One of the great joys of this magazine is when we get to send Western Canada’s greatest writers on travel assignments around the globe to bring the essence of a place back to our readers. One such memorable piece followed Edmonton’s Curtis Gillespie as he trekked to France to attempt to ride a bike up the Alpe d’Huez, the most feared climb of the Tour de France. On the upside, he made it. On the downside, he crashed on the descent, destroying a $10,000 (borrowed) bike in the process. Luckily he was okay and, even luckier, his long piece on the adventure for us—entitled “Crash Course”—garnered a Silver Medal at the National Magazine Awards. Here’s an excerpt from the epic, 4,600-word piece.
The cycling route on the Alpe d’Huez—a regular in the Tour de France rotation—is famous for 21 hairpin turns: gruelling on the way up, dangerous on the way down, as Gillespie discovered.
The ambulance came shrieking up behind us on the D1091 along the valley floor south of Grenoble, heading towards Rochetaille, the departure point for our cycling ascent of the iconic Tour de France stage at Alpe d’Huez. We pulled to the side as much as the narrow road would allow, and the ambulance howled past.
“If that ambulance is heading to Alpe d’Huez,” I said to Rich, “maybe it should stay there. We might need it later.”
We laughed... but probably shouldn’t have.
An hour later, everything seemed right with the world. We’d parked at a roadside turnout near Rochetaille, done a quick up and down a nearby hill, and were now cycling towards the base of Alpe d’Huez. It was a measured and entirely tolerable 20-kilometre warmup, and I said as much to Rich.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” he said.
Alpe d’Huez is one of most celebrated climbs in the Alps, partly due to being a regular on the Tour rota, partly because if it’s not the hardest climb it’s still hellishly difficult, partly due to the sheer relentlessness of the slope, and partly due to the ridiculously picturesque nature of its twisting, winding curves. It’s an elemental climb, packed with drama and beauty and suffering.
Did I mention the suffering? Ten minutes after we’d started going uphill, I was locked in an internal existential debate on the precise nature of pain. We were still on the first slope. I’d been doing close to 50 km/h as we hit the base, but 200 metres up the slope it was as if a parachute had opened behind me. I was now doing under 10 km/h. And was struggling. Badly. We’d yet to hit the first of the 21 famous hairpins, and I knew, with sudden clarity, that there was no way I was going to make it up that mountain if this kept up. I pegged the incline at about 30 percent; Rich told me later it was 10 percent.
As I valiantly tried to keep the pedals turning over, my mind flooded with questions: What is my limit? How much harder can I push? Why am I doing this? Will I be able to live with myself if I quit? At the first hairpin, Rich was circling, waiting for me. He’d yet to break a sweat.
“One down,” he said. “Twenty to go.”
Another question arrived: Would anyone miss Rich if I pushed him over the edge of the cliff?
Before I could work out the logistics of the crime, he’d taken off towards Hairpin #2. I followed. We had one goal, or at least I had one goal—now that we were on the hill, I wanted to make it to the summit without stopping. By Hairpin #7, I was feeling less panicky about the whole enterprise, possibly due to oxygen deprivation. We’d been riding for just under 40 minutes. This is doable, I thought. I might just be able to make it up this mountain. Rich asked me how I was doing.
“Not bad,” I huffed back. “Hey, what’s the record for climbing Alpe d’Huez, anyway? How fast do the pros do it?”
“Not sure, exactly,” he said. “I think around 40 minutes.”
I put my head down. Just keep turning the pedals. Just keep turning the pedals.
Five hairpins later we cleared the treeline and the world suddenly seemed to open out beneath us. The valley floor was now so far below us I found it impossible to believe we’d gotten this far under our own power. Another half an hour on, we hit the final hairpin. Fifteen minutes later, we found the post signifying the high point of the official Tour de France stage. We stopped, took a picture, filled our lungs, and turned down. After stopping for a bite in one of the quaint cafés in the town, we hit the hairpins to let gravity do its work.
