Alpe d’Huez descent
A 170bhp superbike against zero bhp pushbike down the Tour de France’s most famous mountain, Alpe d'Huez. Could this even be a contest?
- Two bikes, two riders, one very large mountain. The race is on
In the high mountains, having already performed superhuman feats of endurance climbing monstrous summits, Tour de France riders do not stop for a breather and a congratulatory moment to soak up the view like the rest of us. Hell no, they pull the pin and hurtle down the other side at incredible speeds immediately, routinely leaving the following TV camera motorcycles trailing helplessly in their wake, which begs the question: could a racing pushbike beat a motorbike in a race down one of these very mountains?
Deciding this was a question that very much needed answering, 33Fuel co-founder Warren tooled up with a Yamaha R1 and headed for the French Alps with former elite cycle racer Howie Sylvester and a scalpel-like handmade carbon fibre Serotta. Their mountain of choice would be Alpe d’Huez, the most famous climb on the Tour de France and the spot where Chris Froome sealed his second win just weeks ago.
Almost two kilometres high and 13.8 kilometres long from top to bottom, Alpe d’Huez is a serious test for any rider and machine. With 21 hairpins and an average gradient of almost eight per cent it is a narrow and torturously twisty descent loaded with off-camber corners, uneven tarmac, and minimal run off which often leads directly into a sheer plunge into the valley below.
- Alpe d'Huez: very steep
If there is one road in the world where a bicycle could upset the odds to triumph over a superbike, this is it. Even so, those odds are still long when you look at the hardware in detail:
With 179 brake horsepower and a top speed of 186mph the R1 is a brutally fast motorcycle. In full race trim it recently won the World Superbike championship and in road trim it is a sublimely fast piece of modern engineering that manages to pack its immense firepower into a refined package that allows a good rider to get closer than ever to exploring the limits of its performance, while minimising the risk of ejecting themselves into the passing scenery in the process. In the world of supremely fast motorcycles the Yamaha has few equals and even fewer rivals, so surely taking on a pushbike, even a thoroughbred racing one, should present little problem.
Because with no engine the bicycle is at a 179bhp disadvantage before it even starts while its painfully skinny tyres give it a pair of contact patches little larger than two thumbprints to stick it to the road, and there’s not an ounce of suspension to help out either. Then there are the brakes, or rather the lack of them – forget hydraulic discs, all this machine has to play with are cable brakes on traditional calipers. You know, like you had on your BMX when you were ten.
Which isn’t to say the bike’s unsophisticated. Far from it. Made by Serotta, crafters of some of the finest custom built racing frames in the world, and loaded with the slickest components modern cycling has to offer this carbon fibre marvel is a flyweight, minimal rolling work of art with just one purpose in mind – minimum resistance, maximum speed. If any bicycle could take the fight to the R1, this is it. At £7500 it’s far from cheap, but then racing perfection never is.
Two great contenders, one legendary mountain and one winner to be decided.
- 170-plus bhp against 0bhp, with a pair of evenly matched riders
Having arrived in Alpe d’Huez the night before, the boys began race day fresh and well fed with All-in-One Shakes supplementing standard hotel fare before heading to the official climb finish line at the top of the mountain. This would be their start, and almost 14kms of hard descent lay ahead.
As they lined up and they prepared for the first of two warm up descents to familiarise themselves with the course, this challenge seemed hugely unfair. Not only did Warren have all the horsepower and braking, he also had all the protection with full leathers, body armour, boots, leather gloves and a full face helmet. Howie meanwhile had little more than some tight Lycra, a big grin and gravity on his side.
Setting off on the first warm up descent with the Yamaha though, several things rapidly became clear. Cold tyres would be an issue in the early turns, and with Alpe d’Huez’s hairpins being so tight Warren would really need to be his toes – it’s not often you try and really get a move on through repeated 180-degree first gear corners. Care would be needed to avoid an embarrassing get off or worse.
But the R1 proved very adept. Where older models of the same bike would have been a handful trying to lay the power down out of such awkwardly slow corners, this version, despite its immense power was, apparently, "a pussycat".
- Yamaha R1 down Alpe d'Huez. A "pussycat" apparently, just mind the edge...
Even so, this was still a serious physical challenge even with the benefit of an internal combustion engine. Because with such a twisty course there was no room for relaxation – he was either flat on the gas or hard on the brakes. There was no inbetween. The Yamaha may have had the horsepower advantage, but there was precious little room to use it.
We definitely had a race on here, far more so than anyone ever expected.
This was confirmed when Howie completed his descent, hammering into view hard on the pedals striking for the finish minutes later and less than a minute slower than the Yamaha. As an opening gambit, this gap was seriously close. This could go either way, especially when Howie explained he’d been badly limited on top speed due to the gearing on his bike being too low. In places where he could have pedalled harder he was simply spinning out.
- Howie & the Serotta - really not hanging about and ready to go faster
One gearing change later and a distinctly confident Howie set off down the mountain once more, returning to pronounce himself “very, very happy” with his bike set up. Rattled, Warren set off for a second practice run, ran wide on two hairpins and found himself at the bottom of the mountain even slower than his first attempt. Not good.
"Even though I love bicycles and know how fast they can hustle a mountain pass, I came here expecting the result here to be a formality for the R1, but this is looking uncomfortably close," he said nervously.
For his official timed run he gave it everything and wound up at the base of the mountain in 10 minutes 44 seconds with his fastest time of the day.
- The final run for the Yamaha and it's a scorcher, but can it hold off the bicycle?
"The run was good, but I had a very nervous time pacing the roadside waiting for Howie to appear. When he did he was pouring sweat and blowing hard – he had very obviously pushed this run to the limit. Word from a couple of local spectators stationed halfway up the course was they had never seen any bicycle descend this mountain so fast..."
- Howie's last run. Locals said they'd never seen any bicycle get down Alpe d'Huez so fast
Howie's time? 11 minutes and 12 seconds. Just 28 seconds slower than the Yamaha. Blimey.
All we can say is the next time you see a bicycle in your mirrors going down a mountain, be prepared to pull over.
Thanks to: Cyclefit (www.cyclefit.co.uk) for sorting Howie’s Serotta HSG Supercomp, P&O ferries for the Channel crossings (www.poferries.com), Cycle Huez (www.cyclehuez.com) for helping out with running cycle repairs
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