JUST the idea of Alpe d’Huez broke Pascal Simon. Some 35 years ago, the last Peugeot rider to ever wear the leader’s yellow jersey in the Tour de France pedalled towards the foot of the most mythical climb in this most magical bike race, pictured the 21 hairpin bends snaking up into the heavens in front of him, stepped off his little bicycle and quit.
Injury and the relentless pressure from the eventual winner, Laurent Fignon, undoubtedly contributed to his withdrawal, but there’s something about Alpe d’Huez; pro cycling’s hallowed cathedral of climbs. Three and a half decades on, we’re at the Alpe with a pair of Peugeots (one of them with just two wheels) and a point to prove.
A few points, come to think of it. We’ve covered the 600km from Paris to the Oisans region of the French Alps in Peugeot’s 508 GT. An extended autoroute leg stretcher followed by a workout on these magnificent mountain roads ought to be enough to establish whether this marks a much-needed reset of the datum for the mid-range sedan. On board is four grand’s worth of carbon-framed Peugeot R02 road bike that I’m going to attempt to ride up Alpe d’Huez, prefaced by precisely zero training.
The 508’s launch could be construed as either brave or foolhardy, depending on your viewpoint. Just at that point when the market is migrating to the blurred niches of crossover hell, Peugeot brings us a defiantly conventional top-end-of-mainstream sedan and wagon. Ever see one of those Attenborough documentaries with fish flapping desperately in an evaporating puddle? That’s where the 508’s attempting to survive.
It’s sharper and fitter than its amorphous predecessor, with slick EMP2 underpinnings making it light on its feet. Power comes from a 169kW 1.6-litre four, driving the front wheels through an eight-speed Aisin auto, but tasked with just 1420kg in this GT model, it feels alert and peppy. With solid active cruise and lane-keep functions, a decent Focal stereo and adaptive suspension, it monstered the autoroute leg, with only some wind rustle from the roof bars reminding me why the 8.0L/100km fuel-economy figure wasn’t quite as expected.
Recce time. Watch the heli footage of Alpe d’Huez packed with a million spectators in July and the road looks like all of the Alps encapsulated into one mountain, cycling’s Maracana climbing over a thousand metres straight up. Down at ground level, it’s a far more cryptic undertaking, rarely ever straight, melding to the folds, rills and cliff bands of this mountain’s complex topography. There’s no warm-up, either. The road arrives from the almost pan-flat Romanche valley and launches straight into one of the most savage gradients on the entire climb. I’m shocked. It’s like a wall. Alpe d’Huez has been haunting me for weeks as I plot a method of getting to the top. This chilling introduction has me wondering if I’ve hopelessly underestimated the physical challenge.
The 508 yelps up this first stretch, which meanders endlessly to the first hairpin. A plaque attached to the rock face is numbered 21, with the names of past stage winners here. This one features Fausto Coppi, who won what was the Tour’s first mountain-top finish in 1953, and Lance Armstrong, who prevailed in the midst of EPO-era 2001.
The second pitch is hardly any easier, and nor is the third or fourth. The gradient seems to ease off a little at the hamlet of La Garde, before stepping up again on the approach to the seventh switchback, the famous Dutch Corner, which, during the race, is a roiling sea of orange around Saint Ferreol church. Above the old silver-mining village of Huez, the mountain opens into pastureland, with the chalets of the ski resort clinging to the plateau above, the road here climbing to nearly 14 percent.
The Peugeot loves diving into each hairpin hard on the picks as you look over your shoulder up the road, taking great liberties with your line and figuring out how to unstick a front end that’s hot-hatch tenacious. Use the paddles, switch the car into Sport and it lets you pick up the throttle early, leaning on a power-to-weight ratio that, at 119kW/tonne, is probably more warm hatch than hot, but still enough for a presentable 7.3sec to 100km/h. Just not on this gradient. It holds onto gears manically in this mode and, unlike the 5008, there’s no manual button atop the gear lever, that function now being hopelessly buried in the infotainment.
I reach the top and quickly come to the conclusion that there are few places more depressing than an out-of-season ski resort. It’s deserted. Rain starts to fall on the road back down as it darkens. By the time I reach the valley, Alpe d’Huez village is an off-world neon glow in the nimbostratus overhead. I’m not encouraged.
