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Kings of the mountains: hitting the heights in the Tour de France

As the Tour gets set for le grand depart this morning, race organisers are preparing to celebrate 100 years of the event’s Alpine stages. The climbs have brought heartache and tragedy.

Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador have unfinished business to attend to
Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador have unfinished business to attend to
Image: Christophe Ena/AP/Press Association Images

THIS YEAR IS the 98th Tour de France. However, the event is celebrating 100 years in the Alps, so the tour organisers have laid on a special treat for the cyclists.

This year they will cycle to an higher altitude  than ever before, topping at 2,645 metres; and climb one of the cruellest ascents twice, Le Galibier, first climbed a century ago.

If that sounds bad, after tackling this Hors Catagory climb for the second time, cyclist will look across the valley and see the summit of the famous Alp d’Heuz which they will still have to ascend before that stage (the 19th) is concluded. So once again expect the drama of the greatest race on earth to unfold in the folded valleys of South East France.

Over the years reputations have been broken and heroes made on the Alpine roads, usually under inhumane heat and intense pressure. What are your stand-out  moments amongst the thinnest of air?

Here’s some of the most memorable – for better or worse – in the tour’s long history:

1. Tommy Simpson’s death on the Ventoux

In all there have been 15 deaths in Le Tour, but maybe none so famous or dramatic as British rider Tommy Simpson’s in 1967.

With just a mile and a half left to the summit, Simpson battling to remain in contention for the maillot jaune, started weaving dramatically on the lunar landscape of the famed Mt Ventoux. What happened next altered cycling and some would say sport in general. The days of acceptable stimulant enhancement came to a shuddering and tragic end on the  Alpine summit.


2. Stephen Roche’s La Plange miracle

The 1987 season was all about Roche. From being attacked by spectators day after day on his way to winning the Giro d’Italia, to claiming the triple crown with the World Championships win in Austria. Roche had the most vaunted of seasons.

However without this spectacular effort to stay in contention in Le Tour, that achievement would never have happened.

The time check on the road between Roche and yellow jersey holder Pedro Delgado with 1.5k to the stage’s end was just  a minute. No wonder he needed oxygen when he crossed the line.

Here Stephen describes the drama himself (if a little grainy).


3. Contador attacks helpless Schleck

It may have been last year, but in one simple action the honour of Le Tour was in jeopardy.

Andy Schlek from Luxembourg , the greatest threat to two-time winner Alberto Contador of Spain, attacked on the Port du Bales. After making a decisive burst, Schleck’s chain came off. Contador attacked the stricken cyclist; a no-no in the peloton – lost the support of the crowd, and for good measure, subsequently, got himself embroiled in a doping scandal that has yet to be resolved.


4. Armstrong crashes and attacks

In 2003, Lance Armstrong was going for a record-equalling fifth Tour victory. In one of the tightest races of all time, and one of the most exciting, Armstrong had a nightmare in the penultimate mountain stage.

After an attack from the pack, he got his handlebars caught in a fan’s flag, causing him to crash. After falling behind his rivals, his pedal then developed problems. However the pack waited for him, (notice the difference between this and Contador’s reaction) in return for a favour Armstrong did in the 2001 tour.

How did Armstrong thank the peloton? Well he just cycled right past them!


5. Hinault acknowledges the new champ

Bernard Hinault (his son cycles with Nicolas Roche’s Ag2r team) was the darling of French cycling, winning five tours. His team-mate Greg LeMond was the American apprentice, supposedly there to support Hinault’s quest for a record breaking six tour wins in the 1986 edition.

It didn’t  pan out that way, and LeMond wouldn’t bow to him. Hinault made one final attempt to break the American, but couldn’t shake him. Hinault crowned his apprentice on Alpe d’Heuz.

LeMond returned to the States a hero, and celebrated by accidentally being shot by his brother. He returned to the 1988 Tour and beat Laurent Fignon by a mere eight seconds to take his second tour title.

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