cyclists arrived in Villard around 10 a.m. and headed on to Huez. I went on myself, having served the purpose as advance scout and having, it seemed, successfully gotten everyone up. I was in cell phone contact with staff at the Alpe d’Huez where people from both groups were arriving.

"We were right on the side of the road, on a steep embankment above the road, and could see not only the road just 5-6 feet in front of us, but also a huge switchback down the way. So, we had an excellent vantage point for the race."

 

One of the 13 switchbacks on the 2004 Race Alpe d'Huez time trial course, viewed from above on race day as the publicity caravan winds up the mountain.

 

One of the 13 switchbacks on the 2004 Race Alpe d’Huez time trial course.

 

My work was done so I could wander and take a few photos and I did, for the next four hours. I’d brought my lunch supplies (I always carry hard salame and dark chocolate in the mountains!) and had a full water bottle. I’ve attached a few of the photos I took over that time as I circumambulated the entire resort of the Alpe d’Huez, working my way slowly toward the viewing spot where most of our customers and staff were. I was fascinated by the whole phenomenon and walked way up on the slopes to get better views. It was sunny and hot but I found shade for a picnic lunch with a few score others who had climbed high for the views.

By the time I finished my picnic the first riders were starting to come up. Since the start was staggered at one minute intervals the riders were coming at about that pace or faster when faster riders overtook those that started before them. I wanted to get a few photos of racers from different angles as I worked my way toward our group.

I reached our group at about 3 p.m., delighted to see all the ExperiencePlus! jerseys and cycling caps. I was across the race course from them so they could all see me, wondering how I got there! A few took photos, but it also gave me a chance to take photos of them. Finally, I hiked on down below turn three and through the cow "underpass" so I could go join them.

We had plenty set up at our viewing space. The woman from whom we had rented the viewing space had set up a concession to sell food and drink to our people and to others who had gathered in the vicinity. She also had televisions set up so we could see the start of the race in Bourg d’Oisans at the base of the mountain and so we could track final times as racers finished. The lead racers were the last to ride that day so the suspense built as the fastest racers started coming up the mountain. The last racers were staggered at 2 minute intervals.

As the leaders of The Race began coming up the course we all waited in anticipation. Ulrich, fifth in overall classification, soon took the lead in the trial with the fastest pace. Basso, just 1m25s behind Armstrong in the overall classification was showing a much slower pace, although we had no way of knowing how the race would end.

"Then down below we could see Basso with Lance a couple hundred meters behind him. But with each switch back Lance was gaining. Much more than anyone else Lance rides with aggression – like his very life depends on only this moment. Every single turn he would leap out of the saddle and cut to the steeper but shorter inside part of the corner.

And he did this in turn 3 below us – coming into the corner 100 meters behind Basso and coming out of it 50 meters behind.’

We photographed the riders as they came by us but were surprised and impressed to see the last two riders, Ivan Basso and Lance Armstrong arriving almost side by side. Just in front of our group Lance made his move to pass Basso. Basso seemed to respond momentarily to the challenge but Lance’s pace was just strong enough that Basso couldn’t keep up and Lance quickly passed him. Lance had begun two minutes exactly after Basso and passed him at about the 13.3 km. mark with just about 2.4 km to go.

". . . we saw Basso, the #2 guy, coming around, and knew Lance was next, and I’ll be darned if he wasn’t almost right on his wheel already! Keep in mind that we’d watch over 150 riders come by at this point, and, I’m telling you, seeing that little yellow jersey coming up behind him, way below us — he was clearly going way faster than anyone we’d seen! There was an amazing difference in his pace — even at that distance — and the pace of the first people who came up.

As they climbed, we saw him getting closer and closer, and we hoped he’d catch him by the time he got to us…and, I’ll be darned if he didn’t catch AND PASS Basso RIGHT IN FRONT OF US!!! I swear!!!"

 

Lance Armstrong catching rival Ivan Basso just as they pass ExperiencePlus! customers (foreground) in the 2004 Race L'Alpe d'Huez time trial, and other fans (background). Basso is in partial view above the yellow hats to the left of the frame.

 

Lance Armstrong catching rival Ivan Basso just as they pass ExperiencePlus! customers (foreground) in the 2004 Race L’Alpe d’Huez time trial, and other fans (background).

 

We all rushed to watch the television and to see just how far ahead Lance was and by how much he would beat Ulrich, the leader up until that point. When the dust settled it was Lance at 39m41s, Ulrich second 1m01s back, and Basso way down in eighth place 2m22s behind Lance (in between were five other riders who had beaten Basso’s time).

Once we knew the results, our own race to get off the mountain began. All our people had to walk back to their bikes but we could now walk the race course. Our numbers show that between customers and staff, we had about 150 people on the mountain that day. So those headed to Grenoble streamed down the course while those headed to Deux Alpes walked back to their garage. Once we reached our bikes we had exhilarating rides off the mountain.

"At one point I hit 58 mph while tucked behind a bus down a hill and right behind me was Big John from Carolina whooping and hollering like a kid on a roller coaster."

The Grenoble group also had a shuttle back to our hotel in downtown Grenoble. We were all delighted to enjoy a late buffet style dinner in the hotel.

I’ve had several people come up to me and express their amazement and appreciation for the day. As John S. put it "as close to a perfect day as you can imagine."

It was a great day, indeed.

"It was an AMAZING day…wish you had been here!"