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A day spectating on Alpe d’Huez at the Tour de France

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After spending the week wandering around France we got back late last night following an exciting day on the climb to Alpe d’Huez at the Tour de France yesterday. While I’ll circle back over the next day or so with photos from the previous day at the Tour (the individual time trial), I wanted to share Alpe d’Huez first.

Getting there and up the mountain:

We had driven from the previous stage to just outside of Grenoble where we stayed with some friends for the night. Then Thursday morning (day of the stage) we drove about an hour to the town at the base of the climb. Or, as near it as we were going to get anyway – 2 miles away. From there, we began the walk to the base of the climb.

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There were many cyclists. And by many, I mean thousands. Every road as far as Grenoble seemed packed with either individual bikes or groups making their way to the race (even on the highway). Without question, next year we’ll bike up, as you can pretty much do that right up until the time the caravan (parade) comes by.

Along the way on the flats we saw some of the more famous cycling icons – happily standing to take endless photos.

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And then others working on their street paintings still (he was doing one half of the road at a time).

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Shortly thereafter we began the climb, with a few thousands of our friends.

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Each of the switchbacks has a signpost of a previous years winner on it. Here’s one of them behind us (that’s me, The Girl, and our two friends from DC that came over).

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In addition, many of the different corners have long-standing groups/nationalities that occupy them.

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In fact, this year RV’s started staking out spots the first week of July on Alpe d’Huez. Pretty crazy.

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As noted, many folks bike up. Be it very athletic looking folks, to parents and kids…and everyone in between.

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Or, in this case, blading up:

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And then there’s always the overachiever who bikes up on a single wheel of his two-wheeled bike:

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As we climbed, a brief group of vehicles with police escort came through, slightly confusing many – until we saw the massive pack of riders headed up together. It wasn’t super-clear what their association was, but I’m guessing someone here can help fill in the gaps a bit.

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We eventually found our spot right where that two-wheeled bike was. It was mostly spurred on by finding an empty section along the barrier, giving us nice seats for the rest of the afternoon. Perfect!

As with just about everyone, you brought your own food up. In our case, that meant supplies for sandwiches:

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Additionally, we had managed to score a massive plastic bag of little sausages the day before at the time-trial stage, from one of the race sponsors. We’re talking what would likely be a multi-month supply of sausages for the Brady Bunch.

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We also brought up a pie. Well, a tart really. Regrettably, it looked far better than it tasted.

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As we were sitting there watching the folks stream by we noticed that people kept coming out of the woods with cold beverages. They’d go in with nothing, and come out with full cups of beer.

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Kids would do the same with ice cream. So we sent out The Girl and one of our friends to investigate what was up in the trail. A short time later they came back, complete with the goods:

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And that even included a King of the Mountain styled Diet Coke can!

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With that, it was time for the parade!

The Caravan and Parade:

As is the case on every stage, the caravan is a long sponsor parade that passes through ahead of the main field. Typically this occurs about an hour before the riders hit, depending on where you are on the course. While we had plenty of goods from the day before, they were throwing out slightly different stuff this day. Including many rain ponchos – given the forecasted thunderstorms.

Without question, The Girl is probably one of the most ferocious giveaway seekers out there.

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She’ll track down just about everything, and take off running up the mountain if need be to get something (seriously, she ran off twice after vehicles upwards of a hundred meters to get a prized giveaway).

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Thankfully, she didn’t need to run after this little bag of Cheetos-like things.

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Here’s a video clip of a bit of her grabs:

And here’s a few more shots of the parade.

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Following the parade it was a never ending stream of ‘official’ vehicles coming through. Everything from race officials to press to sponsors to team vehicles. At one point it was a full stop in front of us due to a bit of a traffic jam of them.

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Soon it cleared again though. But hundreds, if not a thousand official race vehicles went by over the course of the day.

The Road Paintings:

As you see on TV quite clearly, the road paintings are everywhere. As we made our way up the hill folks were spray-painting items constantly – trying to dodge official vehicles still headed up.

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It was funny to watch as folks would misjudge distances on the road and then have to make mid-writing corrections.

In this case, one man was double-checking with a newspaper while spelling out a riders name to a spray-painter.

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Thankfully, the official street-sweepers here didn’t have their sweepers down!

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And then in between the two waves of racers, many went out to ‘refresh’ their paintings.

