Hors Course stage 12: From the Fortifications of Vauban to the legendary Alpe d’Huez

As heard on the Tour Daily podcast, José Been is taking us off the race route for some local historical and cultural context for each stage, from Denmark all the way to Paris.

We are in Briancon. Or Briancon as one Dutch person once told me when I did my summer job in France helping stranded Dutch tourists 20 years ago. An interesting time: that one man who couldn’t find his car in Paris and only knew he parked it near a bridge, and lost people saying they just passed the village sign of Prochaine Sortie.

But Briancon. It’s the highest village in France at 1326 metres. It’s the second highest in Europe behind Davos in Switzerland. Briancon has always been an important place strategically because it’s on the way to Italy. It also lies on the crossroads of no less than five valleys. It first became French in 1349, then became part of the Savoy Kingdom and back to France in 1713.

Briançon is one of the 12 so-called Fortifications of Vauban. It consists of 12 groups of fortified buildings and sites along the western, northern and eastern borders of France. They represent the finest examples of the work of Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban who was born in 1633 and died 1707. He was a military engineer, architect and town planner to King Louis XIV, also called the Sun King. Vauban fortifications bear witness to the peak of classic fortifications, typical of western military architecture. They are also called the Iron Belt of strongholds on the border.

Longwy is another example of Vauban’s work, positioned on the norther borer with Belgium, and where Tadej Pogačar won stage 6 to take the yellow jersey.

Briançon is a classic Vauban-style fortication with three kilometers of wall and four forts around it. The most magnificent one is Fort des Trois Têtes. There are walks to connect them on often very steep slopes, and are seriously threatened by the degradation of the rocky foundations, severe frost and a general lack of maintenance. Luckily a lot of work is already done but it’s an ongoing process.

Briancon and its historical fortifications, nestled in the Hautes-Alpes.

Today’s stage will be a seemingly endless series of amazing Alpine helicopter shots, if the weather is okay. If the most recent edition of Criterium du Dauphiné is anything to go by we are in for a treat. Or maybe you don’t like the Alps at all. It’s possible, but we can’t be friends!

Today’s stage finishes at one of the most well-known climbs in the world: the Alpe d’Huez. It’s almost a staple on the Tour de France menu, but after the first climb in 1952 the organizers weren’t convinced and didn’t return until 1976. Fausto Coppi may have had something to do with it. He showed such ease that the organizers must have thought that the dreaded climb was too easy. This is what Max Favalelli, special envoy to the event, humorously recounted: “If you had been on the steep slopes leading to Alpe d’Huez on Friday and had seen Coppi go by, upright on his bike, hands on top of the handlebars , you might have said to yourselves: ‘Hey, I’ve been told lies, the road is perfectly flat!’

Alpe d’Huez is the Dutch mountain with eight wins for Dutch riders out of 30, the roadbook tells me. Male riders that is. Leontien van Moorsel fought an epic battle in 1992 with her rival Jeannie Longo in the women’s Tour de France. They were sur-placing on the mountain! Van Moorsel won and with that victory on the Dutch mountain she also secured the overall win by nine seconds on Longo. In 1993 Van Moorsel won again on Alpe d’Huez.

For the record, the other Dutch winners are: Joop Zoetemelk (1976 and 1979), Hennie Kuiper (1977 and 1978) and Peter Winnen (1981 and 1983). Gert-Jan Teunissen (1989) and Steven Rooks (1988) only won once.

Tom Dumoulin almost won in 2018 after a very brave and very long attack by Steven Kruijswijk starting on Croix de Fer. Almost indeed because it was Geraint Thomas who won that year. He went on to win the Tour de France overall.

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