The mountain of fans: The Tour de France 2022 in Alpe d’Huez
Professional cycling photographer Pete Goding meets fans on the most famous climb of the world’s biggest race
words and photography Pete Goding
The intense heat continues to mount across Europe as 159 brave men line up at the start line in Briançon. Four hours, 55 minutes and 24 seconds later in the Western Alps, the Alpe finds itself a new champion.
I’m all that, perched on the back of a motorbike, camera in hand, sweat dripping from my brow, turn after 21 turns. Today’s stage is one of those described as “for the ages”. It’s glorious. But by a twist of fate, I’m not here to follow the day’s action but rather to document it through the eyes of the fans who help make it so special.
It’s early in the day and my trusty motorbike rider Phil and I are riding the course before. The riders are long gone from Briançon, but we are well ahead, crisscrossing the rugged passes and valleys of Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes to Alpe d’Huez, the summit finish of today’s stage , returning to the Tour for the first time since 2018.
Fans are excited, especially the French – today is July 14, so hopes are growing optimistically that a Romain Bardet or a Thibaut Pinot could produce something special. And it’s those fans that I’m here to see before the race is over – the kind of fans who don’t just come to watch the race but to worship this. And get drunk.
As we begin to navigate the foot of L’Alpe, crowds are scattered along the roadside, some just arriving, others just waking up and even more who obviously haven’t slept.
I would put the group of French guys we see in this last camp, standing on point as they are, spinning an improvised wheel of fortune on which a detailed set of rules have been written. Even with my limited French, I can see the results mostly involve drinking Ricard and putting a chicken on your head.
At this point they are dressed in bermuda shirts but they tell me they will change to lycra by the time the race is on in a few hours – once they have drunk this much pastis as their liver can handle, of course.
They really want to show me all their board games, including hook the duck, but I take the opportunity to make a quick exit when the gendarmes show up and start scolding them for setting up an inflatable paddling pool right in front of very fast cars and professional road racers. That seems like a reasonable point to me.
Each of Alpe d’Huez’s famous 21 bends is numbered, counting down as you climb through signs on each bend inscribed with the names of those who triumphed on the climb. In recent years, bends have become the prerogative of certain nationalities. The second bend – Bend 20 – “belongs” to British fans, especially the self-proclaimed “Beefeater Bend” boys.
In keeping with how the world might expect us to behave overseas, a lone man in a giant inflatable penis costume stands proudly at the edge of the bend as men dressed as Beefeaters treat the Entire 1860m Alpe Courtesy Blighty Dispatched Audio System.
“If everyone doesn’t raise their hands in ten seconds, it’s over!” shouts a guy named Steve. ‘That’s how we roll!’
As we chat, my attention is drawn by the royal guard to a large red firefighters‘ van, who yells to stop next to a sheepish-looking gentleman dressed in green and clutching his arm. I walk over as he is taken to the back of the van by French firefighters – firefighters act as an ambulance service in France.
My concern grows for the man in the green shirt until I turn to a bystander who is having a hard time not laughing. It happens to be his wife.
The man is Ralph Mitchell, who ironically enough is a doctor, and after falling off his bike and being diagnosed with a broken arm had asked the police for a sling.
Whoever made the call may not have conveyed the message correctly or misrepresented the situation, because within minutes the cavalry arrived in force, the sirens blaring, which is why the good doctor finds himself doing scrutinized by people wearing blue gloves. .
The firefighters are reluctant for me to photograph or even talk to Ralph due to his seemingly serious situation, but luckily his wife allows me to step in to document the occasion. Apparently, she’ll make it an extra chapter in their honeymoon album. Congratulations on the way!
Back to the man with the giant penis whose name, it turns out, is Axel. I ask him why he is dressed in male genitals. He says it’s because he loves Warren Barguil. I repeat the question, thinking he may have misheard me. “Why are you dressed as a penis?” “Because I’m here for Warren Barguil to win the Tour de France,” he returns a second time, as if I were new to his language.
Of course, why would a man dressed as a massive member sporting a Tricolor wig makes Warren want to win the race? I feel stupid to even question that. I also wonder how Barguil will feel about being honored in such a distinct way. He’ll find out soon enough I think.
The big G
As the race nears the Alpe, I catch clips of the action on my race radio. The England fans around me are buzzing when they hear news of Tom Pidcock and Chris Froome continuing the day’s break, but it’s time for us to move on.