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Speaking of those racers, I suppose it makes sense to talk about them…

The Race Comes Through:

After a few hours of waiting, we could finally hear the roar in the valley below, giving away the location of the leaders. Perhaps 5-10 minutes later we finally heard them on the switch-back directly in front of ours. It literally sounded like a stadium up there.

Then soon, the motorcycles just barely ahead of the leaders:

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And in that same pack was the famous yellow timing motorcycle:

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And of course, the leaders themselves!

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Right behind them, one of the Mavic neutral support vehicles. These provide support in the event team cars aren’t nearby or able.

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A few minutes later, the main packs came flying through.

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This year was unique (in celebration of the 100th anniversary of The Tour) in that they’d actually ascend Alpe d’Huez twice. After the first ascent they’d head back down the backside of the mountain (a fairly sketchy descent by any standard) and then come back up again the main road.

After the first pack of riders went by the first time the onslaught of team cars made their way thorough. A whole lot of money in bikes there!

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Ahead of a secondary pack was this guy, taking a bit of a ‘sticky bottle’ ride as it’s called. Basically he’d pretend to be grabbing a bottle, but in actuality would be taking a lift. I saw him go a few hundred yards ‘on the bottle’ (he came into view on the bottle but let go a bit above me).

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After he went by and another group it was a bit of quiet for about an hour before the riders would pass by again. During this time some folks moved around the course a bit. This would reveal new spectators to us, like the below:

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Before long, we heard the roar again in the valley and then soon the motorcycles coming up the road. And then, the time board.

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Directly behind her, were the leaders at the time:

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Followed shortly by the first major group.

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Then a break of team cars:

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And then, the final major group of cyclists. It was clear how much more ragged the entire group looked on this second time around.

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In between or after the racers came through, many made their way to RV’s or tents to watch the race on tiny TV’s.

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Or in this case, an iPad on a box:

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Obviously, I need to order one of those TV doohickeys for next year to be able to catch things live on the iPad. Brilliant!

Working our way back down and home:

Interestingly, many folks actually started heading down just after the leaders went by. Given that we were spending the whole day there, we wanted to get every last rider in. After the last rider went by (quite a ways after the leader), we began heading on down.

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As we first started descending it was a mix of folks riding bikes with walkers, and the occasional motorbike. As a whole, it wasn’t a terribly safe situation for either cyclists or pedestrians. And in fact, just about 5 minutes after we started down I watched as an early-20’s cyclist clip his right pedal against a woman’s leg doing about 15MPH, ejecting him from his bike, into the air and straight down on the top of his head. His bike continued to follow his trajectory, ultimately crashing to the ground with a synchronous moan from everyone around. Astoundingly, he and the woman were mostly OK. Had he not been wearing his helmet, I suspect things would have been significantly different.

At the next corner, police were stopping riders and making them walk down. In retrospect a simple system of walkers on the left, and riders on the right (or vice versa) would solve this problem.

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More walking, more downhill:

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Even the smallest of riders were making their way down:

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Eventually we hit the flats and slowly made our way mixed with cyclists, pedestrians, RV’s, and official vehicles all mixed in.

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All in it took about an hour to get to the car. Which was roughly what we budgeted. Shortly after heading out, there was a bit of a merge of vehicles into the slow-moving stream of cars. Oddly enough putting me in between the famous LCL Lion and the Tour de France rider that leads the daily parade. Here’s a photo I snapped while stopped stuck in traffic.

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We’d remain in between these vehicles in mixed speed traffic for the next hour (it is basically one-lane out of the mountains). It wasn’t until the highway we’d finally leave our lion friend behind.

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And once we hit the highway it was relatively quick back to Paris – another 5-6 hours, though slowed slightly by the occasional rough patch of thunderstorms or rain squalls. All in our trip was ~1,900 kilometers (~1,200 miles). An awesome trip for sure! Now, onto watch the finish in Paris on Sunday night!

Thanks for reading!

Note: If you’re looking for more ways to keep busy this Friday, here’s all my past Tour de France posts.

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39 Comments

  1. Harrison

    Jealous. That’s the best way to describe my feelings.

    I spent 2 weeks in the mountains of Colorado training, but I would’ve traded them all for a day on Alp d’Huez or Mont Ventoux.

