JUST the idea of Alpe d’Huez broke Pascal Simon. Some 35 years ago, the last Peugeot rider to ever wear the leader’s yellow jersey in the Tour de France pedalled towards the foot of the most mythical climb in this most magical bike race, pictured the 21 hairpin bends snaking up into the heavens in front of him, stepped off his little bicycle and quit.
Injury and the relentless pressure from the eventual winner, Laurent Fignon, undoubtedly contributed to his withdrawal, but there’s something about Alpe d’Huez; pro cycling’s hallowed cathedral of climbs. Three and a half decades on, we’re at the Alpe with a pair of Peugeots (one of them with just two wheels) and a point to prove.
A few points, come to think of it. We’ve covered the 600km from Paris to the Oisans region of the French Alps in Peugeot’s 508 GT. An extended autoroute leg stretcher followed by a workout on these magnificent mountain roads ought to be enough to establish whether this marks a much-needed reset of the datum for the mid-range sedan. On board is four grand’s worth of carbon-framed Peugeot R02 road bike that I’m going to attempt to ride up Alpe d’Huez, prefaced by precisely zero training.
The 508’s launch could be construed as either brave or foolhardy, depending on your viewpoint. Just at that point when the market is migrating to the blurred niches of crossover hell, Peugeot brings us a defiantly conventional top-end-of-mainstream sedan and wagon. Ever see one of those Attenborough documentaries with fish flapping desperately in an evaporating puddle? That’s where the 508’s attempting to survive.
It’s sharper and fitter than its amorphous predecessor, with slick EMP2 underpinnings making it light on its feet. Power comes from a 169kW 1.6-litre four, driving the front wheels through an eight-speed Aisin auto, but tasked with just 1420kg in this GT model, it feels alert and peppy. With solid active cruise and lane-keep functions, a decent Focal stereo and adaptive suspension, it monstered the autoroute leg, with only some wind rustle from the roof bars reminding me why the 8.0L/100km fuel-economy figure wasn’t quite as expected.
Recce time. Watch the heli footage of Alpe d’Huez packed with a million spectators in July and the road looks like all of the Alps encapsulated into one mountain, cycling’s Maracana climbing over a thousand metres straight up. Down at ground level, it’s a far more cryptic undertaking, rarely ever straight, melding to the folds, rills and cliff bands of this mountain’s complex topography. There’s no warm-up, either. The road arrives from the almost pan-flat Romanche valley and launches straight into one of the most savage gradients on the entire climb. I’m shocked. It’s like a wall. Alpe d’Huez has been haunting me for weeks as I plot a method of getting to the top. This chilling introduction has me wondering if I’ve hopelessly underestimated the physical challenge.
The 508 yelps up this first stretch, which meanders endlessly to the first hairpin. A plaque attached to the rock face is numbered 21, with the names of past stage winners here. This one features Fausto Coppi, who won what was the Tour’s first mountain-top finish in 1953, and Lance Armstrong, who prevailed in the midst of EPO-era 2001.
The second pitch is hardly any easier, and nor is the third or fourth. The gradient seems to ease off a little at the hamlet of La Garde, before stepping up again on the approach to the seventh switchback, the famous Dutch Corner, which, during the race, is a roiling sea of orange around Saint Ferreol church. Above the old silver-mining village of Huez, the mountain opens into pastureland, with the chalets of the ski resort clinging to the plateau above, the road here climbing to nearly 14 percent.
The Peugeot loves diving into each hairpin hard on the picks as you look over your shoulder up the road, taking great liberties with your line and figuring out how to unstick a front end that’s hot-hatch tenacious. Use the paddles, switch the car into Sport and it lets you pick up the throttle early, leaning on a power-to-weight ratio that, at 119kW/tonne, is probably more warm hatch than hot, but still enough for a presentable 7.3sec to 100km/h. Just not on this gradient. It holds onto gears manically in this mode and, unlike the 5008, there’s no manual button atop the gear lever, that function now being hopelessly buried in the infotainment.
Surely there has to be a place for a car such as this; something light, fun to drive, smart and genuinely functional, yet we continue to turn our backs on cars like the 508.