Even non-cyclists have heard of the Tour de France. Unavoidable images of idyllic mountain passes, crazy Dutchmen, and cancer survivors turned heroes turned world champions turned disgraces come to mind. Here at BikeLife Cities, we believe it is important to celebrate Le Tour not just as riders, or even sports fans, but to recognize the incredible spectacle for what it is: a confluence of culture and history of the highest degree. The Tour is more than just unbelievably fit men clinging like skeletons to thousand-dollar machines for hundreds and hundreds of miles for days on end, riding through fields of sunflowers and living on slurpable goo and enormous amounts of food. In addition to the sporting aspect of the event, in which competitors are pushed to their physical and mental limits and exhibit extraordinary amounts of courage, tenacity, and suffering, the Tour is representative of the full spectrum of humanity. At it’s best, “Le Grande Boucle” (French for “The Great Loop”) is an example of how people, friends and enemies alike, can work together to surmount unfathomable obstacles; at it’s worst, the Tour shows us what happens when we succumb to temptation, dishonesty, and disrespect. Wrapping this all in to one, we’d like to recognize and demystify this year’s foray into the Alps, getting beyond the race and bringing you to the hamlets, wildflowers, and local legends that make the Tour so great. Let us be the first to welcome you to the Alps.
The Alps are the tallest and longest mountain range that lies wholly within Europe, rising to a high point of 15,781 feet at the top of Mount Blanc on the French/Italian border and stretching over 750 miles across eight countries. Relatively young compared to ranges such as the Rockies and the Himalayas, the Alps are known for sharp, abrupt, jagged peaks as a result of tectonic plate collision. Iconic images include the Matterhorn, Edelweiss wildflowers, and pristine blue lakes like Lake Geneva framed by snow-covered peaks in the background.
The word “Alp” is a Latin derivative that refers to a high mountain pasture, beneath glaciers or peaks, where cows are taken to graze during the summer months. Each country containing parts of the mountains has it’s own word for peak, whether Horn in German, Mont in French, or Montagna in Italian. The region’s history is intricately intertwined with that of the European continent, dating back to Celtic and Roman times. Carthaginian general Hannibal famously passed over the Alps with an army of war elephants in order to attack Rome during the Second Punic War, a feat seconded by Napoleon in 1800, replacing the elephants with an army of 40,000. The Winter Olympics have been hosted in the Austrian (Innsbruck, 1976), French (Albertville, 1992, Chamonix, 1924, Grenoble, 1968), German (Garmish-Partenkirchen, 1936), Italian (Cortina D’Ampezzo, 1956, Turin, 2006), and Swiss (St. Moritz, 1928, 1948) Alps, a reflection of the region’s attractiveness to athletes, writers, and scientists of all kinds.
The Alps are known for the strong cultural heritage and identity present in their hills, towns, and villages. Many traditional crafts persist to this day, with expertise coming especially in the realms of cheesemaking, farming, alcohol distillation, and woodworking. Following World War II, however, tourism has taken hold as the primary industry in the region, year-round. At present there are roughly 14 million permanent residents in the Alps, and an astounding 120 million visitors annually.
With regards to the Tour, it is easy to see why the world’s greatest bike race has become woven into the storied fabric of the Alps’ history and mystique. Along with the Pyrenees on the French/Spanish border, the Alps represent the true test of a cyclist’s mettle, with both steep gradients and oxygen-thin altitude to challenge even the best of riders. Classic climbs such as Alpe D’Huez, Mont Ventoux, and the Col Du Galibier often decide the three-week race in a single day. The greatest riders in the history of cycling have created and cemented their legends conquering unending switchbacks on the slopes of these unforgiving mountains, names such as Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Jacques Anquetil, Miguel Indurain, and Greg LeMond. For this year’s Tour, the 103rd edition of the race, we will look at not only the climbs the riders will tackle, but also the culture-rich villages and communities they are passing through along the way. Bienvenue a les Alpes!