The wreaths of orange smoke summoned up images of fire pits in the mind of the neutral service rider.
Duncan Ledingham was not unused to the chaos of a professional bike race, having jumped from the back of the Mavic moto to change wheels at Paris-Roubaix, after all (see Issue 55), but Dutch Corner offered a different challenge.
Ledingham had hesitated not one jot when offered the Alpe. The experience, he knew from television footage alone, would be unforgettable. Speeding through a human tunnel, the noise even of air traffic muted by the roar of the fans, offered a more immediate perspective.
Summoned to the head of the race to follow Nairo Quintana’s attack, and subsequent union with Movistar team-mate Winner Anacona, offered the best seat in the house, he recalls, comparing the experience to watching a matador from a seat on the bull’s back.
“As soon as I heard on the radio - ‘Quintana attacks’ - I knew from the position we were in that we were likely to be following him for most of it. We dropped back and picked him up while he was attacking with his team-mate [Anacona].
“It was quite incredible, just to see the power: to see his face, and to wonder what he was thinking, going through this crowd with hundreds of thousands of people shouting at you, pouring water over you, offering you beer…
“It was extremely interesting to watch him from that perspective, and understand the way he took on the challenge; to see his face and to see how he was trying to concentrate - eyes forward, or on the stem. He was just trying to get the job done.”
It’s difficult to imagine a more challenging working environment - for Quintana, or for Ledingham - with Dutch Corner being easily the most extreme section. Daylight, birdsong, even the noise of passing planes, was obliterated by the drunken throng, he recalls. Some of the riders had accepted a beer from the fans, but Ledingham, with one hand on the moto and a wheel in the other, had no such luxury.
With 4km remaining to the summit, the route was barriered, holding the spectators at a safe distance. Ledingham compares arriving at this haven to riding through a wood to its sunlit edge and the open landscape beyond. “You feel a slight wind,” he remembers, “and there’s brightness”
The Mavic team had made no special dispensation for the Alpe. Having offered neutral service since 1972, they knew the drill. Wheels and tyres were checked before the stage, as for any other. Ledingham rode with pilot Dennis Greffet, head of day-to-day operations at the service course in Annecy.
Some of the crew journeyed on to Sevres to link up with the deployment for La Course, while others, Ledingham included, returned to Annecy, via a 50-minute journey off the Alpe and two hours on the autoroute.
Ledingham took up his post with Mavic last year and gained his first taste of neutral service at the Haute Route granfondo. This season has given him an induction to the professional scene, and offered a close-up view of the demands placed on the riders and their equipment.
“I can see why a lot of the riders stay on the bus, get out, ride the course, and get back on the bus again,” he says. “I’ve learned a lot about the different attitude of the riders. Some take it seriously; some, not so seriously. We saw a BMC rider take a beer on the way up the Alpe. Quintana didn’t.”
The $64,000 question, and perhaps one unfair even to ask, is that having experienced the differing insanities of Paris-Roubaix and l’Alpe d’Huez, which would Ledingham choose to experience again? He pauses. "That’s a difficult one."
“You know, I’d do the Paris-Roubaix again, because of its intensity. It’s a slightly different set-up, slightly more sore on the backside, but you basically have 28 sections of Alpe d’Huez crowd. It’s not as mad, maybe, but there’s more action in the Paris-Roubaix, and that’s why we’re there.”