With the penultimate stage of this year’s Tour de France finishing atop, arguably, the most iconic climb anywhere in cycling, in a week’s time next Saturday, it’s fitting that our latest book review is of a title dedicated to that climb – Alpe D’Huez.

Alpe D'Huez – The Story of Pro Cycling's Greatest Climb by Peter Cossins
Out now, published by Aurum Press Ltd, £16.99
Review by Brendan Gallagher
Available in all good book stores and online here from Amazon

THE single most awe-inspiring sight I have seen in sport came at approximately 10.30pm on July 20 2004 as we drove south westwards on the D109 towards Bourg d'Osians after a tardy get away and endless traffic following Stage 15 of that year’s Tour at Villard de Lans.. He who must remain nameless carried the day, his second stage win of an eight day splurge that garnered five victories in total. Although of course they count for nothing now.
 
With the windows wide open after a hot tiring day it was the smell we noticed first, thousands upon thousands of barbeques with a hint of ambre solaire and stale beer. Then, drifting on the wind, came the distant but unmistakeable thump, thump, thump of dozens of ad-hoc outdoor discos.  And finally, as we veered right around gentle bend there it was on our left, an extraordinary illuminated stairway to heaven, an eight and half mile tinsel ribbon heading skywards. No photograph could do it justice.
 
Very few things in sport surpass the hype but that chance view of Alpe D'Huez in the gloaming on a perfect summer's evening left me speechless. It was the eve of the famous Time Trial straight up cycling's most iconic climb, an occasion when French Police estimated a minimum of 750,000 fans lined the route. 
 
The winner the following day was Lance Armstrong – sorry it just slipped out – who, having reportedly received a death threat, rode through the crowd with the assistance of a Police outrider ablaze with flashing blue lights. I was never quite sure how that was meant to deter the alleged sniper – in fact it would have made his task much easier – but that is the only detail of the day's racing I can recall. The memories are totally of the crowd, the climb and the spectacle.
 
""Evidently sharing that love and awe of the Alpe is distinguished cycling journo Peter Cossins who has penned an affectionate tribute to both the climb, the resort and those cyclists who have triumphed and/or have come to grief on its unforgiving slopes. 
 
It is a hopeless infatuation we both share because as Cossins happily admits there are many intrinsically more beautiful and spectacular climbs on the Tour – not least in the immediate vicinity of Alpe D’Huez itself – and there are a number which are probably more demanding assents, although in fairness not that many. More of which anon.
  
But no other climb has the sense of spectacle and the biblical crowds energising proceedings from start to finish. On the Galibier, the Madeliene, the Izoard, Tourmalet and even Ventoux a rider in a break for example, will spend long periods in splendid isolation, alone with this thoughts, quietly setting his rhythm, before encountering the thronging crowds and the madness
 
Not on the Alpe though when it is showtime from the moment you negotiated the first of the 21 numbered hairpins and sprint straight onto a 9% ramp.  It is the irresistible pressure to perform – and more dangerously, over-perform – on cycling's biggest stage that sets the mountain apart, the Hollywood factor as Cossins calls it. There is so much energy and adrenalin on the mountain that the temptation is always to go for broke from the start, which is exactly what riders should not do on a climb which is particularly severe on the lower slopes. Watching a day's racing on the Alpe always reminds me of thoroughbred 800m athletes being drawn into a race run at 400m pace.  The result can be carnage.
 
Heart rates soar, the lactic can set in very early and even world-class riders are left grovelling in the furnace heat. That's the other distinctive feature about Alpe d'Huez identified by Cossins, it is south facing and blessed seemingly with perpetual sunshine and warmth. 
 
Spectators are scantily glad and extrovert with no hint of sensible anoraks, fleeces and balaclavas which are often de riguer on the higher slope of other climbs even in July. The Dutch have good reason to love the mountain, not only have their riders invariably thrived but they can all get their kit off and tan themselves while consuming gallons of beer, both of which seem to vie with cycling as the national pastimes.
 
There is a lot of history to cram in and Cossins makes a determined stab to make sure every epic duel is covered. He opts for a double narrative approach for as well as working his way through every major storyline an incident, he opens each chapter with a few pages devoted to a detailed blow-by-blow account of probably the stage the cemented the Alpe's reputation, Joop Zoetemelk's titanic tussle with Lucien Van Impe in 1976. 
 
Such an approach comes with a warning for the reader.  You should aim to polish this book off in one epic long mountain breakout of your own. I made the mistake of picking away at it during a busy week and that quashed much of the drama and intensity of those opening passages in each chapter as I struggled for continuity.
 
The best passages for me are undoubtedly the in depth look at some of the heroes of the Alpe, in particular Zoetemelk who twice won summit finishes on this most prestigious of mountains and the often forgotten maverick Swiss winner from 1982 Beat Breu whose career and indeed life seemed to spiral out of control after his moment of glory.
  
With Zoetemelk, six times a runner-up at the Tour as well as winner in 1980, I am left wanting a definitive revisionary English language biography to give him his full dues after he was often cruelly dismissed as being a mere wheelsucker. This was the cyclist whose misfortune it was to catch the final years of Eddy Merckx in full flow and the early flowering of Bernard Hinault. He was accused often of simply following them but in fairness no other rider on the planet could even achieve that with any consistency and he also pulled off a couple of outstanding coups against the immortal duo. 
  
He was twice found to be blood doping, at a time when it wasn't exactly clear whether blood doping was in fact illegal with at least one high profile Olympic runner and champion openly and unapologetically admitting to the practice. What with that scandal, the concealed pain of living with an alcoholic wife throughout his years at the top and a life threatening crash when he broke his skull in 1974 soon after he had routed Merckx in a couple of races I am left wanting to know much more about the taciturn lowlander. Cossins’ next project perhaps? 

Don't forget to find more cycling book reviews from the past two years and details of the SweetSpot Cycling Book of the Year Award, won in 2014 by Nicole Cooke's autobiography The Breakaway, by clicking here.