How important is l’Alpe d’Huez?

The Platform d’Huez, the Fortress of l’Oisans, the Mountain Temple, Dutch Mountain or just the Alpe. The Alpe d’Huez is known by many names and has become a mainstay of the Tour de France.

First used in stage 10 of the 1952 Tour, Fausto Coppi won the day, took yellow and didn’t relinquish it. It wasn’t until 1976 that the Alpe was used again and in the 39 years since, it’s been used 29 times.

It’s nearly 14km long, averages 8.1% and has sections that hit 13%. Its 21 hairpins are legendary (and named after legends). Come race day, the mountain is covered with fans. It seems certain the cyclists will plough into the hordes only for the throng to split at the very last moment. There’s no doubt it’s a very hard climb.

But how important is the Alpe? How often does it define the outcome?

While it’s possibly contrary to the mysticism of the mountain, one way to answer this question is to reduce it to cold, hard statistics. Specifically, how often has the eventual winner:

  • held the yellow jersey before the Alpe?
  • taken the yellow jersey after the Alpe?
  • taken the yellow jersey on the Alpe?

The answer to these questions, in order, is 16, 6 and 7.

Let’s break that down a little. On over 55% of the 29 ascents, the holder of the yellow jersey was able to keep the jersey over the Alpe and all the way to Paris. To put it disrespectfully (and probably inaccurately), on these instances the stage may as well have not existed. Of course, despite the status quo being maintained, battles were fought. For example, 1997 saw Marco Pantani dance away from the likes of Casagrande, Virenque and the eventual Tour winner, Jan Ullrich, who crossed the line 47 seconds behind il pirata. And this year the Alpe offered perhaps the most exciting moment of the race as Quintana put time into Froome. I know many people hoped he would pull back all 158 seconds to take yellow. In the end he came up short. Nonetheless, he put on a great show and no doubt caused Froome and his supporters some worry.

Moving on, just over 20% of the ascents have seen the yellow jersey taken after the Alpe. The most famous of these was the 1989 edition when Laurent Fignon took the yellow jersey from Greg LeMond on Alpe d’Huez. Fignon had a fairly comfortable 50-second lead going into the final stage, a 24.5km individual time trial. Unlike LeMond, who had done wind tunnel testing, Fignon eschewed aero bars and an aerodynamic helmet. This, along with a nasty saddle sore and his ponytail, worked against him and he lost the Tour by 8 seconds, the closest margin ever.

Finally, on 24% of occasions, the eventual overall winner took the yellow jersey on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez (this includes 1976 when Lucien Van Impe took the yellow on the Alpe on stage 9, lost it at Pyrénées 2000 on stage 12 and then won it back on St.-Lary-Soulon onstage 14). It’s these instances that the Alpe has been the most decisive. The most recent time the yellow was taken and held on the Alpe was 2008 when Carlos Sastre launched a raid at the very base of the climb and never looked back. He took the jersey off his CSC teammate, Frank Schleck, and put enough time into Cadel Evans to maintain his lead in the penultimate stage, a 53km individual time trial, and win the Tour by a slim 58 seconds (although at the time, most thought his lead would be insufficient).

Of course, these numbers alone don’t tell the whole story. The Alpe d’Huez is a great climb that always brings fireworks. Statistically, whoever has the yellow jersey going into the climb will probably leave with it too, but we can always hope that statistics are wrong. And the beauty of cycling is they often are.

The table below shows all Alpe d’Huez climbs in the Tour de France. Those highlighted in yellow indicate when the eventual winner held yellow before the Alpe. Orange highlights indicate when the eventual winner took the yellow jersey after the Alpe. And blue highlights indicate when the eventual winner took the yellow jersey on the Alpe.

Alpe d'Huez Statistics

By Laurence Guttmann

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