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Esprit du Tour

Riders in the 100th Tour de France will set out from the Corsican town of Porto-Vecchio this month, launching not only a grueling three-week cycling race, but also a countrywide celebration of what it means to be French. Rachel Sturtz introduces us to some of the people who will take their place along the route.

Author Rachel Sturtz Photography Laura Stevens

Yves Breton, along the road up Alpe d’Huez

Yves Breton, along the road up Alpe d’Huez

THE SKI RESORT ATOP ALPE D’HUEZ, in the Rhône-Alps region of France, is known locally as l’Ile au Soleil (“Island of the Sun”), due to the fact that it rises above the clouds. Here, they say, you can get a year-round sunburn and see a fifth of France. The road leading to the resort rises at an incline of about 9 percent and runs for roughly 9 miles of the 140-mile stage. Come July, this asphalt squiggle will be lined with a million spectators, eager to watch their heroes contend with the Tour’s most notorious climb.

This year, for the first time, the race will involve two ascents of Alpe d’Huez in a single day—a daunting, even terrifying prospect for the riders. Those who call the mountain home, though, are not easily impressed. “Twice a day is not much,” says ski instructor Yves Breton, sipping a Leffe beer in the nearby village of Huez.

With gray hair cropped close at the sides and a bum knee from snowboarding, Breton, 50, operates a seasonal photography business, snapping photos of the thousands of journeyman cyclists who attempt to make it up Alpe d’Huez every summer and selling copies to those who care to remember the experience.

“When you climb Alpe d’Huez, you are inside history,” Breton says. “If you are a pro and you want to become a legend, you must win here. Other cyclists come to picture themselves as one of the pros, even if it means killing themselves trying.”

Divine in ambition but human in strength, many of the recreational cyclists break form as they struggle up the mountain. Legs lock, shoulders bunch and, with every muscle fiber drowning in lactic acid, faces take on expressions that go beyond pain or desperation. There are three churches along the route. People stop at them. Prayers are said.

Becoming a Tour contender may be an impossible goal for most mortals, but time it right and you could have your picture taken riding beside one of the big guys doing a trial run. Otherwise, Breton recommends that dilettantes postpone their efforts until the day after the race.  

“All of the cars and people have left, and the road is covered in the colorful names of riders that fans drew before the race,” he says. “The climb doesn’t feel so hard when you have so much to read.”

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