A broiling ribbon of tarmac unfolds before Beppe Guerini in 21 hairpin bends, while behind him nearly 200 riders conspire in his capture. The race to the summit of l’Alpe d’Huez is very much on.
The seething multitude that cheers his every pedal stroke has given way each time at the last possible moment, until now, with less than a kilometre remaining. Crash. The great escape is derailed. Courage and guile is, for the moment, thwarted by stupidity. But whose?
“I remember like yesterday, what I thought before the crash. I thought, ‘Oh, f…why are you so stupid?’ because the people weren’t moving from that position. When I hit him, I thought, ‘Why didn’t I corner on the right or left side?' But it was too late. I hit him and crashed.”
A spectator with a camera. It is clear where the stupidity lies, but Guerini is sanguine. Victory and a distance of 16 years will lend a man a certain sang froid.
“What happened, happened, but in the end everything finished well. I have to say thank you to this guy, because now I’m more famous than any normal winner. Everyone knows me for the crash, not the victory.”
Guerini will return to the Alpe for the first time in 11 years this July to witness not only the penultimate stage of the 102nd Tour de France, but to see his name commemorated on the first hairpin. He has not visited the scene of his greatest triumph since 2004, when he finished a creditable sixth in the individual time trial from Bourg d’Oisans.
“It was the perfect mountain for me: steep, but with good asphalt and the temperature was not always so high. For me, it’s always something special to ride l’Alpe d’Huez, because it has always been won by special people.
“Before me, there was Coppi, Bugno and Pantani, so it was always something special to ride there, and to see the names of the famous riders on the corners. To know that my name is there is something special, something amazing.”
What does he remember of that day in 1999?
“After many years I remember exactly when I hit the guy in the road,” he says with a smile. “The lucky thing was that nothing happened. I wasn’t injured and had no problem with the bike. I stood up, started again, and won the race.”
Footage of the incident is hypnotic. Guerini has passed beneath the flamme rouge, and while he has yet to reach the safe harbour of the barriered section at the very summit of the climb, the crowd is comparatively well mannered. The photographer, however, is stood in the centre of the road, camera to his face. He seems out of place, by any sense, clad in jeans and black rain jacket, while the remainder of the cheering horde are in shorts and t-shirt.
Too late he sees Guerini, and by stepping to his right to return to what he believes will be the safety of the roadside, he moves into the rider’s path. Guerini goes down hard, but suffers no lasting damage. He appears to hit his head (pre-mandatory helmet), but he raises his hands seemingly to adjust his glasses, rather than from pain, or to feel for damage.
In a flash, he has remounted, hindered further by the apologies of the photographer, and gained a push from a spectator on the other side of the road. He races on, back flat, elbows in, to the victory that will define his career.
That was then
Guerini knows the personality of the Alpe, and what is required to succeed there. By maintaining a rhythm and a smooth, uninterupted cadence, the rider ingratiates himself with the character of the climb. The ramp that leads to each hairpin follows a similar incline; is set at a similar gradient. “It is almost regular,” he says. “The same pendence.”
Accumulated fatigue will be the greatest enemy of the men attempting to win on the Alpe this year, after some 20 stages of racing. Guerini knows more than a little about this too. In 1997, after finishing on the podium at the Giro, he rode the Tour. “I was not so good,” he says, the ghost of a smile playing about his lips. He finished third at the Giro again the following year, but did not attempt the following Tour.
The Giro was much faster this year, he continues; less controlled than when he rode it, and while Contador is a great champion, even he will struggle to do the double. The Spaniard showed his contempt for the odds on stage 16 of the Giro, coming close to winning the stage after chasing down Fabio Aru on the Mortorilo. Guerini rode the Mortorilo himself this year, for the first time since the 1998 Giro.
What opportunity might the Alpe offer to Contador's competitors? “For sure, it’s good for Quintana. It’s 15km and steep. He could do something special if he is in good condition.”
While the Colombian is suited to the Alpe’s well-structured cruelties, to talk of a favourite for the twentieth of twenty-one stages plainly strikes him as madness.
“It depends who has the most energy left. After 10 days, everything changes. We saw that this year in the Giro with Contador. It was impossible to drop him, then on the last mountain stage, he lost two minutes. Normally, you couldn’t imagine that.”
The small matter of who wins on the Alpe this year will be of little consequence to Guerini, one suspects. His place in the mountain’s history is assured. He can join the numberless throng and savour the experience. His work on its slopes is done.
“I have two children who are seven and 10. Every year I say to my wife, 'We’ll wait until we can go as a family,' but I have to go,” he says, smiling. “I’ll go alone, and maybe in a few years I’ll go with family to see the corner with my name.”