By the time you read this, I’ll be sitting on top of Alpe d’Huez. Just me and several thousand others, clinging to a rocky peak, eating free cheese, getting blasted on cheap vin rouge, and waiting for the race to come past, not once, but twice. I’m looking forward to seeing it immensely.
I don’t need to explain to anyone about Alpe d’Huez. It’s what one well known TV commentator described as “the mythical mountain of the Tour de France”. The 21 hairpins (each dedicated to a former winner on the climb), the unrelenting gradient, the massive crowds that line its whole length.
France is full of roads and climbs made famous by cycling. I tried to explain to my mother once, when she was on holiday in the Alps, that cyclists travel hundreds of miles just to feel certain roads under their wheels. She was baffled. How could a road be that special? But I think most of us understand. It’s what makes every cricketer in the world want to play at Lord’s, or footballers to run out at Wembley.
In the UK, there are very few roads to make you weak at the knees. There just haven’t been the races that might have anointed them. Even if there were mountains, they would be unlikely to be rendered mythical by the Tour of Britain. (The Tour of Britain’s famously long transfers between stages would be at least as likely to create a mythical bus ride up the A303.)
Box Hill is probably the current favourite ride, on the basis of the Olympic road races. It’s popular, but let’s face it, no one is likely to start running holidays so that riders from France can come and be shouted at by an elderly nutter at the summit for holding up his delivery of oysters from Harrods. (This happened to a friend of mine a few weeks ago). I hear Surrey County Council is going to dedicate the potholes to famous Strava segment holders, but I’m not sure it will be quite the same.
I’m not even sure that the Tour de France in England next year will really help. Single incidents can help the notoriety of a road – the tourist board in Holmfirth is probably planning to commemorate both Last of the Summer Wine and the Orica-GreenEdge bus incident by having three old men get a motorised bath stuck on the intermediate sprint line.
But it’s not usually enough. In the end, it’s only with racing and history that a road becomes anointed. There ain’t no hill in the British Isles where Fausto Coppi crested the summit alone and in the lead, unless you count the top of the Herne Hill track’s banking.
(Herne Hill track is probably the closest thing the UK has to Alpe d’Huez. Simpson, Anquetil and Coppi all raced there, thousands came to watch, and they all still talk about it.)
What the UK needs is not more snatches of Tour (or Giro) glory, wonderful though they are. It needs the kind of race on the kind of road that people will fall for. The UK has everything else – riders, fans – but not the races.
Building an Alp is probably unrealistic – though if you could get planning permission there are bits of Suffolk that no one uses where you could keep it. But at the very least the UK needs a Classic, in the mould of the Ardennes, on a broadly similar route each year, preferably somewhere in the north. Anything has to be more inspiring than another 20 years of riding up and down Box Hill.
Acts of cycling stupidity
A reader writes with an embarrassing story: A couple of weeks back, at an event, I was getting changed in the front seat of my car. As I struggled out of my trousers and underpants, I managed to knock the car out of gear.
This would have been fine if the handbrake had worked – but it had failed some months previously. The car started to roll backwards across the car park. I couldn’t reach the footbrake. I tried to stuff the car back into gear, but all to no avail.
As it gathered pace, I realised I had no option but to bale out. I did so. When the dust settled, I was standing amid a crowd of strangers naked from the waist down.
The car rolled about another 20 feet, and stopped of its own accord.
How to… Avoid inconveniencing the public
It is important, through thoughtful planning, to minimise the disruption a bike race causes to the public. As an example of what can be achieved, take an international race held in Delhi a few seasons back. There was a substantial compound at the start, with numerous tents, changing rooms, officials’ quarters, grandstands and VIP hospitality.
Because the course used part of the main highway out of the city, all of this was carefully constructed so as to be capable of being removed in time for the evening rush hour. There were cranes and trucks on standby to do the job, and buses ready to evacuate the hundreds of riders, team staff and race volunteers.
Within an hour of the podium ceremonies, everything had gone. It had been a military operation. There was, however, one exception. The dope control cabin. It was still in situ, because the last rider was still waiting for nature to take its course. Since the race had been run in 40°C heat, nature was not in a hurry.
With considerable foresight, the cabin was the one structure that had been located in the middle of the road. Two hours post-race, south of the cabin was mile upon mile of empty highway. North of the cabin was the biggest traffic jam in Indian history.
Never in history have so many thousands of people waited upon the bladder of one man.
I can reveal now that that man was me. If you spent four hours stationary on the Noida expressway in 2010, I’m very sorry.
This article was first published in the July 18 issue of Cycling Weekly. Read Cycling Weekly magazine on the day of release where ever you are in the world International digital edition, UK digital edition. And if you like us, rate us!