The Alpe d'Huez isn't the highest, or the hardest climb visited by the Tour de
France. It certainly isn't the prettiest: in July, the chalet-shaped concrete
boxes look like some bizarre mountaintop industrial complex.
But in this Alpine resort the most dramatic scenes of the Tour are played out. Like Wembley, there is nothing special about the place itself - except that this is where the spectacle is staged. This is where the magic takes place.
Every year, when the famous race enters the Alps, to swing round the endless hairpins, ladder up the bare mountainsides and drop down from the famous cols, I remember the day I went to Huez to watch the drama unfold for myself.
It doesn't cost a penny to be part of the Tour de France. You don't need a season ticket, a debenture seat, a corporate box or a plastic pass on a branded lanyard. You just stand anywhere on 2000 miles of road and watch the riders come past.
And in the summer of 1992, armed only with an Inter Rail pass and a tent which turned out not to be waterproof, I decided to do just that: to stand beside as many roads as possible and follow the race all the way to Paris.
The logistics were taxing. That year the Tour was nicknamed the 'Tour d'Europe' because it spent so much of its three-week duration outside the French border; in Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and Italy. My rail pass was in and out of my sweaty pocket so often that by the time it reached the Champs Elysées it looked like a used teabag. Many train conductors flatly refused to take it out of my hand. They just looked at it, looked at me, and moved wordlessly down the carriage.
The day before Huez it had taken a 5am start and Operation Overlord-style planning to make a series of connections from the lake town of Annecy to a backwater of the Italian rail network near Sestriere. The train pulled in with enough time for me to sprint to the main road, breathlessly watch the peloton flash by, and sprint back to the platform for the last train out.
I had the idea that I needed to be in Grenoble before breakfast time. The roads close several hours before the race passes, and you need to get to a good spot to watch the action. So by 7am I was boarding a coach outside the railway station, bound for the summit. But as it turned out, I wasn't early at all.
21 hairpins the road climbs to the resort, and at each turn, on each verge and layby, there was already a crowd. Camper vans with yellow Dutch number plates perched in every possible spot, and several impossible ones; men and women with tight shorts and pink legs sat in folding chairs sucking at breakfast bottles of Amstel and Heineken. The Dutch love the Tour de France. And they love Alpe d'Huez.
But it wasn't just the Dutch. There were Spaniards, Belgians, Italians, Irish, Americans and even a few English. I was wearing my favourite claret-and-blue football shirt, partly to show the flag on foreign soil, but partly because I had run out of clean clothes. More than once on the Alpe I was greeted by a shout of 'Villa!'
It's said that 500,000 were on Alpe d'Huez that day, ten times the biggest crowd I had ever seen at Villa Park, and I can believe it. Long before my coach reached the summit we had slowed to a crawl behind a swollen stream of humanity. In buses, on bikes, on foot - all there for the same show. So I persuaded the driver to let me hop off, and sat by the road and waited.
The great thing about mountain stages of the Tour is that you get more chance to see the race, and at close quarters. Firstly, you can see it approach from a long way off, down in the valley; it doesn't just hurtle round a corner without warning, and flash by before you've had a chance to cheer or wave a flag.
It also travels far more slowly than on the flat, with the field strung out by the narrow roads and the effort of climbing. In single file and in small groups the riders pass: the best climbers at the front, light, wiry men, built like mosquitoes and up on their pedals, dancing up the gradient at improbable speeds. The main bunch, or peloton, follows as best it can, trying not to fall too far behind, sweating and straining in the saddle. And then, bringing up the rear, the stragglers, the exhausted, the injured, those doing their best just to turn the pedals and survive.
But even strung out as they were, the riders came past that day in a blur of motion. The leading group had already been pedalling for almost five and a half hours before they hit the foot of the slope, and yet in burning sun, they didn't pause, or slow down: the gears turned and they climbed the nine-mile, 8% gradient like a cable car.
At the very front was the Motorola rider, the American Andy Hampsten. He'd surged clear of a small breakaway group and was already on course for a first place finish which would remain a highlight of his career.
On both sides of the road where I stood, the crowd was two or three deep. You could hear Hampsten coming long before you saw him; the noise of the crowd rolled up in waves from every bend and turn on the course. And as he approached, the spectators would draw aside at the very last moment, allowing him a passage maybe two or three feet wide, screaming and bellowing, just long enough for him to pass through. And that was the reception that greeted every rider in the race. Every single one, from first to last, as he went by.
Group by group they came through, slower and slower, more and more painfully, and at last I was able to distinguish one cyclist from another, and began to notice their faces. Their faces were extraordinary.
Each one was running with sweat, but in 30* heat their skins weren't flushed or burned like the Dutch campers by the motorhomes; their faces were grey, drawn, haggard, like the faces of the dead. Their jaws hung open, their eyes stared emptily ahead. These were men enduring pain and suffering at the very edge of what was possible for human beings to survive. And in that relentless heat, on that merciless slope, in that boiling, surging noise, that screaming, yelling mob, mile after mile - at the top of that mountain, those riders must have been in the depths of hell.
One by one they passed, and the noise never calmed. The clock ticked and their progress slowed, their machines rocking and rolling as the back markers tried to maintain momentum. By now I was transfixed by their expressions, and was surprised when one of them spoke as he came by.
He looked me in the eye, and uttered a single, urgent word. 'Push!'
I had no idea what he meant, until he mimed, with his right hand, the motion of shoving. He wanted me to *push* him up the hill. It's not allowed of course. Occasionally in the television coverage you see spectators touching the riders - slapping them on the back or on the shoulders in encouragement, and you wince at the thought of such impudence - but here was a cyclist pleading - begging - for a push. So I did. I pushed him up the hill for twenty or thirty yards. Other spectators were doing the same. By now the TV cameras, mounted on helicopters and motorbikes, were far, far away filming Andy Hampsten crossing the finish line, and what we were doing was away from the gaze of the public.
So we did it. I guess it was a sense of guilt that motivated me. I'd come to this place to be entertained, and discovered that the entertainment was a brutal, impossible torture for those providing it. So I kept pushing the straggling riders along until I was exhausted myself.
One of them, eventually, I recognised. A British cyclist called Sean Yates, who'd achieved fame by winning a time trial stage in the Tour some years before and was now a team-mate of Hampsten in the Motorola outfit. He was near the rear of the field and fighting to keep going. So I ran beside his bike, pushing and pushing, and as I ran I told him the only thing I could think of to take his mind off the pain. 'Andy's won the stage,' I shouted. 'He's won it, he's won on Alpe d'Huez!'
I have no idea if he understood, or cared, or even heard my voice. His chin was almost on his breastbone as his heavy legs turned the pedals.
And then the riders were gone, and the race was over, and the hysteria was broken like a magic spell and the spectators looked at each other, embarrassed. Already on the road back to Grenoble was the longest immobile queue of traffic I have ever seen. Ahead of me I foresaw a night on station platforms and stuffy trains, sleepless and sunburned to Marseille or Carcassonne or wherever the next staging post might be.
I was exhausted and dehydrated, burned and broke, stuck on a bare mountainside and with nowhere to spend the night. I had helped the riders of the Tour de France cheat the slope of the Alpe d'Huez. But I would do it again, in a heartbeat.
Follow Damon on Twitter @damongreenITV
Memory added on July 15, 2014
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