    Reply
  2. EJVNL

    Hi Ray,

    Best report ever ! I was watching it live yesterday, but your report makes me ‘Feel It’.

    Think y’all had a great day.

    Ciao

    Eric

    Reply
  3. Chmouel

    It’s the tour de fête, it’s bunch of youngster that follow the tour a day earlier link to tourdefete.lequipe.fr

    Reply
  4. The group of cyclists with a red jersey are the instructors of the French ski school ESF (Ecole de Ski Français)

    ESF grimpe l’Alpe d’Huez

    Reply
    • Ted replied

      Great report! I was watching the telecast of the stage with my kids and we were very curious about the spectators, the craziness of the fans and just how close they get to the riders so it was great to be able read your account and share it your report and pictures with my kids to help explain what an event each stage can be. I saw a lot of the folks you got pictures of on TV and on TV for the next stage too. Good stuff!

      Reply
  5. Tim

    Hey Rai,

    As mentioned above… Jealous.
    Always great to read/see an inside story of such an incredible/epic stage.
    - I’m actually wondering what happened in the ‘magic’ forest? (bar? mountain cabin? magic?)
    - A tv/ipad/radio is indeed slightly mandatory while watching the TDF. When the riders have passed… ‘What happens next? Did he win/lose?’
    - As a European I love the fact that you, a parttime-European with a scientific background, also use the metric system in your reviews/reports. Thank you.
    - I was worried about the fact that my girlfriend always gets completely hyperactive collecting goodies from the parade… You ensured me this is quite normal for the the cycling-enthusiastic female.
    - The guy ‘sticking’ to the bottle is Tom Veelers. He got body checked by Cavendish. So maybe he is allowed to hold on a little bit longer (a pity ride).
    - The big groups cycling up the mountain? Not a clue…

    Reply
    • Tim replied

      I meant, Hey Ray, not Rai (the Italian tv channel).

      Reply
  6. JT

    WHAT WAS IN THE WOODS!? I MUST KNOW! BEER FAIRIES!?

    Reply
    • Ray Maker replied

      Beer fairies indeed!

      Eventually, if you wandered for a bit up the steep switchbacks in the woods you came to a cabin and an RV. Between the two of them magic was happenin’!

      Alternatively, you could have wandered up the main road two switchbacks and found the same place. ;)

      Reply
  7. Will

    Great post, awesome pictures too! They said it was between 700 000 and 1 million person up there yesterday!

    Reply
  8. Chas Barrikady

    A excellent account and pictures from a great stage.

    Thank you!

    Reply
  9. Amy

    Oh my gosh Ray! I can’t thank you enough for this post and all of the amazing photos. I really have a better idea what it is like up there. Seeing it on TV is fun, but you’ve brought it to life. So happy to see the Devil and my boy, Jens. :)

    Reply
  10. Niels Henningsen

    Great….Reminds me of my 1989 & 1992 vist to the tour on the Alpe d’Huez…. and my ride on the Col De sarenes :-)

    Reply
  11. steef

    rode up the alp d’huez and mont ventoux for the first time when i was 13. And repeated that many times in the past 20 years. So ofcourse i would trade that in for a week of cycling in colorado. Though i must say that it’s always fun riding in france or italy and then suddenly halfway up the climb the paved road ends. Left my skin in the alps at least twice over.

    Reply
  12. Ken Ching

    Mardi Gras in the Alps! Have recently stumbled onto your site and your fantastic community. Good stuff here!

    Reply
  13. “In retrospect a simple system of walkers on the left, and riders on the right (or vice versa) would solve this problem.”

    Ha. In France, the phrase “faire la queue” exists, but not the concept. ;)

    Reply
  14. Awesome report Ray! So cool to have your firsthand account of all the other stuff that happens alongside the race itself.

    Reply
  15. David George

    My parents in law watched from Dutch corner (Huez church). For reference they got there via Oz then taking the lift system over and down to Huez. My dad in law followed a whole Alpe d’Huez stage from the helicopter once but said it was great to be down amongst the crowd this time.

    Glad to see the Devil is over his illness that kept him off the tour last year.

    Reply
  16. Shadowmate

    Yeah i agree, this report makes me feel more like i was there than the TV did. Everybody’s jealous Ray. Congrats to you both for being able to be there!

