As a highlight of the Tour de France, Alpe d’Huez and its 21 switchbacks form an unmissable stage of the famous cycling race. 21 roadside signs have been placed to pace cyclists during their 14 km countdown, with elevation gain of 1120 m.
Alpe d’Huez, in the heart of Oisans, is a mecca for bicycles and the switchbacks are a climb to be tackled at least once in every cycling enthusiast’s life!
The history of the road
Until 1881, only men, women and mules could climb up to Alpe d’Huez. The path was only 2 to 3 metres wide, very steep and with sudden changes in direction, making the journey anything but pleasant or attractive to tourists!
Little by little, section by section, this mule track was improved from Bourg d’Oisans to La Garde, then a little beyond, to reach the far side of Huez in 1905. This village was beginning to attract travellers, mainly in the summer, with the newly-built road providing easy access as soon as the snow cleared. A local man named Joseph Collomb offered his services to transport people and goods between the valley and the village of Huez. It only took 2½ hours on horseback…
The early days of tourism
Use of cars became more widespread and tourism slowly began to develop… whilst efforts continued to extend the road from Huez to Alpe d’Huez, where the locals took their animals for summer grazing. Thanks to support from Mr. Léon Perrier, Chairman of the Local Council, this link was provided in 1926 by means of a 4-metre wide road. This was a real economic revolution for Huez, making it much easier both to carry hay down from the pastures and coal down from the Herpie mines located at an altitude of 2300 m. The Alpe d’Huez plateau really began to open up to tourism.
Indeed, as early as 1911, Alpe d’Huez was noticed for the potential offered by its environment for winter sports, although it was only in the late 1920s and 1930s that a year-round bus service was started. An increasing number of people were attracted by the snow and high peaks.
1935 was a pivotal year for the road up to Alpe d’Huez, since, thanks to the efforts of a certain Joseph Paganon, Public Works Minister at the time, the route was widened from 4 to 7 metres, and snow was regularly cleared to provide unhindered access to the joys of winter sports.
To ensure fast progress, the road was divided into 14 sections, one for each kilometre, with each stretch being awarded to a different construction company. This clever move meant that the road was finished in the record time of one year!
Two machines were purchased to clear the snow, namely a Lahl tractor, sufficient to clear the relatively low snowfall at the bottom of the climb and an American Caterpillar tractor, powerful enough to tackle the huge snowfalls at the top.
All these developments were beneficial to the resort of Alpe d’Huez, which built more and more ski lifts, hotels and sports facilities… all to provide an optimal welcome for the increasing number of tourists.
The Olympic Games and the birth of the 21 switchbacks…
In 1964, the Chairman of the Alpe d’Huez Sports Club, Georges Rajon, cycled up the 53 numbered switchbacks of the Vršič pass in Slovenia. He decided to import the concept to Oisans to “distinguish the bends leading up to Alpe d’Huez” and “indicate the approach to the resort for tourists”.
It was for another strategic event in the development of the climb up to Alpe d’Huez – the Winter Olympics held in Grenoble in 1968 – that the 21 numbered signs were created, modelled on the signs used on historic monuments at the time and placed on each switchback. This resulted in the Virage des Grangettes, Virage de la Coute, Virage du Pertu, Virage des Eymarans, and so on. Gradually, the names used in the past for these bends were replaced in collective memory by the 21 numbers, to the extent that they now mark the identity of the resort.
The resort hosted the bobsleigh event at the Grenoble Winter Olympics and to cope with the traffic involved, the road was once again widened, this time from 7 to 9 metres! A new 3 km section was also created along the mountainside, from the fork to the north of Huez village up to the east of Alpe d’Huez. Why? To allow access to the resort from two sides and create a one-way system. Nearly 14 million francs were needed to complete the project, yet it was a real investment required to match the importance of the event.
How to describe the road up to Alpe d’Huez without mentioning cycling?
The climb up to Alpe d’Huez is inseparable from cycling, since an average of 300 cyclists, professionals or amateurs, tackle the 21 switchbacks every day. Over 7,500 road cyclists take part in the Marmotte race each year at the beginning of July and 2000 are awarded an official diploma, recording their time.
Here are some key figures for the climb:
- Number of switchbacks: 21
- Altitude in Bourg d’Oisans: 717 m
- Altitude in Alpe d’Huez: 1860 m
- Elevation gain: 1121 m
- Distance: 13.8 km
- Average gradient: 7.9 %
- Maximum gradient: 14 %
- Record-breaking climb: 37’35’’, average speed of 23.08km/h (Marco Pantani in 1997)
The Tour de France
The cycle race that is inseparable from the road up to Alpe d’Huez is the Tour de France. Approximately every two years, this iconic race features a stage that includes the famous climb. Yet who could have foreseen this success in 1952, when the Mayor at the time told local traders and hotel owners that if they wanted the Tour de France in Alpe d’Huez, they would have to fork out themselves, as the Town Hall had no money…
It was therefore by rallying the forces of the resort, coordinated by Joseph Barbaglia, Georges Rajon and André Quintin, that the Tour de France first arrived in Alpe d’Huez for the finish of the 10th stage, after 266 km of effort, starting in Lausanne. The peloton was tight until Bourg d’Oisans, so it was the climb up to Alpe d’Huez that was decisive in distinguishing the winner. After a duel with Frenchman Jean Robic, the first winner of the climb was none other than the Italian Fausto Coppi. He finished in 45’22’’, whilst second-place Jean Robic arrived… 1’20’’ later. In 1999, the Tour de France came to Alpe d’Huez for the 21st time. To celebrate the occasion, the names of the 21 winners of this iconic stage were added to the numbers of the 21 switchbacks.