We drive off, the Beefeaters disappearing into the heat haze behind us while in front of us what looks like radar, a hot dog and a Scotch slowly come into focus.
As we get closer I find the radar is in great shape, the hot dog has lost its dog but has great flavor on its bun and the Scottish is hiding – unsurprisingly – something under its kilt.
I encourage Phil to pick up the speed considering we’ve had enough dirty jokes for a day already. Unfortunately, the Scottish-dressed French gentleman didn’t get the memo, and before I could turn my camera away, he reveals the downfall of his own joke.
Next, the Welsh Corner, resplendent in a 15ft-tall banner of Geraint Thomas’ face. As I investigate the corner, a stray car from the race trailer rushes in, a giant Mickey Mouse on its top and an opportunistic fan clinging precariously to Mickey’s yellow boots on the back, grabbing a free lift to climb the mountain.
Advice to the wise: no matter how hilarious it is to take a lift in the back of the trailer – especially when it comes to hanging on to an oversized Disney character for dear life – it is guaranteed that you will receive the wrath of the organization.
This usually comes in the form of beefy gendarmes, who will point out the error of your ways in no uncertain terms once your grip is loosened. It would be a shame to get thrown into the back of one of their sweaty wagons before the riders had even arrived.
Meanwhile, as the temperature continues to rise, people are beginning to seek shade wherever they can find it: umbrellas, small branches, makeshift tents. The temperature gauge on Phil’s motorcycle reads 35°C, and the heat quickly becomes unbearable.
Looking back, I should have invested in light biker gear. This all-black winter outfit was a pretty basic wardrobe mistake and it feels like a faucet has run down my neck, back and arms – even my knees are sweating.
However, as we come to turn number seven – the infamous Dutch Corner – my own fate is forgotten as my attention is drawn to a row of brightly colored fans glinting in the sun.
As if I’d been magically transported to a night out in Ibiza, I’m greeted by the aromas of body odor and sunscreen mixed with barbecue and cheap booze. Look at Corner Orange!
This is the original party corner on the Alpe, baptized by the Dutch because of its proximity to the Church of St. Ferreol, where the former Dutch pastor, Father Jaap Reuten, rang the bells after each Dutch victory on the mountain.
Today, the corner has been embraced by revelers from all over the world, and it welcomes people of all faiths and denominations, whether you’re dressed as a Pokémon or a lobster or just sneaking around in a drunken stupor, covered in paint orange and wearing little more than Speedos.
I prepare Phil for this as I get up on the bike and step into the stream of figures blocking our path. As we approach, it’s like a scene from the Old Testament, the sea of people parting as we are swept away by a wave of enthusiastically waving and patting hands. Water and beer are thrown, and heart-rending cries of jubilation are launched from all directions.
We manage to escape, and I climb to safer ground just as the mob stops an official race car and begins rocking it from side to side. The trapped passengers adopt fixed grimaces – unable to know whether it is safe to laugh or get angry. Finally, a private security guard manages to calm the situation and the car drives off.
As I reach the heights above the corner, I come across a colleague of mine, the Dutch photographer Dion. He comes to this very place to admire the spectacle each time the Tour climbs the Alpe.
“It’s the best view of the action,” he says. That may be true, but the place is empty and there is still an hour and a half before the end of the race. Watching the horde, we see the pre-race Tour caravan arrive and witness each floater receiving the same loud treatment.
The appearance of the caravan means I don’t have long if I have to make it to the finish line in time to capture the winner, so Dion and I say goodbye and move on. My race radio says Pidcock is coming.
legends are made
The national flavor of Turn 1, the 21st and final corner of the Alpe, is somewhat surprising, having been dedicated relatively recently to Norwegians and run by bike shop owners Svein and Magnus from Kristiansand.
Having already spent five days on the Alpe to secure a place, this group of father and son set up their sound system and made sure to be able to party all day while finishing with a pancake. Again, my race radio crackles.
Pidcock distanced Froome, who sits third with Louis Meintjes of Intermarché-Wanty-Gobert Matériaux between the two. Try saying that after a viking beer horn.
On this, we spin as fast as we dare to the top of the Alpe. I take my position in time to capture the 22-year-old Ineos Grenadiers pilot who wins the biggest victory of his career so far.
The boy from Leeds did well. And 70 years after its Tour debut, Alpe d’Huez and its fans have also achieved another outstanding performance.