A British sportswriter took me aside during my inaugural Tour de France to explain: "After I covered this stage for the first time, I never again used the word 'heroic' to describe an athlete in any other sport."
The legend of L'Alpe d'Huez, the most storied stage of the Tour, derives from the 21 switchback turns to the top. On a map, the road to this ski station near Grenoble winds like intestine, a felicitous resemblance given how gut-busting the climb. Riders have already ascended a series of Alpine peaks -- most of them also
Race fans from all over Europe and beyond camp out overnight by the sides of the road. They rise early to scrawl messages of support in chalk and spray paint on the rock and roadbed, and lather themselves up while following the first five or six hours of the stage on battery-powered radios and TVs. Some even mount bikes of their own to road-test the mountain. Then, finally, after the absurd and kitschy caravan
From this Alpine aerie in 1987 I watched the Irishman
The next morning, down the mountain in Bourg d'Oisans, the riders with enough left prepare to set off again, knowing that they're introducing coffee and croissants into bodies that have survived the most daunting day in a succession of them.
Golf offers up a challenge of grass and sand and water. Sailing demands mastery of meteorology and oceanography. Cycling, at L'Alpe d'Huez on this day, presents to its would-be champions -- its aspiring heroes -- the most timeless and pitiless of the physical sciences. It offers geology, and a chance for those who ascend to ascend.