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Journey to the Center of the Universe

Crib Notes
Title: The Tour is Won on the Alpe: Alpe d'Huez and the Classic Battles of the Tour de France
Authors: Jean-Paul Vespini
Publisher: Velo Press
Pages: 256
Order: here
What is it? A retelling of the great Tour de France stage battles on Alpe d'Huez, and the legend that's grown around the mountain.
Strengths: Historical details that bring the past alive.
Weaknesses: The Tour is not usually won on the Alpe.
Rating: ★★★☆ (3.5 of 5)

The Tour de France's biggest stage this year concludes tomorrow at Alpe d'Huez, a not even slightly unfamiliar sight to fans of le grand boucle. TV has turned "the Alpe" into the Super Bowl of Tour stages, with ridiculous numbers of fans draped along the Alpe's 15.5 kilometers practically breathing down the necks of suffering cyclists. Increasingly those fans number nearly a million strong, and as each edition of the race unfolds along the famous 21 hairpins, the legend grows larger.

Alpe_mediumVeteran French journalist Jean-Paul Vespini's new book, "The Tour is Won on the Alpe," traces the legend from its infancy to its behemoth status, and retells every stage along the way. That's 24 chapters, 24 winners reveling in the glory of winning the Tour's iconic stage, 24 battles for yellow on the slopes. For casual fans of Cycling, the book is a great place to start tracing the sport's last half-century, and for long-time fans... well, everyone has at least a few memories of great battles.

There was the beginning, when Fausto Coppi seemed to practically sense the coming importance of this never-before route and stamped his authority on the race and the winding road. There's the endless succession of Dutch stage victors -- eight of the first 14 -- defying their homeland's geographic profile and increasing the mystery of "Dutch Mountain." There's Hinault clasping hands with LeMond for his only win on l'Alpe, a momentary detente from their tense struggle. There's Armstrong giving The Look and accelerating away, leaving Jan Ullrich's career in the dust.

Continued on the flip...

Vespini recounts each entry in chapters that resemble magazine articles: extended race reports, with some background and reflection inserted for color, but otherwise focused on the blow-by-blow. He also tells the story of Georges Rajon, owner of a hotel at the top, who first proposed the marriage of the Tour to l'Alpe starting in 1952. There's a nice set of pictures, including an overhead shot that should scare off any casual cyclists. If you want to get to know the Alpe, this is your reference guide.

Still, the book only rates 3.5 (of 5) stars on the Podium Cafe scale, thanks to two aspects of the book that don't do much for me. First, the race recaps: I've simply read too many books where a journalist-author recycles his year's work, slaps a cover on it, and calls it the story of Cycling 1997 or whatever. I'm a tad biased against old race reports as a result. To be sure, this work doesn't quite feel recycled -- if he used old articles, Vespini appears to have expanded them to fit a book -- and the author is a veteran scribe with Cyclisme Internationale and Le Cycle, so his insights and background info are better than most. But 24 blow-by-blow accounts don't always hold my attention -- particularly from the 1990s with its roster of since-discredited grimpeurs.

My other negative reaction is to the championing of Alpe d'Huez as the icon of the Tour. This is a matter of personal taste, and obviously the slope is guaranteed to put the hurt on even the best cyclists, an invitation to on-road fireworks. But what makes a stage the one to watch is the difficulty and potential strategic effect -- be it the Joux-Plane, Ventoux, La Toussuire, La Plagne, etc. -- not the fact that it's a "hallowed road." If Alpe d'Huez is the most difficult, then so be it. But there's plenty of debate in the peloton on this matter, and it's not the highest road or longest climb. It's just a place that the Tour has chosen to use fairly often (not always) to highlight the Alps campaign.

It also happens to be a great place for fans, I'm told, thanks to the multiple hairpins that allow you to watch the race unfold better than on a straighter road. Perhaps for that reason, it's become a favorite gathering, like the Muur von Geraardsbergen in Flanders, or the Super Bowl, or the Kentucky Derby, or Burning Man in the Nevada desert, or so many other famous, recurring events: a place for community and a great party. As a result, what the Alpe means to the race probably gets overstated. It means a lot to the riders, but even more to the fans. Perhaps it's best seen as a temple for worshipping the sport, or an amphitheater for great, fun viewing, and not exactly where the Tour is won. The author admits as much: the Tour isn't literally won or lost here every time, and eventual Tour champions have almost never won the stage (three times in 24 entries).

The way to appreciate this book is as a reference guide, a collection of stage stories organized by location, if not importance, in order to tell the story of that location -- which happens to be the place to be for 24 hours (almost) each July. As a cover-to-cover read, it doesn't really work. But if you're wondering what happened in a particular Tour, or during a few legendary moments, or even if you're thinking of riding the Alpe yourself, this book helps recreate the slopes, screaming masses of fans, and exhausted riders that make up the legend of the Alpe.