It’s here that we must talk about what they don’t tell you in the guide books and on the websites and in the travelogues (at least the ones I read, which were clearly the wrong ones). They tell you that cycling in the Alps is stunning for the scenery. (True.) They tell you that French drivers respect cyclists and share the road. (True.) They tell you that you can stop in any village and get a perfect latte. (True.) They tell you that it’s difficult to fully prepare for the suffering and pain you’ll need to endure to make it to the top. (True.) And they all tell you, in rapturous tones, that at the top you will be suffused with satisfaction, bathed in endorphins, glistening with the honeyed sweat of your own satisfied effort. (True.)
But they don’t tell you much about going back down. They don’t tell you that it’s easy to let the brain switch off ever so slightly and that it would only be normal to let your guard down. And why would you do this? Because you have achieved your mission, have you not? Your goal was to make it “up” the mountain. The massive strain and effort and heart pounding in your ears and quads on fire and the thoughts of quitting, all that happened going up. And then you got to the top, and it all went away, so surely that must mean the mission has been accomplished. Right?
I only had to freewheel for mere seconds on the descent to accelerate to 60 km/h. We were swooshing, flying, screaming down the hill, and it was exhilarating and terrifying in equal measures. After successfully negotiating the trickiest of the hairpins in the middle of the descent, we finally stopped at the side of the road at Hairpin #2, where we had a look both out over the lower valley and back up the mountain.
“You did it,” said Rich, grinning. He looked up the mountain. “Can you believe we climbed that?”
I smiled. It was true. A feeling of satisfaction flooded through me. “We’ve earned our dinner tonight.” I urged him on. “You first. And go as fast as you like. I know you’ve been holding back a bit for me. I’ll see you at the bottom.”
He tore off, and after adjusting one of my gloves I followed. The road down, between Hairpin #2 and the final Hairpin, #1, was a little more sinuous than the rest, and partly in the shade, now that we were back beneath the treeline. The pavement was slick here and there with spring runoff, and as I let my speed pick up I noticed bits of pebble and scree that had fallen off the mountain onto the road. Rich was already far ahead, hitting speeds close to 70 km/h. Halfway between the two final hairpins, the road veered slightly to the left. I was a touch too close to the inner face of the mountain, near the craggy cliff wall, and so I made a move to drift closer to the centre of the road. As I did so, I feathered the brakes at the exact moment I hit a small scattering of arrowhead rock that had splintered off the mountain face into the shadows. With no warning, my rear wheel skated a few centimetres towards the narrow gutter on the inner side of the road. I tried to compensate with the front wheel, fingered the brakes again, and then felt the front tire wobble hard. I was now suddenly, officially, instantly, deeply in trouble, and still doing about 50 km/h. The back wheel shot out from under me and caught the gutter. The front wheel turned straight sideways. My hands were ripped from the bar. I was in freefall at 40 km/h, but instead of toppling over, hitting the road, and sliding, the gutter pulled the bike, and me (still clipped into my pedals), into the wall of broken rock just 12 inches off the road. My right leg hit the jagged wall, and then my shoulder hit, too. My bike rammed into me and then cartwheeled over top as my feet were torn out of the clips. A boulder was sticking out the side of the rock face and my face was moving fast towards it; I turned my head just in time so that the boulder crashed against my helmet. There was a thud, more scraping, I heard what sounded like wheel spokes clattering, and then I came to a stop, splayed out on the road, my legs in the gutter, my torso on the pavement, my head in the middle of the downhill lane.
The whole thing had taken no more than two seconds, from first doing 60 km/h over shale I hadn’t seen when I’d touched my brakes, to the time I came to a stop.
I lay on the road for a few seconds, doing the checklist. Arms, legs, hands, fingers: all moveable. Neck, eyes: working. Then I looked down. The entire right side of my body was shredded. There was blood all over me and a smear of red on the road behind me. My left hand was torn up. My right leg was a pulpy mess. I decided to stand up, but before I did a thought entered my head: Okay, if I stand up and look down and see my body still on the ground, it means I’m dead. It was a brief and sobering thought.
I stood. I looked down. My body was not on the road... except for the skin and blood I’d surfaced it with. I knew instinctively that I’d just had a major escape. I was alive and could easily have not been.
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