    Reply
  17. rikosmi

    A brilliant article, I had tingles down my spine reading that, cracking photos too.

    Reply
  18. Matt

    Amazing pictures!

    Reply
  19. lex

    Nice post! especially because I am currently on the alpe d’huez for a duathlon and triathlon

    Reply
  20. Morey000

    great report. What an ‘event’ (just to watch a few skinny guys ride up a mountain). The angles on the TV make it seem like the crowd often closes in very close to the riders in parts. Like- they can barely get through.

    Reply
  21. Very cool…the tour is high on my list of events to attend. And this is how I’d like to do it 8)

    Reply
  22. Tanner

    Thanks for the dip into a life bucket trip. Love this site!
    By the way, definitely NOT blading their way up. Those are roller skis my man. That’s like saying a road bike is the same as a wheelchair. Totally different animals. You should try it (ever visit the Midwest in winter???).

    Reply
  23. Rick Harker

    Great insight as an active spectator.
    We’ve been following it on tv live here in Oz but there is a lot you miss out on such as the caravan. I know my kids would be just like your wife chasing them up the hill. It all adds to the excitement.
    A cycling friend went a couple of years ago to try and follow all the stages but found it difficult and exhausting trying to get reasonable vantage spots. This year the big bonus for spectators would have to be the Alp D’ Huez with 2 passes.
    Tough race, tougher riders.

    Reply
  24. Rick Harker

    I forgot to mention,
    GREAT photos.

    Reply
  25. Andrew

    Good to see Trek-Radioshack in front, and on a Madone too think (I just bought one).

    Reply
  26. Anders

    Isn’t that guy spelling Alp d’Huez wrong in those large letters?! I bet he did a big “doh!” soon after that photo was taken.

    Reply
  27. oli

    +1 for Tanner. If you want to try “striding” the road on rollerskis, come to Jura between Pontarlier and Les Rousses (3h TGV from Paris). We have specialists, nice calm roads, and even specific tracks for that. But the best is to come during winter to practice XC Skiing. I Would be happy to teach you, as you helped me choosing my actual GPS watch with your reviews.

    Reply
  28. Tim in Arlington

    Hi Ray, greetings from DC Metro – as usual, thanks for your thorough report documented with so many great photos. Many years ago, I spent my junior year at U de Grenoble and one of the perks was being able to ski in the surrounding mountains, Alpe d’Huez among them. This entry brought back a lot of memories, so thanks again.

    Reply
  29. ismo

    One solution for watching the race live during the stage is to use Eurosport player. You don’t need any TV plugins etc. for your iPad, just the subscription to the Eurosport service (and an iPad with cellular connection).

    Reply
  30. Havelaar

    Nice race report, Ray!
    I was there too, came by bike from St Jean Maurienne via the Col de la Croix de Fer. It was in deed fun climbing Alpes d’Huez amongst the impressive crowd and only some hours before the pros. I left via the Col de la Sarenne and the Lautaret and spend the night in Briançon… so no traffic jam at all for me on the bike, but unfortunately a lot of rain on Lautaret climb and decend.
    Will definitly go by bike see mountain stages of grand tours again. :-)

    Reply
  31. Ben

    Alp d’He… oh no, somebody brought some black paint?

    Reply
  32. Jonas

    Hi Ray, thx for a great report on the Alp d’Huez. Much more interesting than the official reports from Eurosport and the official TDF channels. I will be riding the Grand Tour des Alpes in September with some 10 friends and we will climb Alp d’Huez among many other mountains on our way from Thonon les Bains to Menton. Btw, thx for your good blogs and product reviews

    Reply
  33. earl

    Thanks Ray – really enjoyed your report

    Reply
  34. Damien

    So, having been there… Are you sold on doing the Triathlon de l’Alpe D’Huez next year? Should be right up your alley, loads of climbing :-)
    link to alpetriathlon.com

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      It’s very tempting. I didn’t actually realize that there was a short-course option. I think I’ll add that to the list for next year…

      Reply
  35. AlanT

    I was there too. We spent the week about 10k from Bourg D’Oisans. I rode the Alp twice, the second time the day before the stage. Dutch Corner was awesome and the cheering to the top on both occasions inspirational. We were at Huez village a few bends up from your viewing point. What a day. I’ll be back that’s for sure.

    Reply

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