Ever since Chris Froome broke away on the Stage 8 climb to take control of the race, there hasn't been a whole lot of drama to rivet cycling fans to the TV for this year's Tour de France. Even the team buses are now driving under the finish line banners without incident.
But at least we should get a compelling stage Thursday when the riders race up the Tour's iconic climb, Alpe d'Huez.
And in honor of the 100th Tour, they climb it twice.
The Tour went up Alpe d'Huez for the first time in 1952, and the climb became a regular fixture in 1978, generally featured in the race every other year. I wish they not only would ride it every year but almost every stage as well (though the cyclists probably would disagree with that). Watching long climbs are so much more interesting than watching 120 miles of flat race followed by a half-kilometer sprint.
And there is no better climb than Alpe d'Huez.
There are higher climbs. There are steeper climbs. There are more grueling climbs. But the Alpe is special, in large part due to its 21 switchbacks that twist up approximately nine miles, gaining 3,700 feet in elevation, with thousands upon thosuands of fans lining the route. As I wrote last year, it is the Tour's version of Yankee Stadium, but with much more spectacular views and even more drunk fans.
The beauty of the Tour is that you can ride the exact same routes yourself, and I had the pleasure of riding Alpe d'Huez last summer. It was a little like getting to play left field in front of the Green Monster at Fenway Park or walk up the final fairway at Augusta. And because it is, lots of people take advantage of that.
I rode the Alpe twice, first on a Thursday and then again two days later on Saturday. There were plenty of fellow recreational riders on that Thursday but come the weekend, I counted more than a hundred riders just during my half-hour or so descent Saturday. Most everyone was on a quality road bike but many rode hybrid and mountain bikes and an occasional beater bike. I even saw a father riding up while towing his infant child behind him in a bike trailer.
And the domestiques think they have it hard?
I trained for my ride by building up my legs on the many steep, challenging hills near my home in suburban Seattle, as well as on the roads leading to the surrounding mountains. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that Alpe d'Huez isn't as hard as some of my local rides. Seriously. It's just longer.
Part of that is due to a relatively steady grade. Alpe d'Huez starts off around nine or 10 percent for the first kilometer or so. Then it drops down to around eight percent for much of the rest of the way until it reaches the ski resort area, where it drops significantly. It kicks up every once in awhile but it felt like a fairly consistent gradient during my rides. That allowed me to settle into a steady rhythm, which did not make the climb easy, but it did make it more manageable.
The switchbacks also help. Each switchback is named for a cyclist who won a Tour stage on Alpe d'Huez, and seeing the names on those signs provides such inspiration that it's almost like taking an injection of testosterone -- which is necessary because about halfway up, the demanding length of the ride really begins to kick in.
Nine miles is a long way at an 8 percent grade, even if it is consistent.
I grinded it out, though, and finally reached the end in 1 hour, 18 minutes. I bettered that to 1 hour, 14 minutes on my Saturday ride, or roughly twice as much time as Marco Pantani took when he set the record on Alpe d'Huez .
But I felt very good about my time. One, I was 50 years old. Two, I wasn't on any performance-enhancers other than the natural exhilaration of riding such a famous route. Three, I'm just a recreational rider.
And four, I made it to the top on my bike. The rental car my wife was driving did not.