The Tour Is Won on the Alpe

I’m going to let you in on a depressing little secret: Most people don’t read. It has it’s upside, though. I don’t think it’s possible to publish too many books on cycling, the Tour de France, indeed, even on Eddy Merckx. Those of us who actually read will swim in enjoyment while those who don’t read won’t threaten us with the sudden influx in interest in, say, Eddy Merckx’ stellar 1972 season (though you’ll be able to read more about that in the upcoming issue of peloton magazine).

I say that because I’d like Jean-Paul Vespini to write a whole set of books on the major climbs of the Tour de France. In addition to The Tour Is Won on the Alpe—which is about l’Alpe d’Huez—I’d like to see one on Mont Ventoux, and others on the Ballon d’Alsace, the Col du Galibier, the Col du Tourmalet and the Col de la Croix de Fer.

Of course, I don’t think Vespini would want to do that. The thesis of The Tour Is Won on the Alpe is that no single mountain has been more pivotal in the Tour de France than l’Alpe d’Huez. It’s a line-in-the-sand thesis. It really doesn’t leave any room for nuance.

Vespini uses the very facts of history to lay out how each time l’Alpe d’Huez was included in the Tour de France, it’s role wasn’t just important, it was downright pivotal. He shows how winning the stage won’t ensure victory in Paris; rather, pulling on yellow in the town of Huez is a sign of things to come.

It’s a charge not without its romance. If you are a Tour hopeful, you had better be prepared to deliver greatness on the Alpe. If you can’t muster there, history has shown your hopes are just fantasies.

Of course, history will show Vespini’s theory isn’t bulletproof. Laurent Fignon’s first two ascents of l’Alpe d’Huez ended with him pulling on the maillot jaune and keeping it straight to Paris, though in ’89 he only kept it until Paris. Greg LeMond losing the jersey on l’Alpe d’Huez only to take it back in Paris doesn’t follow the script.

It is that single fact more than any other that makes me want to see Vespini take his ability to connect dots and form theories and apply his considerable intellect to the Col du Tourmalet. How many other climbs have appeared in the Tour de France more often than the Tourmalet? After all, there are a million routes through the Alps, but any route through the Pyrenees that doesn’t include the Tourmalet seems incomplete.

What would Vespini say of other mountains? What would he discover?

Beyond refreshing our memories of the stages up l’Alpe d’Huez, Vespini does much to show how behind-the-scenes maneuvering made l’Alpe d’Huez a fairly regular part of the Tour. These are lively characters in a fascinating town. The stats he amasses over the years are a who’s who of greatness; that Laurent Fignon holds the record for the most high-placed finishes (five) is yet another indication of just how great le professeur really was.

As winter reading goes for cyclists, I think it’s only fair that prose should conjure the July sun to remind you of the sting of sweat in your eyes. Vespini’s book is a veritable greatest hits collection from epic days of the Tour de France.

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