Trial by Alp: Tomorrow, riders climb solo 9.6 miles

Much-anticipated Tour test features 21 hairpin turns

Tour De France

July 20, 2004|By Diane Pucin | Diane Pucin,LOS ANGELES TIMES

NIMES, France - One by one they will take off, 160 riders. Ahead of them will be 9.6 miles of continual climbing through 21 hairpin turns.

There will be close to a million people lining the road, which will have been painted bright orange in honor of the Dutch or red, black and yellow, the colors of the German flag, or blue, white and red for the French. The fans will be behind barriers for the last two miles, so until then, people will be darting onto the road to wave a flag in a cyclist's face, snap a picture or yell in a rider's ears.

What happens tomorrow is the most anticipated stage of a Tour de France in years. Or maybe ever.

The infamous climb up L'Alpe d'Huez for the first time has been turned from a long and grueling ride that ends in a huge climb to just a huge climb. It has been made an individual time trial, a one-on-one test of man against mountain.

"I believe the Tour will be decided on Wednesday," said Chris Carmichael, Lance Armstrong's trainer. It was the sentiment of Armstrong when the 2004 Tour route was announced. "The Tour will be decided on L'Alpe," Armstrong predicted last fall.

Frankie Andreu, a former Tour rider, says that what will happen tomorrow is perhaps the most difficult time trial ever. "First of all," Andreu said, "you're going uphill. It's a fine line you're on when you do a mountain climb between going too slowly and going too fast. The big danger is, you blow up.

"If you blow up on a flat time trial, you can have time to recover. If you blow up on the mountain, you could start going backwards."

This is only the third climbing time trial in 15 years, and Armstrong was the winner in one of them, two years ago on another mountain in the Alps.

But there is something mystical about L'Alpe d'Huez. It has become a legendary route. There is a signpost for each of the 21 switchbacks, a way for the cyclists to keep track of their painstaking progress.

And that's when the climb has been part of a full day of riding and when a leader such as Armstrong had the help of teammates for encouragement, for setting tempo, for keeping track of what others are doing.

Going into today's first Alps stage, Armstrong stands in second place, 22 seconds behind France's Thomas Voeckler.

"I think Lance would be happy to ride with Thomas and finish with him and let Thomas keep the yellow one more day," Andreu said.

Tomorrow will be different.

Carmichael disputes the notion that became accepted last October when the Tour stages were announced that this L'Alpe d'Huez time trial was an anti-Lance measure. The conventional thinking was that a 32-year-old might have a hard time making that climb alone.

"No way, Lance was excited," Carmichael said. "He looks at this as an opportunity, a huge opportunity."

This huge opportunity is also a huge danger, said Paul Sherwen, a seven-time participant in the Tour and an Outdoor Life Network commentator. Sherwen has been up L'Alpe d'Huez on his bike. "The difficult thing is that you've got to try hard just to get up the mountain," Sherwen said. "If you try too hard, you go into asphyxiation. You get into oxygen deficit. The first 500 meters are straight up and you have no chance to warm up. So you'd better be prepared when you get on that bike Wednesday.

"That's an advantage to Armstrong."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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