My feeling of foreboding isn’t helped when I check the bike into a local shop for a quick once-over and Thierry, the proprietor, takes one look at the rear cassette, shrugs and says, “You only have a 28.” I take that as meaning I don’t have low enough gearing. Then he looks at me disparagingly, 6’4” and 105kg not being the genotype for a climbing cyclist, and mutters, “I think maybe you can make it.” Hardly an unalloyed vote of confidence.
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Things get worse that evening when the effects of an ill-advised autoroute panini take hold. The next morning I’m feeling wholly dreadful, but the combined effects of cabin fever and gastro in a tiny, sweaty and increasingly grim-smelling hotel room drive me out the door.
As I look up at the road to Alpe d’Huez, feeling drained and hopelessly ill-prepared, I know but one thing. If I stop, I’ll lose heart and turn back, so I vow not to stop and see where that gets me.
I feel as if I’ve emptied about 50 percent of my reserves on those first four hairpins. Thierry was right. Even in the lowest gear, I’m pushing hard on the cranks and wrenching at the bars with every rotation, rather than engaging in the effortless walking-pace spinning I’d imagined. A few locals emerge from a bar in Huez in time to catch me throwing up onto the road as I pedal onwards. It happens again on the other side of the village. I try not to think of my heart rate, the fear of failure, the weird metallic taste of blood in my mouth or anything else and just robotically count each pedal rotation to 100 and start again.
It’s an utterly horrendous experience. I wanted to know what it felt like, and now I know. Alpe d’Huez is laughing at me, each hairpin seeming to get agonisingly further apart. Just when I think my torment is over, I enter the resort and find that there are actually 22 hairpins on the Tour route, the final one numbered zero.
The nondescript finish line arrives on an avenue on the gentle slopes of the snow-capped Grandes Rousses. I crawl across and then realise I don’t have the strength to unclip my cleat from the pedal and begin to topple over in slow motion. In that moment I recall Peugeot’s PR man confirming to his Peugeot Cycles associate that I would treat this beautiful bike as if it was my own. At the last second, my sock slips out of the shoe and I catch myself. I sit dazed by the side of this deserted grey road with one shoe on, wind whipping through the shuttered chalets while I try to make some sense of what’s just happened.
It’s hard not to think of the ghosts who have passed this way. Of Marco Pantani, whose name still emblazons the tarmac all the way up the hill, his 37-minute ascent writ large in the tour record books, albeit tainted with the blanket suspicion of the EPO era. Or the recently departed Laurent Fignon, who stalked Peugeot’s Pascal Simon to his capitulation. Peugeot’s own Phil Anderson, the very first Australian to wear the Tour’s yellow jersey back in 1979, was a relative unknown from Melbourne who grabbed the maillot jaune in the Pyrenees and fended off the wily Bernard Hinault all the way to the 17th stage. Alpe d’Huez proved his nemesis too.
Short of sitting through Evita in the Streatham Odeon to impress a girl, I think riding up that hill might have been the worst 77 minutes of my life. Even the run back down is frustrating, the road never really giving you a good look at it to get some speed up. A couple of hairpins from the bottom, I overcook one turn, end up on the wrong side of the road and almost bugsplat myself onto the front of a Renault van. The heart-rate trace recounting my slither into the oncoming vehicle doesn’t lie. So, yes, it is possible for a near-50-year-old desk jockey to ride up Alpe d’Huez in one hit with no specific training, but it’s neither enjoyable nor recommended.
Some recompense comes the next day. Photographer Jahn and I head back into the mountains, driving the magnificent road up from Allemond to the Col de Croix de Fer. At 2067m above sea level, this pass links the Maurienne and Romanche valleys and is a wild and beautiful drive, climbing through larch forests and past two vast reservoirs before cresting in a jaw-dropping view over the triple peaks of the Aiguilles d’Arves. The 508 is so much fun, finding the path of least resistance on the run back down, encouraging you to lean on its steering, take great bites out of well-sighted apexes and leap it off the heavy cambers. Pressure off, I even get back on the bike and enjoy a leisurely pedal.
Pop the Peugeot’s liftback, drop the seats and the bike fits inside easier than it would in my Range Rover Velar long termer. Surely there has to be a place for a car such as this; something light, fun to drive, smart and genuinely functional, yet we continue to turn our backs on cars like the 508.
On reflection, perhaps our desire to wedge ourselves into a cookie-cutter lifestyle has overwhelmed proper assessment of our needs and, come to think of it, capabilities. The Tour might well be won on the Alpe, but so too is a welcome dose of perspective.