Tour de France celebrates 100 years in the Alps with highest-ever finish

The French Alps have always been the holy grail of cycling. But this year the quest is even tougher: Tour de France cyclists will set a new record for the highest finish.

Pascal Rossignol/Reuters
Leopard-Trek riders work together during the 17th stage of the Tour de France 2011 cycling race from the French town of Gap to Pinerolo, northern Italy, on July 20.

Every sport has its holy grails – for baseball it's Fenway Park and Wrigley Field; tennis has Roland Garros and Wimbledon. For professional cyclists, it’s the French Alps.

Over the past 100 years, the craggy mountain range has hosted epic Tour de France duels, dashed dreams, and forged champions.

To mark a century of riding through the Alps, Tour de France organizers have set this year’s deciding stages among some of its most iconic and grueling peaks.

The peloton begins the first of three consecutive high mountain stages today, with Thursday and Friday – the final two climbing days in this year's Tour – expected to be the most decisive.

Thursday’s Stage 18 will start in the Italian Alps and conclude back in France atop the Col du Galibier, which at 8,400 feet will be the highest finish in Tour history.

But the Galibier, often the tallest point, or “roof” of each Tour, doesn’t have that honor this year. That goes to the nearly 9,000-foot Col Agnel, the third-highest paved road in the Alps, one of three hors categorie climbs on Thursday. (Tour organizers rate mountains on a descending scale of difficulty, from one to four. The toughest climbs are called hors categorie, or outside of categorization.)

On Friday, cyclists will tackle the Galibier once more, before ending their day on the venerable Alpe-d’Huez.

The kingmaker: Alpe-d'Huez

Since Italian Fausto Coppi won the inaugural Alpe-d’Huez stage in 1952 and went on to capture that year’s Tour, the climb has often played kingmaker.

During his streak of seven Tour de France wins, Lance Armstrong won on Alpe-d’Huez twice (2001 and 2004).

For riders like Christian Vande Velde, a Chicago native who rides for Team Garmin-Cervélo, the climb inspired them well before they even became a Tour participant. "Every hill I always went up as a kid, I was like, this is just like Alpe-d’Huez."

Vande Velde first lived out his childhood dream of ascending Alpe-d’Huez in 1999, as a member of Lance Armstrong’s US Postal team. It quickly turned into a nightmare – he struggled at the back of the peloton, finishing 30 minutes behind the day’s winner, and threw up afterward.

Now a seasoned pro, Vande Velde knows the route so well that he no longer does reconnaissance rides before the Tour. He has even ridden Alpe-d’Huez outside of the race, most notably as part of a Food Network television show in 2007.

“I’ve been up it over 10 times now, so I know where I’m good and where I’m bad,” he says.

Battle for the overall lead

Though the battle for the yellow jersey will likely be decided later this week, the Alpine action has already begun. During yesterday’s opening stage in the Alps, which ended in the French town of Gap, Spain’s Alberto Contador and Australian Cadel Evans surprised rivals with a breakaway ride up the Col de Manse.

France’s Thomas Voeckler, the race leader, and the Schleck brothers of Luxembourg, were left chasing.

“Frankly, when [Contador] left on the attack, we didn’t expect it,” said Fränk Schleck. “But we’re going to stay our course – we have three days left in the mountains.”

Schleck and his brother Andy will try to regroup today as the Tour rolls into the Italian Alps, finishing in the mountain town of Pinerolo, southwest of the 2006 Olympic city of Torino.

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